After today’s announcement of the AFI, tomorrow we’ll see the National Board of Review’s picks. From my two decades of covering this race the main take-away I get from the NBR is that they, like the Globes, are really good at pushing through borderline contenders into the conversation. I’ve seen it work more than I’ve seen it not work, though every so often there is that movie that looks like an Oscar contender, acts like an Oscar contender, makes it all the way through the major precursors but then is dropped from the Oscar list in the final act. This is fairly common but just in terms of the NBR’s Best Director category alone (not to mention the film that wins their top prize, and those who are placed in the acting categories): shows how they sometimes have outsized influence on shaping the race.
This could mean that a film can be boosted into Best Picture or Director with these NBR signals:
*nominated for Best Picture
*nominated for Director and Picture
*won Best Director but not Best Picture
+Won Best Picture but not Best Director
++Won Best Picture and Best Director
2019: Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood* (NBR BP: Irishman*)
2018 Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born* (NBR BP Green Book+)
2017 Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird* (NBR BP The Post*)
2016 Barry Jenkins*, Moonlight+ (NBR BP Manchester by the Sea*)
2015 Ridley Scott, The Martian* (NBR BP: Fury Road*)
2014 Clint Eastwood, American Sniper* (NBR BP A Most Violent Year)
2013 Spike Jonze, Her (NBR BP Her*)
2012 Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty (NBR BP Zero Dark Thirty*)
2011 Martin Scorsese, Hugo (NBR BP Hugo*)
2010 David Fincher, The Social Network* (NBR BP Social Network*)
2009 Clint Eastwood, Invictus (NBR BP Up in the Air*)
2008 David Fincher, Curious Case of Benjamin Button* (NBR BP Slumdog Millionaire+)
2007 Tim Burton, Sweeney Todd (NBR BP No Country for Old Men+)
2006 Martin Scorsese, The Departed++ )(NBR BP Letters from Iwo Jima*)
2005 Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain* (NBR BP Good Night, Good Luck*)
2004 Michael Mann, Collateral (NBR BP Finding Neverland*)
2003 Ed Zwick, The Last Samurai (NBR BP Mystic River*)
2002 Phillip Boyce, The Quiet American/Rabbit Proof Fence (NBR BP The Hours*)
2001 Todd Field, In the Bedroom* (NBR BP Moulin Rouge!*)
2000 Steven Soderbergh, Erin Brockovich*/Traffic* (NBR BP Quills)
As you can see, in the era of the expanded ballot getting in for Best Picture after winning the NBR for Best Director is all but guaranteed, even if they don’t go on to get nominated for Best Director. And, as you can see, winning here and then winning the Oscar is rare for both Best Picture and Best Director.
For Best Director it has matched in 2000, 2005, 2006, 2016. For Best Picture it has matched in 2007, 2008, and 2018. For both only once in 2006 with The Departed.
When it comes to their awards for acting, there is a decent record for match-ups.
2019-Renee Zellweger, Judy
2018-Lady Gaga, A Star is Born
2017-Meryl Streep, The Post
2016-Amy Adams, Arrival
2015-Brie Larson, Room
2014-Julianne Moore, Still Alice
2013-Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
2012-Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
2011-Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
2010-Lesley Manville, Another Year
2009-Carey Mulligan, An Education
2008-Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
2007-Julie Christie, Away from Her
2006-Helen Mirren, The Queen
2005-Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
2004-Annette Bening, Being Julia
2003-Diane Keaton, Something’s Gotta Give
2002-Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven
2001-Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball
2000-Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich
2019-Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
2018-Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
2017-Tom Hanks, The Post
2016-Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
2015-Matt Damon, The Martian
2014-Michael Keaton, Birdman/Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year
2013-Bruce Dern, Nebraska
2012-Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
2011-George Clooney, The Descendants
2010-Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
2009-George Clooney, Up in the Air/Morgan Freeman, Invictus
2008-Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
2007-George Clooney, Michael Clayton
2006-Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
2005-Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
2004-Jamie Foxx, Ray
2003-Sean Penn, 21 Grams/Mystic River
2002-Campbell Scott, Rodger Dodger
2001-Billy Bob Thornton, Bandits, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Monster’s Ball
2000-Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls
Both of these categories seem to be reliable in terms of predicting a nomination at least and often a win. But, with the exception of Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, all of them were frontrunners that marched through the season up to and including the Oscars. Is this a frontrunner year or a surprise year – this much we don’t know yet.
That is why the NBR are better for pushing a contender through than for matching with the Oscars, the reason being they usually come out much earlier and thus, are more influential than they are predictive. Ditto the Golden Globes. By contrast, the AFI, which comes out early as well, tends to be more predictive than influential, possibly because they have a list of ten, which doesn’t single any of the contenders out. No one is going to say, “oh wow, this movie made the AFI’s list so now the Oscar voters will notice.” Rather, it is the first good indicator of which films people with industry connections might think are the year’s best.
Word on the street in the awards race is that the NBR are more friendly towards certain studios (like Warner Bros) and certain directors specifically (Eastwood). This bodes well for Warner Brothers to make an appearance, with Tenet or Judas and the Black Messiah. Both of these are entirely possible.
If they just go all in for Nomadland, then we know it’s looking more likely to sweep the season (but we already kind of knew that). But if they split the top prizes I imagine Nomadland will win either Picture or Director, where someone else could win – maybe David Fincher for Mank or Judas and the Black Messiah for Picture. Whatever they do, it is either going along with what we already know or making a bold statement that will influence or set a specific contender’s trajectory in motion.
Needless to say, this is no ordinary year. In all possible ways. COVID has eliminated a good many films from the race. The Black Lives Matter protests and subsequent push for equity has changed how people assess contenders. Streaming is breaking through. All of these will make some kind of difference in how the year rolls out and at this point there is just no way of knowing.
But I could see a combination of something like: Picture – Nomadland, Director Fincher or Sorkin. I could see Nomadland for both. I could see something like Judas and the Black Messiah winning both categories. The NBR can sometimes throw a surprise into the mix.