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Oscars: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Isn’t The Frontrunner Yet & More Observations After The NYFCC & NBR Awards

Oscars: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Isn't The Frontrunner Yet & More Observations After The NYFCC & NBR Awards

Are you a fan of hearing that people have won things? Then you’re in luck, because between now and the end of February, you’ll struggle to go 24 hours without some kind of awards news. After the Gothams and the Independent Spirit nominations last week, the first major salvos of the awards season were fired this week, with the New York Film Critics’ Circle giving out their prizes on Monday, and the National Board of Review awarding theirs yesterday.

Neither are necessarily the most reliable of prognosticators — like all critic’s groups, NYFCC can lean artier or more esoteric than the Academy, while the NBR, like the Golden Globes, are mostly intended to seek attention and to rub shoulders with movie stars. But it does indicate a certain amount about where things are heading at this stage, with Oscar ballots two weeks away from going out, and most of this year’s films out in the marketplace, or close to it. Below are the most crucial things we’ve learned from the awards so far.

1. It’s going to be a broad, diverse field.
It took the NYFCC five hours to get through their voting this year, against three last year, and generally less in prior years. This suggests that the debate was more heated than ever, and backs up something that’s becoming increasingly clear about this field; there’s very little consensus, and a wide range of players in contention. Some have suggested that there could only be six or seven Best Picture nominees, but we feel the exact opposite is true; we’re expecting nine or ten (and to be honest, expect that to be the case in most years, at least until the rules change). And while “Amour” in Foreign Language, Anne Hathaway as Best Supporting Actress, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Best Actor are seemingly frontrunners, a lot of room remains for upsets to that lineup. All of the major films have pros and cons behind them, and this year lacks the kind of popular favorite present in the past two years in “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech.” Expect to be guessing about many of the categories right up until Oscar night.

2. No, “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t a frontrunner just yet.
Learning that Kathryn Bigelow‘s “Zero Dark Thirty” won Director and Feature at the NBR and the NYFCC (picking up Best Actress at the former as well) would make many (including some hasty, shifting-with-the-wind Oscar bloggers) suggest that the Bin Laden movie is now the presumptive frontrunner. We’d disagree. There’s no denying that “Zero Dark Thirty” is in a very strong position; it’s assured of a nomination, and it’ll certainly challenge for Best Picture and many other awards. But neither the NYFCC and the NBR are great precursors for this category; the former matched the Academy four out of the last ten years (“The Artist,” “The Hurt Locker,” “No Country For Old Men,” and “Return of the King“), the NBR only twice (‘No Country’ and “Slumdog Millionaire“). This could, of course, be an outlying year — ‘ZDT’ has as good a chance as anything. But it is a procedural, a film for the brain, not the heart, and it remains to be seen how the audience — both within the Academy and on a broader scale — respond to it. Whereas more naturally crowd-pleasing films, in particular the going-down-like-gangbusters “Les Miserables,” was never going to be something that did well with the NYFCC. “Zero Dark Thirty” has the traction right now; but don’t forget the last film to win both was “The Social Network,” another fearsomely smart, somewhat chilly movie that took home all kinds of guild awards, only to beaten by a Tom Hooper movie…

3. “Life Of Pi”  will be just fine, but maybe start worrying about “The Master.”
Eyebrows were raised by the total absence of Ang Lee‘s “Life Of Pi” from the National Board of Review and the NYFCC. But if we were Lee, we wouldn’t sweat it too much. The box office is middling to date (better abroad than at home), and we’ll concede that it doesn’t quite seem to have set the minds on fire in the way that some thought it might. At this point, it’s looking like a long shot to win Best Picture. But it was never going to be a big deal with the NYFCC, and while missing out on an NBR slot raised an eyebrow, it’s a long, long way from fatal — in 2009 the organization missed five nominees, in 2010, three, and last year, four. If “Life Of Pi” starts missing out at the guilds (which better reflect Academy membership), that’s when 20th Century Fox need to start to worry, but the movie should be on course for some big nominations regardless. In more trouble is “The Master,” which has been floundering for a bit anyway after disappointing at the box office. Ignored entirely by both bodies this week, and too expensive for the Independent Spirit, it seems to be falling between two stools: too difficult for audiences, and too divisive for critics to really get behind in the way they did with “The Tree Of Life” last year. There is passionate support for it out there, just not that much of it, especially with “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Moonrise Kingdom” (both looking increasingly good for a Best Picture nomination) and “Amour” looking like contenders to take the “specialty” Best Picture slot many have reserved for Paul Thomas Anderson‘s film. Whether it can muster up the 5% of votes to get it into Best Picture field remains to be seen.

4. The door might be opening for a few surprise nominees
While the critics groups and precursors aren’t always great indicators of where the Academy are heading, one of the benefits they do have is of kick-starting certain contenders who might have been flagging otherwise. And there’s certainly some actors who got big boosts this week. “The Deep Blue Sea” premiered late last year, and was released in March, so most had discounted the chance of Rachel Weisz making an awards run, but her surprise victory with the NYFCC certainly gives her a pulse again. Their record in the category isn’t 100% — Sally Hawkins and Hope Davis both missed out on an Oscar nod in the last decade after winning with the NYFCC. But they’re better at leading the way than some precursors, and knowing she has the win may be enough to encourage voters to watch the screener of the film over the holidays. Whether they respond to the film — and perhaps more importantly, whether tiny Music Box Films can spend enough to get it out there, remains to be seen. Another outsider — tipped by some savvy pundits for a while — is veteran character actress Ann Dowd, for her role in “Compliance.” With the category among the thinnest in recent memory (even with Anne Hathaway looking good for the win), Dowd is a dark horse for that Melissa Leo/Richard Jenkins type working-actor slot, and the NBR have a reasonable track record of kick starting such campaigns, giving prizes to Amy Ryan for “Gone Baby Gone” and Jacki Weaver for “Animal Kingdom” in the past that helped pave the way to the Oscars. That said, they miss as much as they hit (Catherine O’Hara winning for “For Your Consideration,” anyone?), so Dowd could use some more love in the coming week to make it happen. While we’ve predicted Rian Johnson for a screenplay nod for “Looper” for a while now, the NBR giving him the prize (and a spot in their top ten too) doesn’t necessarily help him; in the last two years, they saw fit to give the prize to “Buried” and “50/50.” So, you know…

5) Matthew McConaughey might be an Oscar nominee. In fact, he might win.
We were starting to get a bit worried about our prediction a while back that Matthew McConaughey was going to get into the Supporting Actor category. The heat around “Magic Mike” had started to wane, and the narrative of his amazing year or two of performances started to flag, particularly with poor reviews for “The Paperboy.” But the last week has seen him come roaring back with two Indie Spirits nominations for his work in two films (“Killer Joe” and “Magic Mike”) and an NYFCC win recognizing his work on “Magic Mike” and “Bernie.” It’s enough of a boost to remind people of his strong work across the last 12 months, and could well end up putting him on a path to a nomination. The category’s crowded — Leonardo DiCaprio (the NBR winner), Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Russell Crowe, Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Albert Brooks, Alan Arkin and more are all in the hunt. The NYFCC don’t always match up (they went with Albert Brooks last year), but eight of the ten winners in the last decade got nominations, and we can certainly see McConaughey breaking into the final five if the love continues, and if voters unite behind the Soderbergh film rather than splitting the tally with “Bernie.” And if he does, he has as good a chance of winning a field that doesn’t yet have a sure thing.

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