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It Begins: The Oscar Race (Finally) Heats Up

Is Her really a contender? Is 12 Years a Slave in trouble? Answers to this and more in the wake of the first batch of critics' awards.

And we’re off! In 17 different directions at once! Welcome to the fun part of awards season: two weeks during which a different set of prizes or nominations will be announced nearly every day and when momentum shifts and lurches like a manic toddler on a Froot Loops bender. (I wish I could say that’s the last simile involving destructive infantile behavior that will be deployed in the race to the Oscars, but the campaign is just getting its boots on.) In the last three days, we’ve gotten winner lists from the Gotham Awards (the East Coast equivalent of the Indie Spirits, in which tiny juries of cool people hand out prizes to whatever fits that year’s ever-shifting definition of an indie), the New York Film Critics Circle (which has been giving out prizes since 1935 and remains the most prestigious of the more than two dozen critics’ groups that now do the same), and the National Board of Review.1

And the Best Picture winners are: Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, which took the Gotham; David O. Russell’s American Hustle, awarded Best Film, Screenplay, and Supporting Actress by the New York Film Critics; and Spike Jonze’s Her, which won the NBR’s awards for Best Film and Best Director.

Aside from the fact that this must be the only time in history when these three prizes have been awarded to three different movies that haven’t even opened yet,2 the above list is most notable for the film that isn’t on it: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, the movie that we were all instructed back in September was such a preemptive favorite for the Best Picture Oscar that all other movies ought to grab their gear and leave the field quietly, writing a polite note of apology for not being as good as 12 Years a Slave as they departed. So, two questions: Is 12 Years in trouble? And are we in the middle of a backlash?

First answer: No, 12 Years is in no trouble at all. At this moment, I would still call it the favorite for Best Picture and Best Director — but in a real race rather than one that was prematurely canceled in early autumn. Among the New York critics, who did give Steve McQueen Best Director, it placed an extremely close second for Best Film and was also the runner-up for Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender), and Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o). The film also made the NBR and Time magazine’s top 10 lists, and its Gotham shutout (where Ejiofor lost Best Actor to Dallas Buyers Club‘s Matthew McConaughey and Nyong’o lost Best Breakthrough Actor to Fruitvale Station‘s Michael B. Jordan) doesn’t mean a thing. There is a large faction of voters and a not-inconsiderable group of critics that have issues with 12 Years a Slave, but the only backlash right now is against the idea that anybody gets to call the race over in September, not against the film itself. (If the movie somehow loses Best Picture, look for “It’s too good to win the Oscar!” to replace “The Oscar race is over!” as the new awards-blogger meme at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival.)

12 Years will pick up its share of critics’ prizes — perhaps even starting as soon as this Sunday, when the Los Angeles Film Critics Association votes — but for now, this is a field with a lot of possibilities. Let’s stipulate from the start that none of the awards that were given this week “means” anything regarding the outcome of the Oscars. They are not “precursors” (a word I’d like to see banished from discussions) and their value is idiosyncratic rather than predictive. No movie can be considered to be on an Oscar track because it won something this week, or labeled as “in trouble” because it didn’t, although for some movies, “in trouble” might come as soon as next week, after the SAG and Golden Globe nominations are announced. But for now, you can use this week’s prizes to divide the field into three categories:

1. Movies That Needed Help and Got It

All three of this week’s Best Picture winners have gained a not-inconsiderable something-or-other by being able to boast a win at the top of their ads on opening day. It’s been clear since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May that Inside Llewyn Davis was going to be a critical favorite; now it gets to coast into its limited opening on Friday with a couple of prizes to boast about (it also took Best Cinematography from New York and Best Original Screenplay from the NBR). All of this helps put a little fuel into a Best Picture campaign, although the prize the film’s team would dearly love to grab along the way is a Best Actor win somewhere for the magnetic and understated Oscar Isaac, whom distributor CBS Films is trying to nudge into a very crowded race that already includes seven or eight legitimate contenders.

Likewise, the two welcome wins for Her — which count as a big surprise even given the NBR’s propensity for surprises — may encourage the film’s distributor, Warner Bros., to put even more muscle (and money) into a campaign during the next month, when every day counts. I suspect that Jonze’s film will find considerable support among younger/newer Academy members (and there are many), not to mention younger critics, but that’s a tough, nontraditional campaign to try to run, especially with a writer-director and star who don’t exactly turn cartwheels at the prospect of being asked to work the handshaking circuit. An early Best Picture win like this one helps to put some gas in the tank. And the victory for American Hustle, squeaker though it may have been, puts it nicely ahead of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street for bragging rights in what feels like a head-to-head contest to determine which is the Yuletide season’s most amped-up cocaine-money-and-douchey-white-guys awards movie.

Also getting a boost this week: Fruitvale Station, which took Best First Film from New York, Breakthrough Director and Breakthrough Actor (for Jordan) from both the Gothams and the NBR, and Supporting Actress (for Octavia Spencer) from the NBR, which gave it more awards than any other movie. It’s a nice helping hand for a deserving film whose early release date and modest scale placed it in danger of being swept aside. And it gives the Weinstein Company an impetus to throw its weight behind the movie as one of its higher-profile contenders threatens to buckle (see item no. 3, below).

2. Movies That Didn’t Get Much Help and Didn’t Need It

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity didn’t pick up anything this week other than a consolation prize for “creative innovation in filmmaking” from the NBR, an award that doesn’t say much more than “Please show up at our dinner.” But Cuarón was said to be in the Best Director voting mix among the New York critics, and I expect he’ll pick up a prize or two in the next month. If not, it won’t much matter — the real strength of this movie’s awards appeal lies not with critics’ groups but with the Academy itself; my sense is that the picture, Cuarón, and Sandra Bullock can coast to Oscar nominations without a single critics’ group win along the way. (I wouldn’t count on the screenplay getting in, but that’s another story.) Likewise, Captain Phillips wasn’t any kind of factor this week, but Sony will wait to see what SAG, the Hollywood foreign press, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association do before the studio starts to sweat.

3. Movies That Didn’t Get Much Help and Could Probably Use Some

The Weinstein Company can’t be happy that, after a wobbly initial reception at Toronto and a public semi-spat over what its final scene should be, John Wells’s August: Osage County wasn’t able to turn things around this week. The New York critics were never going to give it anything, but it’s exactly the kind of movie — Meryl! Julia! Harvey! — that the NBR almost always finds a way to reward with some kind of Special Ensemble Adaptation Crystal Lucite Hoo-ha Prize. No sale; the film didn’t even make the group’s top 10 list. Next week’s prizes and nomination announcements, which are all about actors, will determine if the movie is going to have any kind of awards traction at all with the AMPAS acting branch, which is its best remaining hope.

And it hasn’t been a great week for Paramount. It’s already clear that Jason Reitman’s earnest Nicholas Sparks–meets–The Desperate Hours change of pace Labor Day (opening just under the wire in L.A. on December 27 in what feels like a courtesy qualification release) is going to spend the season as a spectator — even Kate Winslet can’t get nominated every time. But the studio still has high hopes for The Wolf of Wall Street and Nebraska, and although both films got some good news this week, they wanted more.

Regarding Wolf: When you open a foul-mouthed, R-rated, two-hour-and-59-minute movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an unlikable protagonist on Christmas Day, it really helps to be able to use the words “Best Picture” or “Best Actor” somewhere in your promotional materials. That hasn’t happened yet (although the NBR did award Terence Winter Best Adapted Screenplay). And I doubt it was much consolation that an organization called the “International Press Academy” (to use the terms “press” and “academy” very loosely) granted five of its eagerly-sought-by-nobody-on-earth Satellite Awards nominations to Scorsese’s film, since a little digging by In Contention‘s Kris Tapley made it clear, despite unconvincingly indignant denials from the group’s head, that its voting members had not actually seen the movie. Nice going, IPA! You have performed a valuable — and, I would have thought, impossible — service by making absolutely everyone else involved in the movie awards process look good by comparison. Thank you, and please go away forever.

The NBR did give Nebraska both Best Actor (for Bruce Dern, a small surprise) and Best Supporting Actor (for Will Forte, a big surprise and an indication that they actually liked it). But the fact that it won nothing from New York is a potential trouble spot. Historically, Alexander Payne’s movies have always had to over-perform with critics’ groups to even get close to the Oscar race: He’s won two screenwriting awards and a Best Picture prize from New York, but his real strength is with the Los Angeles critics — over the years, they’ve given Best Picture to About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants, and given Payne four awards for writing and directing. If Nebraska, which is a tough sell at the box office, is going to make a mark on the awards circuit as a potential contender outside the acting categories, it will probably have to start on Sunday, when L.A. votes. If it doesn’t, the movie could find itself crowded out of a race that suddenly looks a lot more open and interesting than it did three months (or was it 12 years?) ago.