Once Upon an Oscar Season

Oscar season is upon us again and as usual the run-up and the jockeying is so much more interesting than the hallowed ceremony itself. The annual critics’ awards only rarely propel a film to Oscar glory, but they do sustain film and performances in the awards conversation. With super-hero, Star Wars, Disney animation and sequels dominating the box-office the critics have miniscule commercial muscle but during awards season a few trophies can give box-office receipts a much-needed chug, so they are an important factor but of varying and unpredictable influence. With so little serious fare doing well at the box office even the studio supported movies can do with kudos from a prominent group. The internet, and celebrity click bait, has vastly increased the number of critic groups pronouncing the best and studios and stars lap it up to gain Oscar momentum. The main groups the National Board of Review (not really a critics group but has long held the role of launching the awards season), the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics are the bodies with the most credibility and history.

As in any year a group of films are prominent: The Irishman; Once Upon a Time in America; The Joker; 1917; JoJo Rabbit; Marriage Story; Ford Vs Ferrari; Little Women; Knives Out; A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhoood. Cats is an unknown. Most of the directors of these film will be in the Oscar mix but critic plaudits and the DGA will help decide the winner. Remember at the Academy each branch nominates its own so the number of women in the Directing Branch will still not be high enough to get a female director without support of men. Though not a fan of her films, I think Joanna Hogg stands the best chance.

Apart from Parasite and The Farewell, there aren’t any independent or foreign language movies which are breaking out critically or commercially. There’s little chance Farewell will carry Lulu Wang to the podium but Awakfina and Shuzhen Zhao could be critic winners and I think both will be Academy nominees. Parasite could escape the foreign language ghetto and Terrence Mallick, and his cast, could turn up anywhere or disappear without trace.

In the lead acting races Renee Zellweger is an Oscar inevitability. At least for a nomination, though I certainly hope she doesn’t feature in the critic voting. Awarded acting should be a crafted essay in creating emotion, diction and delivery not an impersonation. I loathe biopics, possibly a personal failing. The other actresses in the field are consistent but there’s nothing that stirs. Charlize Theron is probably the best hope for Bombshell. Commercially I don’t think any audience wants to make a Christmas trip to the movies for an insider account of Megan Kelly’s woes, no matter how justified. African-American women are strongly in the running but they have obstacles. Alfre Woodard in Clemency looks like she’s in a TV movie, she should have won for Passionfish and wasn’t even nominated; Cynthia Erivo in Harriet has an uninspiring film tackling a profound subject; Jodie Turner-Smith from Queen & Slim, which has opened better than expected but it could too urban for the dainty Academy – bear in mind Brokeback Mountain was the barbarians in the foyer of the Kodak. It could also be hindered by an unfortunate association with James Frey. Lupita Nyong’o I don’t think will figure.

The Best Actor field is much the same- very good but nothing arresting. Many think Phoenix is startling, but I think it is a divisive performance, though it could muster enough enthusiasm to sneak a win anywhere.

This year supporting, actor and actress, is full of big names, but what they all have in common is very good work but, again, none, I think, offer us something we haven’t seen before rather than a showcase of repertoire and rapport with the camera. Jennifer Lopez could even make an impression with the critics. Everyone who saw her in Out of Sight thought we had witnessed the arrival of the next Latin film star and I, possibly the only person in the world, enjoyed Blood and Wine as she held her own with Jack Nicholson and Judy Davis, arguably the greatest actress in the English language. Will Hustlers be the vehicle to right a film a career of wrong choices? Lopez has certainly been working her publicists to the bone! At the Oscars expect a pile up of stars – Maggie Smith, Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, Annette Bening, Octavia Spencer, Laura Dern, Margot Robbie, Tom Hanks, Willem Dafoe and more – battling for a place in the second tier. Not to be crude but for some of the men this will probably be their last shot at award glory so even the critics may succumb to sentimentality. The huge intake of new members as the Academy tries to dust down its fusty image could sway categories in arty directions- Jojo could be a rabbit that escapes the pot. (Dear Santa, please spare us Joe Pesci…)

National Board of Review December 3rd

What can be said about the NBR? Founded in 1909 in and proud of their history as the oldest award-conferring body , they are not as secretive as they used to be it is still uncertain if the voters- quote this select group of film enthusiasts, filmmakers, professionals, academics and students– actually exist. The NBR is Hollywood’s reliable friend, though they can be unexpectedly audacious- Anne Dowd in Compliance, more like that, please- last year they anointed Green Book which seemed an unlikely winner but was the ideal middlebrow tripe to block Roma at the Oscars. Forgotten films like Quills and Shine are among this group’s idea of excellence. They have favourites particularly Clint Eastwood and George Clooney. Scorsese has been Best director here three times so this group’s verdict on the Irishman could be a bellwether. Is it an epic masterpiece or the same old turf with same old faces? That film’s run time could be in Scorsese favour as a sustained exhibition of his mastery. Eastwood is well off the high point of Unforgiven but the NBR did anoint him Best Director for American Sniper so I think the Ballad of Richard Jewell will be viewed enthusiastically, even philanthropically. Kathy Bates is probably its best hope but its unknown star, Paul Walter Hauser, could surprise with Best Actor or more likely gain the breakthrough award. Adam Sandler could have a chance here. Generally, the NBR avoids the controversial but they went mad over The Post a few years ago so they could entertain awards for Bombshell. However, they always have a soft spot for Americana so I think Saoirse Ronan’s performance in Little Women will get her over the finishing line. The cinematic theme of Pain and Glory could help Antonio Banderas a as film director -the alter ego of Almodóvar-reflecting on his life and career and The Two Popes with two outstanding British actors will be catnip to this crowd.

Best Film The Irishman or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Director Martin Scorsese/Quentin Tarantino/ Boon Joon-ho

Best Actress Saoirse Ronan/Awakfina/Cynthia Erivo

Best Actor Jonathan Pryce/Antonio Banderas

Best Supporting actress Kathy Bates

Best Supporting Actor Brad Pitt/Anthony Hopkins/Tom Hanks

New York Film Critics Circle December 4th

The NYFCC takes itself seriously, so seriously in fact that as other award groups mushroomed, they have made strenuous efforts to be first out of the blocks, hoping their selection can garner the greatest publicity. A few years back they voted, to industry dismay, just after Thanksgiving and while once who were the runners up was public knowledge now their members are sworn to secrecy or face expulsion from the conclave. In the recent past they’ve been rather star-struck, throwing plaudits in the direction of the studios but their last few selections have suggested they are trying get their credibility back. In the past they have succumbed to compromise selections, most hilariously when they selected Cameron Diaz, over Fernanda Montenegro (!!!), as Best Actress for There’s Something About Mary, The Accidental Tourist as Best Film not to mention when they blocked Pulp Fiction by choosing Quiz Show. (There must a be a sit-com waiting to explode, Alien-like, about the NYFCC meeting.) I would expect Scenes from a Divorce, sorry, Marriage Story to do well here. The NYFCC have named Ronan Best Actress twice in recent years, Brooklyn and Lady Bird, so they run they risk of being viewed as stalkers if they are besotted by her in Little Women. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir could feature here. Their selection could be provocative or the bastard offspring of the Razzies and the Golden Globes.

Best Film The Irishman

Best Director Martin Scorsese or Noah Baumbach

Best Actress Charlize Theron/Scarlett Johannsen (being cited for Marriage Story and JoJo Rabbit)

Best Actor Adam Driver/ Joaquin Phoenix

Best Supporting Actress Laura Dern/Jennifer Lopez

Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins

Los Angeles Film Critics Association December 8th

The LA critics, possibly aware of the influence they can have in their backyard, have been drawing Hollywood’s attention to a lot of work that is often trampled underfoot by the mainstream machine. Most famously back in 1985 Terry Gilliam showed them Brazil which they awarded Best Film, forcing the studio’s hand to release it. They also cited Do the Right Thing as best of its year. In recent times Best Actress has been a particularly exciting category. They cited Vera Farmiga for the virtually unseen Down to the Bone effectively launching her film career. Successive years saw two magnificent Korean performances -Kim Hya-ja in Motherand Yoo Song Hee in Poetry -take the plaudits. Expect a few unexpected selections. I think this year they will warm to their hometown chronicle Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and salute star power with a nod to Brad Pitt, whom they overlooked when he was winning elsewhere for Moneyball.

Best Film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or Parasite (this may take Foreign Language)

Best Director Quentin Tarantino or Boon Joon-ho; if they are feeling ‘woke’ Joanna Hogg The Souvenir

Best Actress Kristen Stewart Seberg/ Mary Kay Place Diane

Best Actor Antonio Banderas/ Tom Burke The Souvenir

Best Supporting Actress Laura Dern

Best Supporting Actor Brad Pitt

National Society of Film Critics January 4th

The NSFC are, arguably, the most prestigious and least influential of the major groups but It is generally conceded that this group’s unexpected championing of The Pianist and Roman Polanski was vital to that film’s triumph at the Academy, they may no longer want reminding, though, and Theron’s Monster was pipped at the other groups but won here. These days the revised Oscar calendar does not favour the NSFC choices. I must admit these guys are more in tune with my tastes than any other group but occasionally they give my eyebrow an erection. Last year, for example, thy selected The Rider over Roma as the Best Film. The Rider is good and often beautifully photographed but having a rodeo rider play a rodeo rider with his father playing his father and his sister playing his sister is an exercise in quasi-documentary. If one critic had told it was the best of the year, I would have obviously understood it was personal taste but when a group of them get together and collectively reach the same conclusion I smell strategic voting. It used to be that only critics who were present athe NSFC meeting in New York could vote after the first round which resulted in some strange decisions: Best Actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno for Vincere. I still haven’t seen it and never heard anyone compelled to applaud a wise verdict. Now non-attendees can vote online in real-time. Hopefully the NSFC will maintain its stature and not succumb to antics. Comedy roles have a good chance of being awarded here- Steve Martin, twice, and Eddie Murphy have taken Best Actor home. If Adam Sandler has a barren Xmas these guys could be waiting offstage to wish him a belated Happy New Year. There is considerable overlap in membership with the LA and NY groups, so I suspect quite a few voters change choices or those of a cinematically conservative turn of mind have been excluded because the results often differ too drastically. So, come January they could divide the spoils, shine a light on the overlooked. It’s a fool’s errand predicting these results…

Best Film Queen & Slim/Parasite/Honey Boy

Best Director Martin Scorsese

Best Actress Adele Haenel/Kristen Stewart/Mary Kay Place

Best Actor Antonio Banderas/Adam Driver/Adam Sandler

Best Supporting actress Laura Dern

Best Supporting Actor Tracy Letts Little Women

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