In the last 24 hours, the filmmakers behind Boyhood, Birdman and A Most Violent Year have had a lot to celebrate. Boyhood walked away from the New York Film Critics Circle with three top prizes—for film, director Richard Linklater and actress Patricia Arquette. Meanwhile, the Gotham Independent Film Awards crowned Birdman its best feature and Michael Keaton its best actor. (Seriously, how could the Gothams resist awarding film’s first Batman? Keaton went with the joke, quipping, “It’s good to be back home.”) Then there’s A Most Violent Year, which isn’t on most Oscar predictors’ lists—but was named best picture of the year by the National Board of Review anyway.
So, does this mean Boyhood, Birdman, and A Most Violent Year are the frontrunners in the Oscar race? Not exactly.
Very few of the members of these voting bodies actually get a say in the Oscar race. What these awards do get these movies is an important perception bump. The same thing’s true of smaller features like Still Alice (Gotham recognized Julianne Moore for her portrayal as a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s), The Immigrant, and the Dardenne Bros. feature Two Days, One Night. (The latter two star Marion Cotillard; the NYFCC awarded her Best Actress for her work in both.) Birdman and Boyhood also made the NBR’s best films of the year list, a list that omitted Selma and Theory of Everything but did include perceived Oscar dark horses such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and David Ayers’ Fury.
At this point, most Oscar voters are just beginning to check out this year’s contenders; when they take a look at that stack of screeners sitting on their coffee tables, they’re more apt to pick up the above-mentioned movies first. That’s all a good Oscar campaigner can hope for. Whether the voters will actually nominate those movies is another story.
Last year, the NYFCC chose American Hustle as its big winner, while Inside Llewyn Davis was Gotham’s pick. If you remember correctly, American Hustle, with ten Oscar nominations, went home empty-handed on the big night, while Llewyn Davis failed to nab a best picture nomination. As for the NBR, an organization made up of film enthusiasts and academics? Its 2013 pic was Spike Jonze’s Her, an inventive, imaginative film that earned Jonze an Oscar for screenplay.
A more interesting conundrum is what happens to the documentary CitizenFour. The acclaimed film, which has grossed $1.5 million at the box office, had a great showing with two voting bodies Monday—yet got no love from the NBR. The Producers Guild failed to recognize the movie in its list of documentary nominees—bad news for the movie, since this is a group that actually includes members who will be voting for the Oscars. Instead, the guild went with Steve James’ Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, The Green Prince, about a Palestinian who became an Israeli spy, the pundit-for-hire documentary Merchants of Doubt, the science doc Particle Fever, and Netflix’s gorilla doc Virunga. (The NBR also named Life Itself best documentary of the year.)
But it’s the documentary branch of the Academy that picks nominees in this category—and Tuesday morning, it advanced 15 films to the Best Documentary shortlist. Of the five the Producers Guild put forward, only Life Itself and Virunga, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, will advance. And of course, CitizenFour made the cut.
One thing’s for sure: This year’s Oscar season is already a messy one. As these critics’ groups illustrate, no one film is a true frontrunner so far. Things will start clearing up once the various guilds—actors, writers, producers and directors—start making their selections. Stay tuned; we’re just warming up.