They put focus on little-seen performances

If critics had their way, George Clooney would have a stranglehold on taking home this year’s lead actor Oscar. But how often does the Academy pay attention to critics?Tip sheet
What: Critics Choice Movie Awards
When: Jan. 15
Where: Hollywood Palladium
Watch: VH1

Scribes around the country have been effusive in their praise of Clooney for his turn as a high-flying businessman in “Up in the Air,” but huzzahs have also been given to Jeff Bridges’ perf as a struggling country-western singer in “Crazy Heart” and Jeremy Renner’s Iraq War soldier in “The Hurt Locker.”

While Clooney has topped more crix lists than any other actor, Bridges was named best by the Los Angeles org and seems to be gaining momentum (at least anecdotally) as the season moves along.

Renner can bask in the fact that “The Hurt Locker” has been named top film of 2009 by the Los Angeles Critics Assn., New York Film Critics Circle and Gotham Independent Film Awards as well as critics groups in Boston, Austin, Chicago and Las Vegas. Director Kathryn Bigelow has swept up even more director accolades from critics and is a serious contender for an Oscar nomination.

“Critical recognition is helping extend the incredibly long life of the film, which came out last summer and, let’s face it, is not a tentpole by any means,” says Mark Boal, producer and screenwriter for “The Hurt Locker.” “Isn’t there a movie (that critics) champion every year? This year, they seem to especially like ‘Hurt Locker.’ They can make a huge difference in encouraging audiences to see the magnifying glass we put on the situation in Iraq.”

Yet, even though there might not always be a direct correlation between Oscar and critics groups’ top picks, critics’ opinions matter.

“Critics’ awards are most influential in the aggregate,” says Claudia Puig, USA Today’s film critic. “A single award may not make that much of a dent in the overall success of a movie, but if many critics groups honor a movie, as they have this year with ‘The Hurt Locker,’ it may mean a lot come Oscar time. Critics’ awards undoubtedly most help the small or underseen movies and the underrated performances.

“Awards from individual critics groups can be significant at key points in the career of an actor or filmmaker,” she adds. “Vera Farmiga recently said at the premiere of ‘Up in the Air’ that she wouldn’t be there if not for the best actress award she received from the L.A. Film Critics for her 2004 role as a drug-addicted mother in ‘Down to the Bone,’ a small movie that few people had even heard of. While the original award didn’t lead to mainstream awards right away, it helped boost her career.”

Others helped by critics’ awards this year include “An Education’s” Carey Mulligan, “Julie and Julia’s” Meryl Streep (who’s an Oscar perennial, albeit here in a film that had precious little Oscar buzz) and “Inglourious Basterds” co-star Christoph Waltz (who admittedly was raved about back when the film premiered at Cannes, which awarded him, but his impressive string of more recent wins only solidifies that standing).

“Smaller, more subtle performances might elude the varied members of the Academy, but hopefully they catch the collective eye of the critics,” Puig says. She points to Colin Firth’s work in “A Single Man” and Christian McKay’s turn as Orson Welles in “Me and Orson Welles,” both of whom were honored by the Austin Film Critics Assn. among others as performances that might otherwise be overlooked come Oscar-nomination time.

Acclaimed films that have been knocked down a notch by critics’ awards include “Precious,” except for Mo’Nique’s supporting actress turn, which has earned her a half-dozen crix prizes, and “The Road,” the first adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy’s novel since the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men,” which has found the year-end awards distribution as barren as the film’s post-apocalyptic landscape.

Puig explains why there are so many deviations between critics’ awards and the Oscars.

“When your job is to watch movies, you long for something that stands out, movies that make an impact on the medium,” she says. “When you work in the film industry in all the various capacities that Academy members do, your approach to movies is different. You don’t see as many films as critics do and you may be looking to films for overall entertainment and not necessarily for innovation.”

Tip sheet
What: Critics’ Choice Movie Awards
When: Jan. 15
Where: Hollywood Palladium
Watch: VH1

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