With Year-End Kudos, Critics Can Widen Oscar’s Playing Field

With Year-End Kudos, Critics Can Widen
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

A number of films and performances could use the rub this season.

In 2011, the New York Film Critics Circle had seemingly had enough of lagging behind other groups in the year-end superlatives game. That year, the org surprisingly set a Nov. 29 date for voting, leaping ahead of the New York-based National Board of Review — a compendium of film enthusiasts, filmmakers and academics that dates back to 1909 — and far out in front of their west coast counterparts, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. And that’s where they’ve remained ever since, ahead of the pack, first to pass judgment on the year in cinema.

After “The Artist” won the NYFCC prize in 2011, a mild case of “shiny new object” syndrome took hold as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “American Hustle” (among the last films to screen in 2012 and 2013) won the group’s top prize in their respective years. In 2014, both the New York and Los Angeles critics agreed that “Boyhood” was tops, one of only 13 times they’ve seen eye-to-eye. But this year, after the NBR revealed that it would announce winners on Dec. 1, the NYFCC quietly settled on the following day — perhaps unwilling to weather the “why so early?” backlash that greeted a November date four years ago.

So on Wednesday, Dec. 2, with everything but “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” having screened, the critics awards phase of this year’s Oscar season will commence. It’s a crucial time because these groups can do so much to elevate films and performances with smaller profiles. While no Academy member is necessarily voting according to critics’ picks, any help whittling the stack of screeners over the holidays is surely appreciated.

The most acclaimed narrative films of the year so far, according to the Metacritic website, are Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa,” Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” Pete Docter’s “Inside Out,” Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” and László Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” and I expect all of them will figure heavily in year-end critical assessments.

“Inside Out” and “Spotlight” need no help in the race, however; they have taken on a life and are fixtures on the circuit. (That said, it’s hard to imagine “Spotlight” not being a major force with critics — it’s a movie about journalist heroes, after all.) But a film like “Carol,” which inspires passion amongst the devoted, yet might not be a broad player (despite a field-leading six Spirit Award nominations last week), would certainly get a boost from a NYFCC or LAFCA best film prize.

“Anomalisa” and “Son of Saul,” meanwhile, could use a new shade that renders them more than merely animated and foreign film contenders, respectively. Often movies that end up in those buckets tend to stay there, ghettoized. But with a top prize from a major critics organization, suddenly they’re taken more seriously. (The LAFCA awarded “WALL-E” in 2008 and “Amour” in 2012, so they aren’t reticent to go there lately.)

Then there are the performance awards, worth keeping an eye on as the acting races are in flux more than ever this year. But while contenders like Michael Fassbender (“Steve Jobs”) and Brie Larson (“Room”) are likely to get their share throughout the season, what about fringe players like “Son of Saul’s” Géza Röhrig or “45 Years'” Charlotte Rampling?

Similarly, one of the most consistent campaign presences right now might be Sir Ian McKellen, but “Mr. Holmes” is a small film that has been overshadowed by the season’s heavier artillery. A best actor win would finally open a lot of eyes to his work. Ditto someone like Charlize Theron, the anchor of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” itself a film that might be taken more seriously in the Oscar race with the rub of critical kudos. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “It Follows,” “Love & Mercy,” “Mississippi Grind,” “99 Homes,” “’71,” “Tangerine” — all critical hits that could use the love.

In 1985, the LAFCA forced Universal Pictures’ hand in releasing Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” by awarding the film top honors. That’s the power these groups can have this time of year, and it’s far more important than being Oscar prognosticators. It’s an opportunity to widen the playing field at a time when it tends to get tighter.

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  1. TMW says:

    The Big Short’s win for Best Ensemble by the NBR sort of forces you to start including it in the contenders list, doesn’t it, Mr. Tapley? It could win the SAG Award, too. Spotlight DOES NOT have it in the bag as you seem to think it does.

  2. Dave Richards says:

    Why no mentions of “Joy” yet….David O. Russell has earned major Oscar love for his recent work; it has DeNIro, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper.

  3. TMW says:

    I continue to find your excluding The Big Short from any possibllity of Best Picture awards to be highly suspect. Your bias for Spotlight really is showing. David Edelstein in New York magazine has named The Big Short as possibly the best film of the year. Yes, so far it’s received some mixed reviews but some others are out and out raves. Its high-voltage cast will almost certainly score a Best Cast nomination in the SAG Awards. What exactly is your problem with it, then?

  4. Sophie says:

    Carol, Room, 45 Years, Brooklyn, Son of Saul, The Assassin, Anomalisa, Spotlight, Son of Saul will be the favorite to critics I guess.

  5. someperson says:

    Finally caught Carol last night, and just want to say to those awards-voting bodies: When you’re giving this film its fairly well deserved plethora of awards and nominations, don’t forget about Kyle Chandler. Easily one of the best performances I’ve seen this year.

  6. Aaron says:

    I think critics awards play a much larger role than commenters here are giving credit. I really don’t think Marion Cotillard would’ve gotten that Oscar nomination last year if NYFCC hadn’t awarded her for her body of work in The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night. Her win obviously piqued their interest in seeking out her work in the latter (a somber, realist Belgian film is not something that consistently gets Oscar nominations). Her place could’ve easily been usurped by someone like Amy Adams or Jennifer Aniston.

  7. Kate says:

    The assumption that Fassbender will be in play for critics awards is…interesting. I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t pick up a single one.

    • someperson says:

      He’s not the bravest choice this year, but unless I’m mistaken critics usually like Fassbinder more than the industry does.

      The best actor field is lacking in passion choices, though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this is where critics groups make their weirder picks (honestly wouldn’t be surprised if LAFCA went with Christopher Abbott, for example).

  8. harry georgatos says:

    It’s all personal opinions at the end of the day. That also includes critics. Most films are technically well put together and opinions come down to the films political and social points of view. Critics most of the time disagree among themselves. It’s all personal views at the end of day. No ones right or wrong. I just don’t give a damn about award seasons. It’s just another marketing tool in selling difficult and problematic films to the public.

  9. Eric says:

    Critics groups and awards are important because they highlight great art that most might miss otherwise. And they have more than symbolic value for the artists who get the honors: It makes their life easier in getting their next job. I really don’t know what’s the ‘Best Film’ this year. But I was impressed by: “Anomalisa”, “Carol”, “Son of Saul”, “Aferim!”, “Mustang” and “Embrace of the Serpant”. I like George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”, but think it’s very overrated. “The Martian” is more original.

  10. Chizz says:

    Critics awards are completely useless… unless you ask a critic of course. There simply is no way to avoid group-think mentality and voting for the least-worst option instead of personal choices. But of course here’s Krapley to remind us to think otherwise! Good luck with that.

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