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

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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