They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

The Start of Round Two

By J. Don Birnam

November 26, 2014

Uh oh. That looks like Pacific Heights level crazy Keaton.

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Who will win the New York Film Critics Circle Awards? What movie will nab the top prize from the National Board of Review? The toe-wetting of the film festivals is over, the rank speculation backed by absolutely no data will finally be put behind us, and the endless parade of no-go contenders will soon turn into a Merry-Go-Round of the same 10 or so names. Finally, we enter Round Two of this year’s Oscar race when the New York Film Critics Circle awards its top prizes on December 1st and the National Board of Review follows the next day. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association will also speak soon, on December 7th.

Critics’ awards are not exact Oscar prognosticators. Rarely do they all agree on the same movie. Once they did (The Social Network), but the industry went elsewhere. Lately, the critics have been all over the place. What seems clear, however, is that each group cares deeply about how their choices are perceived. They care that their choices are relevant to the broader conversation. Again, as much as people mock or criticize the Academy Awards, they all look to them and even attempt to influence them. Indeed, a win from one of these three groups has and can revive a film’s fledging chances at a Best Picture nomination.

Before trying to predict what these predictors will do, let’s recap the Best Picture race we have so far. It turns out that despite the lack of a frontrunner, we have a pattern that is not very different from past years.

On the one hand we have the group of quirky, smart movies. Most are not emotionally satisfying or easy, but instead present intellectual or emotional challenges. This year, Birdman, Gone Girl, Foxcatcher, and A Most Violent Year arguably make up this list. These movies are this year’s Tree of Life, this year’s Zero Dark Thirty, or The Social Network, or Moneyball, and even Her. The pattern says: these will not win.


Next you have the ambitious blockbusters: Unbroken and Interstellar. Both are lukewarmly received. Still, they are arguably this year’s Gravity or Avatar. I don’t mean necessarily quality-wise, but it does seem like the Academy has reserved a slot for these big budget blockbuster movies since the expansion to more than five nominees a few years back. I would be surprised if at least one of them didn’t get in, but past pattern says that they will not win (at least not the science fiction movie).

Then you have the very small, independent movies. Think Whiplash, Inherent Vice, or The Grand Budapest Hotel. These are this year’s Winter’s Bone, An Education, A Simple Man, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Few will see these movies, but again it seems as if a slot or two has been reserved for these types of movies since the expansion.

Finally you have the feel-good, pretending to be important movies. The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game pack a one-two punch of fluff mixed with emotion combined with good acting and overall technical, while telling admittedly important stories. Argo. The King’s Speech. Starting to get my drift? If these patterns hold, the Best Picture Oscar winner is likely between those two.

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