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Oscar watch: The awards season kicks off

An early round of movie prizes offers a glimpse at what’s catching fire and what’s leaving ’em cold

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If the first batch of pre-Academy Award honors is any indication, Oscar may be feeling pretty nostalgic this year. In the space of 72 hours last week, the New York Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review, Gotham Awards, and Independent Spirit Awards all announced their honorees and — despite the fact that none of the four voting bodies has significant overlap with the Oscars — began to shape the awards season. Most notably, the New York critics and National Board of Review gave their respective best-picture prizes to the black-and-white silent film The Artist and Martin Scorsese‘s 3-D ode to film preservation, Hugo — both Thanksgiving-weekend releases that honor cinema’s bygone era. The Artist in particular emerged as an early front-runner by scoring five Spirit nods and landing on the NBR’s top 10 list. Here’s how several other high-profile contenders fared in the Oscar game’s first inning:

George Clooney
After failing to earn a Best Male Lead nomination from the Spirit Awards — a surprising omission considering his starring vehicle, The Descendants, received four major nods including Best Feature — the presumed Oscar front-runner roared back with a Best Actor win from the NBR, his third in five years. As a bonus, his directorial effort, The Ides of March, also found its way onto the group’s top 10.

Brad Pitt
The Moneyball star cemented his status as one of his pal Clooney’s major competitors with a Best Actor victory from the New York critics (who honored Pitt jointly for Moneyball and The Tree of Life). It wasn’t all good news for Pitt, however: Moneyball failed to earn any recognition from the NBR.

Meryl Streep and Tilda Swinton
These past Oscar winners each scored important wins: Streep from the New York critics for her uncanny turn as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady and Swinton from the NBR as the mother of a troubled teen in We Need to Talk About Kevin. In this year’s crowded Best Actress field (which includes The Help‘s Viola Davis, Albert NobbsGlenn Close, and My Week With Marilyn‘s Michelle Williams), such a head start is crucial. But neither woman should pop the champagne just yet — last year’s New York critics winner, The Kids Are All Right‘s Annette Bening, failed to take home the Oscar, while the NBR honoree, Another Year‘s Lesley Manville, wasn’t even nominated.

Midnight in Paris
It wasn’t a great week for Woody Allen‘s hit summer comedy. It earned only two minor nods at the Spirit Awards (Best Supporting Male for Ernest Hemingway portrayer Corey Stoll and Best Cinematography). Then it was completely skunked by both the New York critics and the NBR. The film needs to do well at next week’s Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations to regain its footing.

Drive
Long considered stalled by many prognosticators, the violent Ryan Gosling drama surprised by racking up four Spirit nominations, including Best Feature, Best Male Lead for Gosling, and Best Supporting Male for creepy villain Albert Brooks. Then Brooks was named Best Supporting Actor by the New York critics, and the film was a surprise entry on the NBR top 10. Can it be a viable contender?

Animated Movies
While the NBR gave its Best Animated Feature prize to Johnny Depp‘s Rango, the New York critics refused to bestow that honor on any entry for the first time since instituting the category in 2000. ”What I perceived was a pronounced lack of enthusiasm for any of the animated films this year,” says New York Film Critics Circle chairman John Anderson. The Oscars will have no such luxury: Rules dictate that since more than 16 animated films are eligible, there must be five nominees. Which means voters may find themselves nostalgic for a bygone animation era…of last year.