Darkest Hour stands apart from more routine historical dramas.
When the New York Film Critics Circle finally announced that David O. Russell's "American Hustle" topped their annual Best Picture debate, the response at Sony may have started with a deafening "YAY!" but turned to a more bitten-lip "Hmmm, what now?" While NYFCC has insisted in recent years that they have become the first major shot heard round the awards circle during this season, any handicapper looking at the numbers know that a shout-out from the East Coast is more of a curse than a blessing. This is meant in no way to diminish Russell's film, which is one of the very best in 2013's final quarter. Remember that this is the Oscar race we are talking about.
In the last 25 years, the NYFCC have only matched with Oscar's Best Picture just six times. If Russell and Co. would like the half-full approach to this announcement, four of those six times have occurred within the past decade. Enthusiasts of the SAT could also consider this good news since New York is currently on a win-one/lose-one streak since the 2007 season. That year they chose "No Country for Old Men." In 2009 they selected "The Hurt Locker." In 2011, they went with "The Artist." In-between they awarded "Milk," "The Social Network" and "Zero Dark Thirty." All Best Picture nominees to be sure, and a nomination for "American Hustle" seems very likely to give them a seven-year winning streak in that regard. Calling it the front-runner is premature at best and absurdly short-sighted at worst.
Skimming further down their list of winners shows Steve McQueen taking Best Director for his work on "12 Years a Slave"; the first black director chosen in their 79-year history. This is the first time since 2008 that their top film did not match their top director. Kathryn Bigelow, Michel Hazanavicius and the Coen Bros. all won in the Big Apple the same year as their films took Best Picture from NYFCC critics and eventually the Oscars. If "American Hustle" were to buck the odds of the past 25 years, it would join both "Schindler's List" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"; Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were passed over in favor of Jane Campion ("The Piano") and Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation").
Over in the acting categories, the odds are a bit more in favor of the leads than their supporters. Five of their last seven choices for Best Actor have gone on to win; helping to fuel speculation that Robert Redford ("All Is Lost") could be in line for his first acting Oscar. Hold that thought until Matthew McConaughey begins sweeping up awards for "Dallas Buyers Club." Still, 18 of their last 19 winners have been nominated (Paul Giamatti for "Sideways" being the lone exception) and that's the first obstacle to truly overcome this season. In comparison, only three of NY's last seven choices for Best Actress have gone on to Oscar glory (and 7 of their last 25). Where the men have seen a 90% Oscar nomination rate off a New York win since 1993, their leading ladies only have a 70% chance. Cate Blanchett ("Blue Jasmine") should not worry about that percentage.
Jared Leto ("Dallas Buyers Club") hopes to break the two-year losing streak New York has had with their Supporting Actors. Albert Brooks and Leto's Dallas co-star, Matthew McConaughey were both passed over in 2011 & 2012. Before then though there was a seven-year match with two (Javier Bardem and Christoph Waltz for "Inglourious Basterds") even winning gold. Leto's winning percentage is just 30% given the referenced timeframe here, but it is still 30% higher than anyone else at the moment. The NYFCC chose Rachel Weisz ("The Deep Blue Sea") over eventual winner Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook") in 2012. This year, they make up for it by awarding Lawrence Best Supporting Actress for "American Hustle" (which also won Best Screenplay, original or adapted.) Supporting Actress is on a seven-year streak with getting nominated, and that includes a 4-of-5 streak from 2006-10 when New York's choice was not only nominated but victorious at the big show.
The cry of the thunder being stolen you hear is from the National Board of Review, the anonymous "select group of film enthusiasts, filmmakers, professionals, academics and students" who host a big celebrity awards party each year. (Think the Golden Globes without the television show.) While normally being the kickoff to awards season, they have now fallen behind New York on the calendar and lost even more of their relevance. But an award is an award and this season is nothing if not making sure certain films and performances are kept in the conversation.
Therefore, a big shout out goes to their choice of Spike Jonze's "Her" (for Picture and Director). They have not had an Oscar match since 2008's "Slumdog Millionaire" but they also have not seen their Best Film miss out on a nomination since they chose "Quills" in 2000. Perhaps inspired to not double-dip on New York's big winner, "American Hustle" was not mentioned in a single category. Not even their top ten list which included late-year players "Lone Survivor" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Their last three Best Directors (and 6 of the last 10) received an Oscar nomination.
Also getting a nice boost was Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," which gave Bruce Dern (Actor) and Will Forte (Supporting Actor) their first entry into the race. Ten of the NB's last 11 selections for Best Actor have been nominated (and that includes a George Clooney/Morgan Freeman tie in 2009.) Up until last year when Leonardo DiCaprio was snubbed for "Django Unchained," the NBR's last 12 choices for Supporting Actor were all nominated (with four winning.) Those are all very nice odds for Dern and Forte. Even better odds for Emma Thompson and her Best Actress win for "Saving Mr. Banks." Twenty-one of NBR's last 23 choices (including a tie for both Thelma AND Louise in 1991) have been nominated. The bad news is those two years were as recent as 2010 and 2011.
Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" walked away with the most NBR mentions; three for Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Breakthrough Performance (Michael B. Jordan alongside "Blue is the Warmest Color"'s Adele Exarchopoulos) and Directorial Debut for Coogler (an award he also won from New York.) The past eight years have been a 50/50 proposition for their Best Supporting Actress. Both Ann Dowd ("Compliance") and Shailene Woodley ("The Descendants") were left off the final ballot at the Oscars. More potential players include the Coen Bros.' "Inside Llewyn Davis" (which won Original Screenplay from NBR and Cinematography from NY), Foreign film winners "Blue is the Warmest Color" (NY) and "The Past" (NBR), Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" (NBR's Adapted Screenplay) and "Prisoners" (Best Ensemble from NBR.) Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell" and Hayao Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises" won Best Documentary and Best Animated Feature from both groups.
Remember, this is only the beginning. One or two wins only starts the conversation rather than locking anything in. Next week alone we will see announcements from Los Angeles, Chicago, the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes. Plenty of major markets and smaller ones to add to the discussion and play with the odds until the final nominations are set in stone on January 16.
Stop watching movies made by assholes. It'll be OK.
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