Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” is the best film of the year, and star Casey Affleck is the year’s best actor, according to the National Board of Review, which also accorded the film with original screenplay and breakout performance for Lucas Hedges.
The choice isn’t surprising for the 107-year-old National Board of Review, an organization comprised of “knowledgeable film enthusiasts and professionals, academics, young filmmakers and students,” and one that tends to support message films with gravitas. “Manchester By the Sea,” with its tragic story and well-respected writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, fits the bill.
Also solidifying its frontrunner status in the documentary Oscar race is Gotham-winner Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America.” (Kirsten Johnson’s also-ran “Cameraperson” picked up the Freedom of Expression award.)
The NBR viewed over 250 films this year, including studio, independent, foreign-language, animated and documentary selections. Unlike most critics’ organizations, they follow their screenings with in-depth discussions with filmmakers, directors, actors, producers, and screenwriters.
As an Oscar bellwether, NBR selections aren’t always spot on. Last year, it named “Mad Max: Fury Road” the best film of the year. George Miller’s movie did go on to notch 10 Oscar nominations, including best film and direction, but all six of its wins came in craft categories. The year before, JC Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” scored Best Film, as well as acting nods for Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain for her supporting role. Oscar nominations: Zero.
This year, the field is disparate enough to encompass multiple surprises. Contenders like A24’s “Moonlight” remain out in front, landing NBR nods for Best Director Barry Jenkins and Best Supporting Actress Naomie Harris. Then there’s the inclusion of “Silence” as the winner of Adapted Screenplay; Paramount screened the movie (unfinished?) for NBR voters on November 19. The New York Film Critics Circle won’t see it until November 30.
The NBR acting awards also boosted Best Actress Oscar Contender and Gotham tributee Amy Adams for Paramount’s sci-fi hit “Arrival,” and Supporting Actor winner Jeff Bridges for “Hell or High Water.” (The Indie Spirit Awards nominated Ben Foster in that category.) NBR also named as Best Ensemble-winner “Hidden Figures,” a true NASA story starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Jonelle Monae and Kevin Costner.
While NBR selected a diverse set of winners, surprisingly left out of the major prizes was Denzel Washington’s “Fences,” Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” and Ava DuVernay’s “13th.” And while Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg picked up a special award for their collaborations on “Deepwater Horizon” and “Patriots Day,” it’s unlikely to move the needle on their awards hopes. Other stark omissions include Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie” (Fox Searchlight) and Weinstein Co. crowdpleaser “Lion.” Being omitted by NBR doesn’t hurt a movie as much as it fails to add momentum.
As with other awards, the NBR wins help to spotlight films that future voters may want to check out, moving some titles higher up in the screener pile. “Kubo and the Two Strings” won Best Animated Feature against fierce competition, while Royalty Hightower landed best breakout performance for critics’ fave “The Fits,” and in a big surprise Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” (IFC) took home Best Foreign Language Film following its Cannes win for Best Actor. The group also reward his films “The Past” and “A Separation.”
The group’s standards are unclear. There’s a top-10 list, which includes some indie films (limited releases “Moonlight,” “Manchester By the Sea”). There’s also a top-10 list for independent films, and that differentiation renders the indie list as second tier. Is it indie distributor, small-budget, limited/VOD release, low-grossing Indie Top 10? The criteria aren’t transparent, and neither is the group, which has never released its members’ names. But of course, like the much-excoriated Hollywood Film Awards, awards-season players are happy to play along and buy tables at the NBR award ceremony to reap the PR benefits.