For the first time in a long time, the Oscar race is without any clear focus in any direction. If you went by the critics alone, your best bet for Oscar right now would be Spotlight, or Mad Max for Best Picture, Todd Haynes or George Miller for Best Director. Spotlight for screenplay. Maybe Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs for Actor, maybe Charlotte Rampling for Actress, Kristen Stewart for Supporting Actress, Paul Dano for Supporting Actor. Inside Out for Animated. Amy or Look of Silence for Doc Feature. Son of Saul for Foreign Language.
What the critics do best, in terms of the Oscar race (and it goes without saying that they really don’t care – or pretend not to care – what goes on in the Oscar race and the feeling is mutual) is help shape some of the nominations.
Are there any years in recent memory to look back upon that might resemble this one?
I would respectfully submit three: 2000, 2006 and 2012.
The first year I started watching the Oscar race and reporting on it, Gladiator won Best Picture. It was the popular choice but it wasn’t the critics choice. Still, the race was split dramatically by several different competing films pulling focus – one was Ang Lee’s wire-fu masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Another was the double play by Steven Soderbergh, Traffic and Erin Brockovich. And the third was the people’s choice, Gladiator. True, there was no preferential ballot in play and only five movies picked, still, the awards were splitting up all over the place.
- NYFCC chose Traffic / director, Soderbergh
- LAFCA chose Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / director, Steven Soderbergh for
- Traffic + Erin Brockovich
- DGA went for Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- PGA went for Gladiator
- SAG ensemble chose Traffic
- Oscars went to Gladiator / director, Steven Soderbergh
That was quite a year and no clear consensus. Everyone I knew everyone loved Gladiator. It was the people’s choice and the popular choice, not to mention Russell Crowe kept winning Best Actor.
In 2002, the year Chicago won big, also saw a strange splitting of consensus, with an active community trying to bring down the popular favorite, Chicago, at a time when the awards race would start to bend away from the public’s tastes and towards the film critics. What the Oscar race would end up with was not the critics choice or the public’s choice, but rather the “Oscar choice” — which is a film suited up and handed to Oscar voters as “their kind of movie.” Usually their kind of movie matches the public’s, and sometimes the critics’, but more often than not the “Oscar movie” is quickly forgotten when the Oscars are over.
- In 2002, New York went for Far From Heaven and Todd Haynes for Director
- Los Angeles went for About Schmidt, Pedro Almodovar for Talk to Her
- PGA/DGA/SAG went for Chicago
- Oscar went for Chicago with Roman Polanski winning Director for The Pianist
2006 was a strange year without a frontrunner. Martin Scorsese had given us The Departed but no one in my world thought it was “an Oscar movie.” The season began with the presumed Oscar contender from Warner Bros: Clint Eastwood’s double film epic, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Flags sagged but Letters was highly praised by critics. Focus was on Eastwood. Popular heat surrounded Little Miss Sunshine coming on strong and winning the Producers Guild Award, and Babel, a multi-faceted epic from a fellow named Innaritu that won the Globe. The Queen was also in the mix, as was United 93. It was a strong year for movies, just like 2012, but there was no consensus.
- New York Film Critics chose United 93 / director Martin Scorsese, The Departed
- LA Film critics: Letters from Iwo Jima / Best Director Paul Greengrass, United 93
- PGA/SAG went for Little Miss Sunshine
- DGA with Martin Scorsese and The Departed
- Oscars awarded The Departed Best Picture and Scorsese at last won Best Director
In 2012, there was the vague prediction that Argo would win coming out of Telluride, but like Spotlight and maybe more importantly, The Martian, it was mostly disregarded as “not enough [fill in the blank] to win.” The focus was on other movies that were wowing critics, specifically Zero Dark Thirty, which scored big for Kathryn Bigelow among critics, winning both New York and LA. Then political controversy hit Zero Dark Thirty and it careened downward, faster than any film I’ve ever seen take a tumble in the Oscar race.
The other film swirling around the discussion was Steven Spielberg’s civil war masterpiece, Lincoln, though deemed “too sedate” to actually win. Floating around in the background, always, was Argo. The likable puppy dog movie that no one could hate and everyone enjoyed. The film that featured Hollywood in a flattering light while also taking the piss out of it (like Birdman, like The Artist).
- LA Film Critics went for: Amour and Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
- New York went for Zero Dark Thirty and Kathryn Bigelow
- PGA, SAG ensemble, DGA went for Argo and Ben Affleck
What Argo and The Departed both had going for them was their likable directors and dramatic backstory. While Ben Affleck was not nominated by the Oscars for Best Director, he was still the focus of Argo’s win. Martin Scorsese was way, way overdue by this point. Clint Eastwood had already won. Little Miss Sunshine had two unknown directors. Babel was not much enjoyed – it wasn’t that kind of movie – but was widely appreciated. The most likable film won in both years.
Last year we knew it would be between Boyhood and Birdman, but if any of the last late breaking films had hit bigger than they did, they would have wiped out these two films.
We don’t have anything like a consensus this year. If anything, we might look at the field and say it’s between Mad Max and Spotlight. We don’t know what else will be nominated alongside those two movies but it seems like they could be the two “frontrunners” heading into the race. Does that mean they will split the vote?
“The votes were all over the place,” a LAFCA member said after the vote. “There was no clear consensus for Best Picture.” While they don’t have many members in their awards group — under 100 — amid much confusion and no clear consensus, it’s interesting that the one film that most or more people could agree on ultimately was Spotlight.
However, it’s extremely rare for the LA Film Critics winner to go on to win Best Picture. Only 3 films since 1990 have gone on to win Best Picture at the Oscars after winning the LA Film Critics Award and all three of them also won Best Director at the LA Film Critics, which this time went to George Miller. It’s more common for their Best Director to win at the Oscars than their Best Picture. This might mean nothing. It might mean everything. There is no way to tell.
We are still in the era of the winning streak for the PGA. The PGA’s success rate at foretelling Best Picture is so close to 100% because of the number of people who vote and their use of the preferential ballot. Of the years we’ve discussed, only in 2012 was the preferential ballot in play. It wasn’t in 2006, 2002 or 2000. It’s safe to assume that you can forget pretty much everything leading up to the PGA and wait for them to tell you what the industry favorite is. In term of guessing what that will be? That’s a hard one. It has to be a movie that is LOVED by many, LIKED by almost everyone and HATED by very few. They also have to have a reason to vote for it. Whether it’s honoring a film by the first black director in history or because it represents beating back superhero movies. Whatever the reason, there has to be a reason.
Our challenge today is to find the film that gives people a reason to vote and what that reason might be.
I can think of good reasons to vote for several films in the race right now. The trick is to figure out what MOST industry voters will think is a good reason to vote for something.
My current rankings would be:
The Martian – Ridley Scott’s entertaining film about the future is not getting much love from critics so far, but is one of those old fashioned surprise hits where all odds are against it winning – it’s sci-fi, it made $220 million and did so largely by word of mouth. Not branding or pre-awareness. With Bladerunner and Alien, Scott redefined the sci-fi genre in film. He has been nominated three times and never won.
Spotlight – it will get votes because people care about the truth, still. They might want to honor a film about a time when things weren’t so gossip driven. They also might see it as important and want to honor that. They might just like it the best and that will drive their votes.
Carol – could it be the first LGBTQ film to win and could Todd Haynes become the first openly gay director to win? Carol is a beautiful film, easily one of the year’s best and Haynes himself is overdue. In a year of strong women, in a year with gay rights at the forefront, this might finally be his year.
Mad Max: Fury Road – they might choose it because it flies in the face of the computer generated films that are taking so many traditional industry jobs. They might choose it because old timer George Miller directed it and who could believe he directed a film that insane at his age.
Brooklyn – the potential sleeper winner which might just get ahead from sheer love alone.
Creed – could Ryan Coogler become the first black director to take home and Oscar? More than that, Creed is a major crowdpleaser. It’s all about the underdog, like its Rocky namesake. If it gets in for Best Picture expect there to be a lot of talk about how the original Rocky beat All the President’s Men, which people will think of as Spotlight. That could set up a narrative that drives the season.
The Revenant – Inarritu’s big, bold uncompromising film. It’s a tough sell for a consensus vote.
Room – this one pulls at the heartstrings and could eventually lead to a consensus vote.
Inside Out – looking better and better not for the win but for a nomination.
Of course, there are many other films to consider, like Steve Jobs, Beasts of No Nation, Joy, The Hateful Eight, Sicario – all might figure into the Best Picture discussion. Just find the reason and you’ll find the winner.