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Awards Race Makes First Gear Shift This Week

Christmas lights are up, and awards season is underway. Shopping season for Oscar officially kicked off not long after Black Friday this year when the New York Film Critics Circle voted, followed thereafter by the National Board of Review sending invitations for their annual get-together. This is the week though where speculation gives way to a bit of clarity, and a few wails over what is not making the cut. The Screen Actors Guild announces Wednesday, the Golden Globe nominations are revealed on Thursday, and the Chicago Film Critics Association provide a little garnish on Friday. By the weekend, there will be a clear sense who the locks are and who is in need of some immediate attention.

Off to an early lead is “Boyhood,” which took three awards from New York including Best Picture, Director (Richard Linklater) and Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette). In what many deemed to be a surprising (but welcome) choice from the NBR, J.C. Chandor's “A Most Violent Year” also took three trophies including Best Actor (Oscar Isaac) and early competition for Arquette in the form of recent Oscar favorite, Jessica Chastain. History being what it is, the NBR has not missed on a Best Picture nominee since Philip Kaufmann's “Quills” in 2000, and only two of their choices have failed to be recognized by the Academy since 1988, stats which make “A Most Violent Year” a surprising possibility for a Best Picture nod.

Joining an early bit of domination by “Boyhood” (which also swept Sunday's awards showing by Los Angeles, Boston and the New York Film Critics Online) is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's “Birdman.” The film is garnering attention for its screenplay and both of its supporting performances (by Edward Norton and Emma Stone) but has also put its star Michael Keaton out front in the Best Actor race.

In a rare bit of critical synergy, LA and New York film critics agreed in four categories, pushing a quartet of winners to the forefront of the Oscar race: “Boyhood” for Best Picture, Richard Linklater for Best Director, J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Actor for “Whiplash” and Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” for Best Screenplay. The last time this kind of bi-coastal agreement took place all four winners won Oscars.

Should we crown them already? A week only tells part of the awards season narrative. Remember there are up to ten possible Best Picture nominees and many of them are counting on the Hollywood Foreign Press this Thursday to give them a necessary boost. No less than three of the Weinstein Company's deep batch of Oscar wannabes are likely to find themselves among the Golden Globe Best Picture announcements: “The Imitation Game” on the Drama side and both “Big Eyes” and “St. Vincent” in the Comedy/Musical category which could also possibly be joined by their summer semi-musical, “Begin Again.” Look for Keira Knightley to be a double nominee for the Weinsteins, singing in one and playing the beard to a British genius in the other. “Big Eyes”' Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as well as “St. Vincent”'s Bill Murray will all also be likely nominees. “The Imitation Game” is the studio's frontrunner for Oscar contention this year and it should get a big bump by being one of the most nominated films from the Globes with five or six nods.

Competing against it no doubt should be “Boyhood,” but also three films needing some early attention. “Gone Girl” should be in the running for Dramatic Motion Picture along with Rosamund Pike for Actress, Gillian Flynn's screenplay, its score and maybe David Fincher for Director. Ava DuVernay's “Selma” is potentially gearing up to be “The King's Speech” to Linklater's film playing the role of “The Social Network,” which dominated the critics' awards in 2010 only to fall late in the game. The story behind Martin Luther King's march in Alabama arrives in the wake of the grand jury controversies creating their own protests across this country and to deny its day at the podium could feel like a slight all over again. Where the film may lack in the kind of star power (though David Oyelowo as King should be up for Best Actor) that the HFPA loves to have center stage at their televised party, appearances by producers Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey could be just what they are looking for. The fact that the film is good is not to be overlooked and it would be stunning if it were passed over for Picture when this is the same organization that nominated Emilio Estevez's “Bobby” under the Weinstein banner in 2006.

Will the Globes be looking to make history in the Director category? They have nominated women before with Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion and both Barbra Streisand and Kathryn Bigelow twice. But they’ve never nominated an African-American woman, so DuVernay could make headlines. If she is not overshadowed by the possibility that the Globes double-down on history by nominating Angelina Jolie as well. Like Knightley, Jolie is also a dual-category threat this year, likely to be singled out for Best Actress in “Maleficent” (which is hardly a musical or a comedy) but also perhaps honored for her second directorial effort, “Unbroken.” The WWII drama about Olympic medalist (and POW) Louis Zamperini bypassed the festival circuit and only recently was unleashed to critics. Being snubbed at the Globes would be a major blow to its Oscar chances (even if it could just as easily be picked back up by the Broadcast Film Critics Association next week.) Then again a Pitt vs. Jolie battle for Best Picture will get the HFPA plenty of headlines.

The Globes Dramatic category will likely read “Boyhood,” “Gone Girl,” “The Imitation Game,” “Selma” and “Unbroken” (with a potential sixth slot for “The Theory of Everything” or an already falling behind “Foxcatcher.”) If the Comedy category is already stocked with “Birdman” (likely to equal or surpass “The Imitation Game” with the most nominations), “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Big Eyes” and “St. Vincent,” then “Begin Again” is likely to fall to the Musical that Disney is not even advertising as a Musical. Because of the category's lyrical subsection, Rob Marshall's “Into the Woods” should be a no-brainer for a voting body that nominated “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Mamma Mia” and the Cher/Christina Aguilera debacle, “Burlesque.” “Into the Woods” is already drawing attention for Meryl Streep's supporting turn as the fairy tale Witch but may also find its leads (James Corden and Emily Blunt) benefiting from the category split. That will get “Into the Woods” (like “Unbroken”) some necessary publicity weeks before their Christmas Day openings.

Even with ten nominees among their lead acting categories, the Golden Globes have not always listed the eventual Oscar contenders in their entirety. Certain to be doubled up between SAG and HFPA this week are Michael Keaton (“Birdman”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”), Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”), Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”), Reese Witherspoon (“Wild”) and Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”). If you had to choose two more, David Oyelowo (“Selma”) and Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”) seem like the next best bets. Thereafter is where it turns into a guessing game.

The Globes could again nominate Oscar Isaac (as they did for last year's “Inside Llewyn Davis”) for “A Most Violent Year” and SAG could go with Timothy Spall  for “Mr. Turner.” Either group ignoring Steve Carell for his dramatic turn as eccentric billionaire John DuPont in “Foxcatcher” will raise eyebrows since he was once considered an early frontrunner. Will either put Shailene Woodley (“The Fault in Our Stars”) or Hilary Swank (“The Homesman”) into the conversation? Should we be surprised if they invite Jennifer Aniston as a sixth nominee for her minimally championed dramatic turn in the as-yet-released “Cake”? Or could it be a battle for which Foreign Film Actress sneaks into the fifth slot? Anne Dorval deserves all the consideration in the world for her role in “Mommy” as a mother trying to keep her mentally unstable son in line, but it is Marion Cotillard in the Dardennes Bros.' “Two Days, One Night” that is dominating at the moment by winning Best Actress in New York and Boston from both their traditional and online critic groups.

The Supporting Actor race may already be a battle between J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”) and closest competitor, Edward Norton (“Birdman”), but both Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher) and Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”) are hoping to be double nominees this week as well. If ever there was an open spot where SAG or HFPA voters could surprise us all it is here. They may go with Oscar favorite Johnny Depp (“Into the Woods”) or Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson in “Selma.” Depending on the Gone Girl love, perhaps Neil Patrick Harris could get support for his creepy turn or maybe, just maybe, this is the year where Andy Serkis can finally get a nomination for his motion-capture work on “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Scarlett Johansson was ignored for her exemplary voiceover performance in Spike Jonze's Oscar-winning “Her” last year and Serkis has been passed over for turns in not just the first “Apes” reboot but also in Peter Jackson's “King Kong” and as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. This would certainly be something to get excited about in what could be a very sterile race quickly, but we all know how squeamish voters can be about change.

Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”) and Emma Stone (“Birdman”) are certain to be up for Supporting Actress from the Globes and SAG with the other slots to be some combination of Jessica Chastain (“A Most Violent Year”), Laura Dern (“Wild”), Keira Knightley (“The Imitation Game”) and Meryl Streep (“Into the Woods”). SAG does like to go off script now and again, so do not be surprised if Carmen Ejogo shows up for playing Coretta Scott King in “Selma” or even Carrie Coon for “Gone Girl” or Suzanne Clément for “Mommy.”

The awards race may be about to settle into a battle between “Boyhood” and “Selma,” but it’s still uncertain enough this week to be exciting. Conversations are starting; conversations about all of the great films, performances and craftsmanship that have made up the cinematic year. Let’s get it started.

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