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What the National Board of Review and Gotham Awards Really Mean

From Ethan Hawke to "The Favourite," the true prize for these winners happens when voters reshuffle the priorities in their screener piles.

“Green Book”

Universal Pictures

The bottom line of every awards race is to get your movie seen. The more people who see it and love it, the more likely you are to notch a nomination or win. The real impact of early awards like the National Board of Review (a New York hodgepodge of educators, film buffs, and critics) and the idiosyncratic Gothams (New York’s streamed version of the Independent Spirit Awards), is to move other awards groups like critics, SAG, and the Academy toward films they might have otherwise overlooked.

For example, most awards watchers have long assumed that Paul Schrader’s well-received “First Reformed” ($3.5 million domestic, A24) would register with year-end groups and move into Oscar contention for a long overdue screenplay nomination — if anyone deserves a career prize, it’s the creator of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” Now “First Reformed” and its extraordinary performance by Ethan Hawke (nominated for “Training Day” and “Boyhood”) move up in the screener piles. It’s not a bad thing for “First Reformed” to be seen by many folks at year’s end. It will be fresh in their minds. And Hawke also gains added cred from his solid directing of “Blaze.”

Elsie Fisher and Bo Burnham'Eighth Grade' film screening, After Party, Los Angeles, USA - 11 Jul 2018

Elsie Fisher and Bo Burnham

Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Similarly, A24 always banked on the indie film community and critics to boost coming-of-age dramedy “Eighth Grade” (Metascore: 87, $13.5 million domestic), and smart-horror hit “Hereditary(Metascore: 87, $44 million domestic) at year’s end. Thus, Gotham winners Bo Burnham (who also won Best Directorial Debut from NBR) and actresses Elsie Fisher and Toni Collette join the conversation for Director, Original Screenplay, and Best Actress, respectively. They may not get there — unless enough SAG and acting branch voters check out those movies. NBR included “Eighth Grade” and “First Reformed” among their Top FIlms. While few people watched Michael Sheen’s impassioned Gotham tribute to Rachel Weisz (who shared the Special Jury Award for Ensemble Performance with her “The Favourite” no-show co-stars Olivia Colman and Emma Stone) or her acceptance speech, that did go viral, giving her some public attention for a superb performance.

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards on Chloe Zhao's "The Rider"

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards on Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider”

“The Rider” marks the first time a movie was nominated for the Independent Spirit Awards one year and won the Gotham Best Feature the next. While the well-reviewed Sony Classics Release ($2.4 million domestic) has pushed accomplished writer-director Chloe Zhao into the arms of Hollywood — she’s set to direct Marvel’s “The Eternals” — it’s a documentary-fiction hybrid with extraordinary performances from non-professional actors that is unlikely to register with Academy voters.

The other thing to remember about these two voting groups is that they are small, don’t overlap with the Guilds or the Academy, and vote early, missing some late-breaking films (this year, “Mary Poppins Returns” made the NBR Top FIlms list, but not “Vice”). While the critics are unlikely to hail NBR Best Feature-winner Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” the true ’60s road movie about jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his driver, bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), is playing like gangbusters with the (mostly white) Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Academy, the Broadcast Film Critics and the Guilds, despite some pushback from the black community, including IndieWire’s Tambay Obenson. 

The question is how sticky the backlash will be. Besides Oscar precedents like “Driving Miss Daisy” or “In the Heat of the Night” (examples of the movies that James Baldwin suggested made white people feel better about themselves), other mainstream fare that compare to “Green Book” are “Seabiscuit” or “The Blind Side.”

The more-mainstream NBR often misses the mark as far as foreshadowing Oscar-winners — past Best Features include Oscar contenders “The Post,” “The Social Network,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Her,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Manchester by the Sea” as well as non-contender “A Most Violent Year.” Sure to factor with awards voters this year are NBR winners Mortensen (“Green Book”), director and star of “A Star Is Born” Bradley Cooper, and his costars Lady Gaga and Sam Elliott, as well as Regina King, the current Supporting Actress frontrunner for Barry Jenkins’ Baldwin adaptation “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster appear in <i>Untitled Debra Granik Project</i> by Debra Granik, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Scott Green. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in “Leave No Trace”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Scott Green

Another movie gaining welcome traction from early awards groups is Debra Granik’s well-reviewed “Leave No Trace” ($6 million domestic, Bleecker Street), whose New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie won Breakthrough Performance from NBR.

Clearly, NBR-winner Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles 2” is a frontrunner for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.

Moving forward in the documentary race are two frontrunners: Gotham audience-winner “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (Focus Features) and NBR-winner “RBG” (CNN/Magnolia), while coming up on the outside is Gotham’s Best Documentary, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” (Cinema Guild). That film did not make the NBR top five documentary list, which included “Crime + Punishment,” “Free Solo,” “Minding the Gap,” “Three Identical Strangers” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” all likely to wind up on the Oscar shortlist of 15 when it is announced on December 17.

And Amazon’s Cannes prize-winner “Cold War” won NBR’s Best Foreign Language Film, which is coming on strong to challenge Netflix’s “Roma,” which landed in the Top 10 and therefore was not considered for foreign film.

The NBR’s separation of Top Films and Top 10 Independent Films keeps vague how it is determined which indie films make it to which list. Inevitably the indie list look like also-rans.

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