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Critic Awards Begin to Shape the Oscar Race

In recent years, the second week of December has become the fiercest in helping to define the awards race going forward. After kicking off with a little New York and a little more National Board of Review, last week gave us awards from the critics of Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago plus nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (also known as the Golden Globes.) All of them lay some claim statistically to how things will eventually play out. Yet we are not much closer to establishing any frontrunners, though some likelihoods are beginning to form.

As expected from the beginning, the central battle appears to be amongst Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" and Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity." They lead all films right now in number of mentions between victories and nominations. McQueen's film appears well out in front but that comes with the territory when you have three potential acting nominees against a film with only two characters. A pair of additional films have joined the race as legitimate contenders—at least to be nominated. Spike Jonze's "Her" and David O. Russell's "American Hustle" have received twice as many nominations for Best Picture in this first phase of the awards game than any of the 13 other films to garner a shout-out. In the victory column, "Her" claimed the top prize from Los Angeles but is still a distant second behind "12 Years a Slave." Though McQueen's film has seen two of its victories come from a pair of internet-exclusive film critic societies, six others have come from regional groups including Chicago and Boston.

Around this time it becomes necessary to differentiate between groups that can be major influencers and groups that offer just another award on the pile. Of the big cities in play, New York and Los Angeles tend to get the most press and with good reason. They get films before just about everyone else in the country and are early enough in the proceedings to get the discussion train rolling. There is another reason, though; their winners (they do not release nominations) do tend to get nominated. Using the past decade to break down recent trends, we can see that 54 of Los Angeles' last 71 award winners in the major categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor/Actress, Screenplay) have received an Oscar nomination. That 76% approval rating looks almost paltry compared to New York's track record of 82.8% (58-of-last-70) and even more so next to Chicago's 67-of-77 track record with their winners since 2003 (and one of those misses was Kate Winslet shifting from Supporting Actress to the lead category.)

The three biggest U.S. markets agreed across the board on Best Actress (Cate Blanchett) and Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), but other than that spread their wealth around. Chicago & NY liked Steve McQueen for Best Director while LA went for Alfonso Cuarón. LA agreed with Chicago on Lupita Nyong'o for Supporting Actress where NY chose Jennifer Lawrence. After that it was a free-for-all. Best Screenplay prizes went to "American Hustle" (NY) and "Before Midnight" (LA). Chicago recognizes the difference between Original and Adapted scripts and chose "Her" and "12 Years a Slave," respectively. Your Best Actors were Robert Redford (NY), Bruce Dern (LA) and Chiwetel Elijofor (Chicago) and the three cities delivered four Best Picture contenders in "American Hustle" (NY), "12 Years a Slave" (Chicago) and a tie in Los Angeles between "Gravity" and "Her."

Also announcing last week were the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild and it is here where some of the races can really get rolling. The Globes are not quite the advertised precursor guarantee that it used to be; voting schedules have been moved up and at least a half-dozen other award shows are trying to lay claim to the Oscar precursor title. The SAG awards on the other hand are as close to a lock as you can get in any specific category. Just do not pay much attention to their Ensemble award as a Best Picture predictor. It normally just means the award for the biggest cast, hence nominations for "August: Osage County" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler." In the acting categories though, SAG is a good sign one is headed for an Oscar nod. Each category has an 80-84% success rate, leaving even amateur Oscar pundits to simply guess which one of these five is not like the other.

Strength is in numbers, however; combining the power of receiving both a SAG and a Globe nomination increases an actor's chances ever further. A dual Best Actress nod is 38-of-45 (84%) since 2003. Best Actor is 37-of-42 (88%) and Supporting Actress is 33-of-37 (89.1%). But the crown jewel stat of the week is in the Supporting Actor category. Looking at the same ten-year period where all of the above numbers stem from, those receiving a SAG and a Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor are a perfect 29-for-29. That should come as good news to Jared Leto, Michael Fassbender, Barkhad Abdi and Daniel Brühl.

Another three weeks of critic awards and nominations are on the horizon, keeping most of these films and performances in the conversation until the individual Guilds (i.e. producers, directors, writers) begin releasing their lists in January. Until then many of the same names and titles will continue to pop up again and again. Some fresh ones will sneak in; some deserving and some possibly a reaction to the monotony. The game is just getting started and there will be some fluctuations from week-to-week. This handy guide will update accordingly

BEST PICTURE

LOCKS: "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity"

LOOKING GOOD: "American Hustle," "Her"

IN THE RUNNING: "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Nebraska," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Captain Phillips," "Philomena"

NEEDS SOME HELP: "Dallas Buyers Club," "August: Osage County," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "Before Midnight," "Mud," "Saving Mr. Banks"

UNDERDOGS: "Short Term 12"

BEST DIRECTOR

LOCKS: Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave"), Alfonso Cuarón ("Gravity")

LOOKING GOOD: Spike Jonze ("Her"), David O. Russell ("American Hustle")

IN THE RUNNING: Alexander Payne ("Nebraska"), Paul Greengrass ("Captain Phillips")

NEEDS SOME HELP: Martin Scorsese ("The Wolf of Wall Street"), Joel & Ethan Coen ("Inside Llewyn Davis")

UNDERDOGS: Jeff Nichols ("Mud"), Destin Cretton ("Short Term 12")

BEST ACTOR

LOCKS: Chiwetel Elijofor ("12 Years a Slave"), Matthew McConaughey ("Dallas Buyers Club")

LOOKING GOOD: Bruce Dern ("Nebraska"), Robert Redford ("All is Lost")

IN THE RUNNING: Christian Bale ("American Hustle")

NEEDS SOME HELP: Tom Hanks ("Captain Phillips"), Joaquin Phoenix ("Her") Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Wolf of Wall Street"), Forest Whitaker ("Lee Daniels' The Butler")

UNDERDOG: Oscar Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis")

BEST ACTRESS

LOCKS: Cate Blanchett ("Blue Jasmine"), Sandra Bullock ("Gravity")

LOOKING GOOD:  Meryl Streep ("August: Osage County"), Emma Thompson ("Saving Mr. Banks")

IN THE RUNNING: Judi Dench ("Philomena")

NEEDS SOME HELP: Amy Adams ("American Hustle"), Adèle Exarchopoulos ("Blue is the Warmest Color"), Julie Delpy ("Before Midnight")

UNDERDOG: Brie Larson ("Short Term 12")

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

LOCKS: Jared Leto ("Dallas Buyers Club"), Michael Fassbender ("12 Years a Slave")

LOOKING GOOD: Barkhad Abdi ("Captain Phillips"), Daniel Brühl ("Rush")

IN THE RUNNING: James Gandolfini ("Enough Said"), James Franco ("Spring Breakers")

NEEDS SOME HELP: Will Forte ("Nebraska"), Matthew McConaughey ("Mud"), Bradley Cooper ("American Hustle")

UNDERDOG: Sam Rockwell ("The Way, Way Back")

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

LOCKS: Lupita Nyong’o ("12 Years a Slave"), Jennifer Lawrence ("American Hustle")

LOOKING GOOD: June Squibb ("Nebraska")

IN THE RUNNING: Scarlett Johansson ("Her"), Julia Roberts ("August: Osage County")

NEEDS SOME HELP: Oprah Winfrey ("Lee Daniels' The Butler"), Sally Hawkins ("Blue Jasmine"), Octavia Spencer ("Fruitvale Station")

UNDERDOG: Lea Seydoux ("Blue is the Warmest Color")

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

LOCKS: "American Hustle," "Her"

LOOKING GOOD: "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Nebraska"

IN THE RUNNING: "Enough Said," "Blue Jasmine"

NEEDS SOME HELP: "Gravity"

UNDERDOGS: "Mud," "Prisoners," "Saving Mr. Banks"

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

LOCKS: "12 Years a Slave," "Before Midnight"

LOOKING GOOD: "Philomena"

IN THE RUNNING: "The Wolf of Wall Street," "August: Osage County"

NEEDS SOME HELP: "Captain Phillips"

UNDERDOGS: "Short Term 12," "The Spectacular Now"

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