Critics, SAG Will Set the Tone as Oscar Race Heats Up

Elle Cannes
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Early-voting groups can have major influence on Academy's choices

In the coming weeks, various critics groups, as well as the Screen Actors Guild, will set a more definitive tone for this year’s Oscar race. The influence of the critics is great: They can rally behind strong contenders and establish them as frontrunners, or they can revive the chances of fringe hopefuls looking for a foothold.

On Dec. 1, the New York Film Critics Circle will meet to deliberate the best of the year. They’ll be joined by their West Coast counterparts, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., three days later. Throughout the rest of the month, various regional groups will chip in with their assessments, building toward something resembling a consensus.

The most critically acclaimed films so far, according to the Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes websites, are “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea.” Those movies were already expected to register with
Oscar voters.

Where critics could really push the issue is with a swell of support for on-the-bubble movies like “Hell or High Water” and “Jackie,” which are in the running for best picture recognition but could take on a sheen of further importance with critical laurels. Or Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” which could net Gotham Award winner Isabelle Huppert a nomination in the highly competitive lead actress Oscar category. One win from a major group like the New York or Los Angeles critics, and that long shot inches toward reality.

Other critically acclaimed films will be looking for similar boosts, like “Love & Friendship” and “The Lobster,” which could pop up in the screenplay races. Sony Classics’ “The Red Turtle” would also distinguish itself amid the record-breaking number of animated-feature Oscar submissions this year by landing a key critics win. And along with “Elle,” international films like “Toni Erdmann” or “Aquarius” could break out of the Academy’s ghettoized foreign film category with a performance or screenplay victory from the critics.

On Dec. 14, meanwhile, the industry finally speaks up with the Screen Actors Guild’s nominations. The early deadline for SAG-AFTRA voting often reflects earlier stages in the Oscar timeline, evidenced in recent years by recognition for Johnny Depp (“Black Mass”), Forest Whitaker (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”), and Helen Mirren (“Woman in Gold”), among others. The guild’s ensemble prize gives considerable shine to Oscar contenders looking to break into the best picture race.

Often it’s just false hope. (See: “Trumbo,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “Beasts of No Nation,” from last year alone.) Other times it’s a major feather in a film’s cap (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Midnight in Paris,” “The Kids Are All Right”). If nothing else, a SAG ensemble nomination is an indication of how the Academy’s largest branch — the actors — might perceive a film’s worth.

This year, as ever, there are a number of great casts to pull from. “Fences” and “La La Land” appear to be the best bets. “Moonlight” looks solid as well. But if “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Hidden Figures,” “Patriots Day,” or the aforementioned “Hell or High Water” can break through, things will get interesting. “Jackie,” “Loving,” and “20th Century Women” are all in play as well among ensembles.

The superlative circuit cuts both ways, though. Will SAG-AFTRA, for instance, be mindful enough to remember an electrifying performance like Ralph Fiennes’ in “A Bigger Splash?” Will the critics ever be so bold as to distinguish outstanding documentaries like “13th” or “O.J.: Made in America” as best picture/best film winners rather than relegate them to their own nonfiction categories? Likely not.

So while a year as scattered as 2016 could really use this annual culling from the critics and guilds, it’s still crucial, as ever, that Academy voters think for themselves and not follow the script.

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