By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 2, 2011 at 2:20PM
Hugo, Artist, The Amazing Race
Hugo, Artist, The Amazing Race
Considering we've been writing about most weeks since August, it's odd to think that the awards season really only got underway this week. Everything up to now has been foreplay, but with the Gotham Awards on Sunday night, the Spirit Awards nominations and New York Film Critics' Circle Awards on Tuesday, and the National Board of Review yesterday, we're entering the underwear-removal phase of the season. To extend the metaphor. Probably too far.
As such, the ups and downs are coming a little faster, and a little more tangible, so we wanted to take a week to dig back into the big prizes, and how the recent awards and nominations have affected those in contention for them. And the big winner of the past week has to be Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," a film that, mea culpa, we seem to have been underestimating the awards potential of. We'd assumed that it might be a little commercial for serious consideration, that the film's mammoth cost would make it a flop regardless of box office, and that the fairly lukewarm reaction out of its NYFF work-in-progress screening would be the critical consensus.
But as it turned out, the reviews were adoring, the box-office relatively healthy, considering its relatively limited release, and most importantly, it surprised most by winning both Best Picture and Best Director at the National Board of Review yesterday. Now, that group may not be the most reputable -- their love of Clint Eastwood knowing no bounds, he's received five nominations in the last four years, including nods for "Changeling," "Invictus" and "Hereafter" -- but it does show a real love out there for the movie, and almost certainly guarantees a nomination. Every winner of the Best Film prize at the NBR in the last eleven years has managed a Best Picture nod from the Academy ("Quills," in 2000, was the last to miss out). However, it also doesn't make a win any more likely, necessarily; of those eleven, only "No Country for Old Men" and "Slumdog Millionaire" came away with the big prize.
"The Artist" was the other film to get a big boost this week, winning the Picture/Director double-bill at the NYFCC, and picking up five nods at the Spirits, despite being a more crowd-pleasing kind of picture than the latter group generally goes for. But as we wrote on Monday, we wonder if this'll start to become an issue; the two films are similar thematically, and we do think there's a possibility that they could end up splitting the vote of a certain, older demographic. The worst thing that could have happened to the Weinstein's campaign for "The Artist" was "Hugo" becoming a serious contender.
Otherwise, it was a good week for "The Descendants," with the acting nods at the NBR, and multiple Spirit nominations. George Clooney lost out to Brad Pitt for Best Actor in New York, and was a surprise omission at the Spirits, suggesting it's not going to be a total-cake walk, but he's still the presumptive front-runner. Speaking of Pitt and "Moneyball," the film was the biggest omission from the National Board of Review's top ten, and while that's not a major blow ("Black Swan" missed out last year), it still suggests that, with a fluid number of nominees, it's not locked in at the Oscars just yet.
Otherwise, of the other major contenders, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" perhaps took the biggest hit, not mentioned in a single ceremony this week (although it's likely ineligible for Spirits and Gothams). As one of the least warm and comfortable films in the running, both the film and Gary Oldman's lead performance needs the support of critic's groups and top ten lists to stay in the conversation. If it continues to be ignored at awards ceremonies, its Oscar chances fade super-fast. "Midnight in Paris" isn't looking great, either, but we've maintained for months that the likelihood of it lasting through til February have always been minimal. "The Help", never destined to be a critical favorite, managed a supporting actress nod for Jessica Chastain at the NYFF (shared between three films), and a Best Ensemble win at the National Board of Review, which wasn't a bad result, although again, it's not a certainty for an Oscar nomination at this point.
Having said that, Viola Davis will need to start picking up a few Best Actress awards, or risk being overshadowed by competition Meryl Streep. In that category, "We Need To Talk About Kevin" star Tilda Swinton got a much-needed boost from the National Board of Review, which is exactly what she needed to get into the race. With Davis, Streep and Michelle Williams all looking locked into the category, and Rooney Mara and Charlize Theron (although Theron's film also fared poorly this week), it's a tough race, but her chance of beating them, and Glenn Close, to an extra slot have never been better.
Speaking of Best Actress, Felicity Jones is orbiting on the outer regions, and two Breakthrough Performance Awards, from the National Board of Review and the Gothams, suggest she's certainly leapt ahead of major competition Elisabeth Olsen, although she'll still have to lap Rooney Mara for that ingenue slot, but with word fairly quiet on that performance, and Glenn Close looking less and less likely, it's well within the realms of possibility now.
But "Like Crazy" wasn't the only small film to do well this week. "Beginners" tied "Tree of Life" for Best Film at the Gothams, picked up multiple nods at the Spirits, as well as Supporting Actor for Christopher Plummer, who's arguably the safest bet for a win in any acting category at this point. The film's clearly well-liked, and spans both younger and older audiences; could it be in with an outside chance of a nomination? We think it's unlikely as the film feels a little intimate and small-scale for the main prize. But don't bet against a screenplay nod at this point. The real surprise of the season has been "Margin Call," an ensemble drama that picked up respectful notices at Sundance, but has become a sleeper hit in theaters and on VOD. The film managed to win three awards this week: Best First Feature at the NYFCC, Best Debut Director at the NBR, and the Robert Altman Prize (for ensemble, director and casting) at the Spirits, as well as picking up two other nods. It doesn't feel like it's going to do a "Crash" or anything, but a Best Screenplay nod is feasible, and it could even make it in to Best Ensemble at the SAGs.
Ultimately, nothing this week is a game-changer in terms of the Oscar race (particularly with both the NBR and the NYFCC not waiting for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," which we expect to be a major player). It's still too early to rule anything in or out completely, but it's clear that winds are blowing in certain directions. For more, check out our chart below. And next week, we'll be taking a look at the Academy Awards' drunken cousins, The Golden Globes.
1. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (4)
Yeah, the one film not even seen by those who awarded prizes this week. But from what we've heard from test screenings, it's got the right stuff, and is a slightly different picture from the feel-good nostalgia of "The Artist" and "Hugo." But they'll have to show it to someone soon...
2. "The Artist" (1)
As we said, "Hugo"'s resurgence is something of a blow for the Weinsteins, if not for the nomination, then for the chance of winning. But we'll see; the NYFCC show that the film's still got a lot of love.
3. "Hugo" (15)
A massive comeback for Scorsese's film, but box office is still the potential stumbling block here. An 'A' cinemascore suggests it'll hold up ok, but it still needs a healthy haul to avoid being seen as a major failure.
4. "The Descendants" (3)
A strong showing in the early awards, and could come across as the more thoughtful choice ahead of "Hugo" or "The Artist." But we still wonder, as we have all along, as to how many people will go for it as their first choice.
5. "War Horse" (2)
Fairly strong reaction to last weekend's sneak screenings, and could sweep in if "The Artist" and "Hugo" split the vote, although it's in the same vague wheelhouse, even if it might feel more substantial to some.
6. "Moneyball" (7)
NBR snub is a chink in the armor, to be sure, but the NYFCC wins shows that it's still got substantial support. The first film on this list not to be a 100% lock, but very likely to be there.
7. "Shame" (8)
We realize we're the only pundits in town to be pushing this as a serious contender (for the reasons outlined on Monday), and there is a reason for that. But Michael Fassbender's seen as an increasingly likely nominee, and we can't imagine someone watching the film, seeing him as worthy, but rejecting the film. A relative long-shot, but we will be insufferably smug if it comes to pass.
8. "The Help" (9)
The populist choice (and probably the biggest grosser, depending on the potency of "War Horse") of the plausible nominees, but the acting trio of Davis, Spencer and Chastain need to stay strong for this to get locked in.
9. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (5)
Taking a real dip of late, we're seriously doubting its chances for the first time. But things should pick up closer to its release next week, and with "The Iron Lady" vanquished, it'll be the biggest beneficiary of the large British contingent.
10. "The Tree Of Life" (18)
Coming back into the conversation at long last, but has to win something from a major critics group soon, or it'll start to slip again.
11. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (9)
While embargoed, the word we've heard out of screenings so far is that it's strong, but principally commercial stuff. But with so little dark material in there, it could be nice counter-programming for those looking for something a little stronger.
12. "Midnight In Paris" (10)
Looking like the biggest casualty so far, but could regain some momentum with a healthy Golden Globes haul in a few weeks.
13. "The Ides Of March" (=)
Continuing to drop out of sight, but the NBR nod gives it the trace of a heartbeat, at least. But the days of Harvey Weinstein calling it his biggest threat are long gone.
14. "Young Adult" (11)
Opening next week, it'll likely get a bump. But our feeling is that it'll have to settle for Theron, Oswalt and screenplay nods, rather than the big prize.
15. "Margin Call" (-)
The little financial drama that could, it's been getting unavoidable attention from the awards. But at present, it's grossed less than a third than "The Hurt Locker," so it still seems like a real long shot, even if the narrative is behind it at present.
16. "Beginners" (-)
Another film that's having something of a boost of late, it's again unlikely to be in competition for the big prize, but it does have a wide appeal, and a lot of love behind it.
17. "In The Land of Blood & Honey" (12)
Pretty much absent from the conversation of late, and could have used something from the NBR to get it in there again. But don't rule it out of the Golden Globes, who could nominate it just to get Angelina Jolie to turn up.
18. "Drive" (-)
We've always assumed it would be too pulpy and dark for serious attention, but this week has shown that it's well liked. Does it have even a slight chance of getting that crucial 5% of votes?
19. "Take Shelter" (-)
Something else we've undervalued of late, but it's a timely and powerful film, and did well at the Spirits in particular. Extremely unlikely to happen, but more likely than, say, "Martha Marcy May Marlene," which seems to turn off as many as it turns on.
20. "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Pt. 2" (-)
The NBR lined up to commemorate the end of the franchise, and Warners will keep campaigning for it, but we maintain, as we always did, that splitting the film in two ruined any serious chance of it happening. And that goes doubly for you, "Breaking Dawn Pt. 2"!....