Here we sit, still three weeks away from the Oscars, trying to figure out what is left to say. Stories about the Super Bowl get tiring after a few days, let alone the two weeks we have to wait after the conference championships. There are only so many things left to say, especially in a period when most Oscar nameplates have already been engraved. That is why some are left to wallow in smear campaigns and try to drum up drama by saying that The Help is a contender because it won three SAG awards, including one that has lost its match-up with the Best Picture prize as often as it has won it. Instead, we may as well get nostalgic and keep alive the outrage we have for awards season in general. No doubt there would still be arguments over who truly gave the best performance and who got snubbed, but we can just about promise the lists would look a lot more interesting if it was left up to the critics.
First off, we must dismiss the notions set forth by the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Naturally, the bulk of their groups have no right calling themselves critics to begin with, but for years we have been made to believe that they are the true precursors to the build-up of the Academy Awards. Even this writer for years has had to cop to their trends of guesstimating the nominees. During the biggest awards week of the season in December when these two groups' announcements are bookended by more respectable critical thinkers in Los Angeles and Chicago, we are still more than a full month away from Oscar ballots even being due. Things change. Films get hot. Others begin to die off. But that doesn't stop the pair of them from sucking up to studio bribery and trying to get their virtually anonymous membership noticed as a serious player in awards season. So allow us a moment of gloating in how well they matched up with the nominees.
Perhaps we can place the blame on the BFCA for being the only group outside of Houston to name Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as a Best Picture nominee. To their credit, within their annual ten nominees for top prize they did name all nine candidates. Drive was their #10. Last year they got 9-of-10 right and in 2009 they got 8 right. In their usual attempt to cover their bases, though, nominating six in five of the other major categories was hardly impressive. Only 3-of-6 in Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Director, then 4 in Supporting Actress. Between the two screenplay categories, the BFCA only managed to hit 50% as well. Word of advice to Joey Berlin and his board of directors: If you want to really prop yourself up as the Oscar predictor down to the last nominee, stop trying to beat the Golden Globes to the punch and move your awards back. You will have a clearer sense of what is going to be nominated and then you can really brag about it.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Burlesque Association didn't do much better with their Globe nominees. 7 of their 11 Best Picture nominees could not match the BFCA's crystal balls. 4-of-5 in both Supporting Actress and Director but only 3-of-5 in Supporting Actor. It took them all 10 Actress nominations to match the five Oscar picks. But even with ten they couldn't do better than three of the Best Actors. Sure, they went 5-for-5 in screenplay, except they only have one category and it combines Original and Adapted. What do they care though? They probably all got tickets to see Madonna's halftime show at the Super Bowl for giving W.E. two nominations.
Once you get them out of the way, though, and eliminate all the second-stage choices from the guilds you start to get a sense where campaigning gets to payoff and surges make a difference. For example, I think most of us would agree that Viola Davis after her SAG victory now has the inside track to win the Best Actress for The Help. But would it surprise you to learn that if you were to take up the collective victories and nominations by all the critic groups out there, Viola would not even be a nominee? The only award Viola had won prior to SAG was from the BFCA; no doubt staking their claim on predicting her the winner. How else do you explain no other critics' group recognizing her as the year's best? Six other actresses did, including Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but even she would not be an Oscar nominee if the critics had their say. Instead, those two spots would have gone to Tilda Swinton (We Need To Talk About Kevin) and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene). Intrigued? Let's keep going.
According to the critics out there, Albert Brooks (Drive) was the clear choice for Best Supporting Actor, winning 16 awards to Christopher Plummer's 11 for Beginners. Instead of Jonah Hill (Moneyball), who got his biggest exposure from SAG and the Globes, the critics would have settled for John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene). Subsequently, the critics' choice for Best Supporting Actress was Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), who just like Albert Brooks was completely screwed by AMPAS. Who would have been left off their list then? It was close, but shockingly enough it would have been Berenice Bejo (The Artist) just getting edged out by Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) and also Carey Mulligan (Shame), who would have been the sixth choice if critics nominated like the BFCA.
It is not the most exact science in the world. Like every game there are tiebreakers and other factors. A victory from the critics should count more than a nomination or a runner-up prize. Which is why in Adapted Screenplay, Tate Taylor's adaptation of The Help would nudge out John Logan for Hugo based on Phoenix thinking the story of white folk being the catalyst to civil rights change was the best of the year. Oh, Arizona. And instead of George Clooney's The Ides of March getting a token nomination from the Academy, you would have seen Hossein Amini's Drive with six times the support. For originality, critics would not have made nominees of Kristen Wiig nor the only narrative film from Sundance 2011 (Margin Call) to get a nomination. They would have gone with Tom McCarthy's Win Win and Will Reiser's 50/50.
Aside from Martha Marcy May Marlene becoming at least a double nominee in critics' hands, they also would have made Sundance favorite, Take Shelter, a single nominee with Michael Shannon making the top five. Both him and Michael Fassbender (Shame) won more awards than current favorite Jean Dujardin (The Artist), though he certainly racked up the nominations. The two Michaels would have replaced Demian Bichir (A Better Life) and Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) on the final list. 13 directors were in the running by critics this awards season. Another 4 (Tomas Alfredson, George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Stephen Daldry) were cited by either BFCA, the Globes or BAFTA. Again it would have been Nicolas Winding Refn pulling in another nod for Drive. That would have made another three nominations for that film and one less for Midnight In Paris as Woody would just have to settle for his Screenplay nomination.
Best Picture, to no one's surprise, is the biggest disconnect between all the regional critics groups to the Academy and the televised fame-seeking junket crowds. If it was a traditional year with only five nominees, your critic picks for 2011 would have been:
The Tree of Life
Those films had at least five more nominations than the next nomination-worthy film. Sixth on the list would have been Midnight In Paris and then from here it gets interesting. Moneyball, War Horse and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close only had a single Best Picture nomination apiece. The former two stayed in the spotlight with mentions from BFCA, the Globes and the Producers Guild. Is it a coincidence that producer Scott Rudin had both of his films (EL&IC and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) make sudden late surges after being virtually ignored in the early stages by the critics? Hmmm...
Instead critics were more interested in Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, which finished on about par with Midnight In Paris thanks to the National Society of Film Critics naming it the year's best. It was the only film aside from the Top Five to receive such an honor in 2011. And maybe that is how the critics would have played by the Academy's wacky new LeBron James Best Picture rule ("...not 6...not 7...not 8.") Five other films tied for next on the list, including Oscar nominee The Help, which was also supported by the BFCA, PGA, BAFTA and whatever pundits want to make of that SAG ensemble award. The other four were Martha Marcy May Marlene, My Week With Marilyn, Take Shelter and Win Win. Would any of those three rounding out a list of ten have made the Oscar conversation this year more interesting? Possibly, even if The Artist is still going to win it all.