Can critics influece the Oscar race?

When “Unforgiven” copped Oscars for director and picture in 1993, helmer Clint Eastwood credited the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. for sparking the wins by helping revive interest in the August release.

It’s rare to single out critics for their contribution to a film’s Oscar success, perhaps because they often seem to have little influence over the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. For example, the year after Eastwood’s win, the feel-good “Forrest Gump” beat out the more acclaimed “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Pulp Fiction.” In 1997, blockbuster “Titanic” won over critical darling “L.A. Confidential.” In 2000, bloody popcorn movie “Gladiator” prevailed over the more admired “Traffic” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

On the other hand, it’s inconceivable that last year’s winner, “The Hurt Locker,” could have taken home the trophy without fervent and persistent praise from critics and their sundry award-issuing organizations. Or that, without their championing, 2008′s “Slumdog Millionaire” would have vaulted to a mainstream hit and best picture winner.

Could any films benefit in the same way this year? Here’s a look at some of the frontrunners and their chances at getting a bump from critics’ praise.

“The Social Network”
Critical boost: The film has lifted off strongly in the critics-prize sweepstakes, taking top honors and otherwise performing strongly with the National Board of Review and the L.A. Film Critics. Add this to the nearly uniform raves for Fincher’s latest, and you have a juggernaut in the making.
Maybe not: Juggernauts have a way of petering out before the finish line (think “Brokeback Mountain”).

“Inception”
Critical boost: Critics confirmed what audiences believed: A blockbuster thriller can also be arty.
Maybe not: Bloggers’ incessant pondering over the film’s meanings and the fate of that spinning top may persuade Academy members that the movie is too geeky for its own good.

“127 Hours”
Critical boost: Reviewers raved about James Franco’s exhilarating star turn and focused on the film’s triumphal nature.
Maybe not: Moviegoers haven’t been convinced to check out the film the way the way they did Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“Black Swan”
Critical boost: Older Acad voters may be convinced by a raft of strong reviews that their prejudices against Darren Aronofsky’s dark ballet drama starring Natalie Portman are unfounded.
Maybe not: Or perhaps, high-profile pans in the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker will convince them otherwise.

“The Fighter”
Critical boost: Reviewers are underscoring Mark Wahlberg’s long-gestating labor of love and the rich performances.
Maybe not: Even some rave reviews said that all boxing movies are similar.

“The King’s Speech”
Critical boost: Stressing that the film that hits the Academy’s sweet spot — the impeccably acted historical drama.
Maybe not: Even critics who have praised the film have conceded that it’s somewhat middlebrow (which could work in its favor for some voters).

“Toy Story 3″
Critical Boost: Reviews not only pointed out the film’s eye-popping visuals and witty storytelling, but also how it managed to wring real, cathartic tears from adults over animated characters who, after all, were just toys.
Maybe not: Pixar’s work speaks for itself and hardly needs any help.

“The Town”
Critical boost: Reviewers celebrated how helmer Ben Affleck makes pics that resonate with him personally — and also work for mainstream auds.
Maybe not: It could be perceived as too much of a genre pic.

“Shutter Island”
Critical boost: Reviewers are reminding voters that Martin Scorsese has another film.
Maybe not:A chunk of Scorsese lovers jumped ship on this one.

“The Kids Are All Right”
Critical boost: They lavished praise on a charming, low-key slice-of-life dramedy at a time when not many cinematic gems were in theaters.
Maybe not:As more quality films entered release, many critics looked elsewhere.

“Winter’s Bone”
Critical boost: Critics have called attention to a powerful performance by young newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, who carries grim material with flinty aplomb.
Maybe not: All the critical acclaim in the world is hard-pressed to propel a small, relentlessly dark film to Oscar gold.

More from Eye on the Oscars: Crix Picks:
Advance peek clique | The impact of praise and pans | Quotewhores play role in kudos war

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