Not much discrepancy in choices this year

Ordinarily fractious and independent-minded, critics groups this year are marching in lockstep with a number of their major prizes this awards season.

Whether this means that such players as Colin Firth, Natalie Portman, Aaron Sorkin, Christian Bale and David Fincher can enter the Kodak Theater on Oscar night with more confidence remains to be seen, however.

“The Social Network” has to “like” its fortunes. Through late December, the founding of Facebook pic gobbled up 19 top picture citations, including those from the Los Angeles and New York critics orgs and everywhere in between. Colin Firth has scored 11 actor nods for his work in “The King’s Speech” (“The Social Network’s” Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco of “127 Hours’ have each won four), while Natalie Portman leads the pack in the actress category with nine wins for her theatrical turn in “Black Swan.”

Christian Bale has a dozen supporting actor critics prizes for his work in “The Fighter.” David Fincher has picked up 15 director wins for “The Social Network,” while that film’s screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, has amassed 18 awards. (Most critics groups don’t differentiate between original and adapted screenplays, but those who do touted David Seidler’s original for “The King’s Speech.”)

Only the supporting actress category has significantly divided critics, with “The Fighter’s” Melissa Leo (six wins) narrowly leading “True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld and “Animal Kingdom’s” Jacki Weaver.

“‘The King’s Speech,’ ‘The Fighter’ and ‘The Social Network’ are duking it out for pre-Oscar bragging rights,” says Arizona Republic and Gannett chain film critic Bill Goodykoontz. “It’s not always true, but this year critics and film societies seem to be glomming onto them for a reason: They deserve the attention.”

“Michael Phillips, film critic for the Chicago Tribune, says, “If ‘The Social Network’ is generating a lot of stories saying, ‘Ho-hum, here comes another award for best film of the year,’ maybe there’s a reason for that. That’s a challenging film not so much in story or structure but in tone. It doesn’t make most of the usual concessions to audience concerns in terms of how much do we have to like the protagonist,” Phillips continues. “It doesn’t beg for an ounce of sympathy. It’s a socially astute film with a verbally dexterous screenplay. Audiences are dying to hear dialogue like that.”

USA Today film critic Claudia Puig adds, “Being as good as it is and chronicling as pervasive and intriguing a phenomenon like Facebook makes it clearly the movie of the year. This could be another year in which critics and the Academy are aligned, as they were last year with ‘The Hurt Locker.’”

The lead actor contest may come down to a race between an actor whose character can’t stop talking (Eisenberg) and one whose character can barely start (Firth). Firth’s perf as King George VI struggling to overcome a near-crippling stammer received the royal treatment from critics.

“What’s so great about Colin is that you can read a thousand words in his eyes,” says David Glasser, chief operating officer of the Weinstein Co., producer of the film. “His moments are extremely poignant and powerful.”

Phillips calls Firth “a suburb minimalist,” and Puig offers, “In another year, James Franco might have had it sewn up, but there may be a sense that Colin Firth is overdue. He put in such an amazing performance last year with ‘A Single Man’ that that, no doubt, is at least in the back of critics’ minds.”

In what Alonso Duralde, critic for Movieline.com and Hitfix.com and author of “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas, calls “a competitive year for women, which is not always the case,” Portman’s turn as a ballerina on the knife-edge of madness impressed critics most. “Natalie Portman not only acts the hell out of the movie, but dances the hell out of it,” he says.

Adds Phillips: “It’s a feverish performance, but not sloppy. It’s shrewdly modulated.”

Puig notes, “Because Portman started out so young, she feels almost like a veteran, so there seems a huge gap between her experience and newcomer Jennifer Lawrence (who has won four critics’ prizes for “Winter’s Bone”), though they’re only nine years apart in age.”

Critics have some favorites they wished had received a little more love this awards season.

Phillips touts Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine,” saying, “She’s one of the rare actors who, without any pretence or artificiality, can get right under the skin of working-class characters without being patronizing or going for obvious cheap emotions.”

Phillips also champions “The Ghost Writer’s” Pierce Brosnan and “Get Low’s” Bill Murray, adding, “There are only so many spots available for low-budget, well-made indies, and ‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘The Kids Are All Right” have taken them.”

Duralde was taken with Tilda Swinton, who spoke Italian in a Russian accent in “I Am Love.” “While the accent thing is the most immediately impressive facet of the performance, Swinton really nails this character down to the core,” he says. “She can take eating a plate of the chef’s scampi and turn it into foreplay.”

Goodykoontz laments that one of his favorites, “Please Give,” has nearly gotten lost in the shuffle, but adds philosophically, “Critics and awards groups seem willing to shine a light on some smaller films but reserve a certain amount of attention for studio films. At some point it’s a question of numbers — something is going to get left out.”

Jesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network”
• Boston Society of Film Critics
• Houston Film Critics
• National Board of Review
• Toronto Film Critics

Colin Farrell, “Ondine”
• San Diego Film Critics

Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”
• Detroit Film Critics
• Florida Film Critics
• Los Angeles Film Critics
• New York Film Critics
• Phoenix Film Critics
• St. Louis Film Critics
• San Francisco Film Critics
• Southeastern Film Critics
• Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics

James Franco, “127 Hours”
• Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics
• Indiana Film Journalists
• Las Vegas Film Critics
• New York Film Critics Online

Mark Wahlberg, “The Fighter”
• African-American Film Critics

Annette Bening, “The Kids Are All Right”
• New York Film Critics Circle

Halle Berry, “Frankie & Alice”
• African-American Film Critics

Kim Hye-ja, “Mother”
• Los Angeles Film Critics

Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”
• Detroit Film Critics
• San Diego Film Critics
• Toronto Film Critics
• Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics

Lesley Manville, “Another Year”
• National Board of Review
• San Diego Film Critics (as supporting actress)

Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”
• Boston Society of Film Critics
• Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics
• Florida Film Critics
• Houston Film Critics
• Indiana Film Journalists
• Las Vegas Film Critics
• New York Film Critics Online
• Phoenix Film Critics
• St. Louis Film Critics
• Southeastern Film Critics

Michelle Williams, “Blue Valentine”
• San Francisco Film Critics
Niels Arestrup, “A Prophet”
• Los Angeles Film Critics

Christian Bale, “The Fighter”
• Boston Society of Film Critics
• Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics
• Detroit Film Critics
• Florida Film Critics
• Houston Film Critics
• Indiana Film Journalists
• Las Vegas Film Critics
• National Board of Review
• New York Film Critics Online
• Phoenix Film Critics
• St. Louis Film Critics
• Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics

Michael Ealy, “For Colored Girls”
• African-American Film Critics

Armie Hammer, “The Social Network”
• Toronto Film Critics

John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”
• San Diego Film Critics
• San Francisco Film Critics

Mark Ruffalo, “The Kids Are All Right”
• New York Film Critics Circle

Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”
• Southeastern Film Critics

Amy Adams, “The Fighter”
• Detroit Film Critics
• Las Vegas Film Critics

Kimberly Elise, “For Colored Girls”
• African-American Film Critics

Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”
• Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics
• Florida Film Critics
• New York Film Critics Circle
• New York Film Critics Online
• Phoenix Film Critics
• St. Louis Film Critics
• Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics

Juliette Lewis, “Conviction”
• Boston Society of Film Critics

Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”
• Houston Film Critics
• Indiana Film Journalists
• Southeastern Film Critics
• Toronto Film Critics

Jacki Weaver, “Animal Kingdom”
• Los Angeles Film Critics
• National Board of Review
• San Francisco Film Critics

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