"Who the hell is the National Board of Review, anyway?"
You hear that question every year around awards time, maybe more often than you hear it applied to the Hollywood Foreign Press, which gives out the Golden Globes for film and TV. According to the NBR's own web site, the group consists of "a select group of film enthusiasts, filmmakers, professionals, academics
and students" who screen about 250 films each year, "followed by in-depth
discussions with directors, actors, producers, and screenwriters," then vote on awards in December. But ultimately I don't really care to parse the qualifications of the group (as if a group of dedicated enthusiasts could be any less knowledgeable about what makes good cinema than members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?) because what matters is their record of honoring films and film artists. The National Board of Review's record is mostly superb, and consistently a lot more imaginative and provocative than whatever the Oscar folks managed to cough up.
This year's batch of winners is headed by an action film, "Mad Max: Fury Road," the group's choice as Best Picture. A straight-up, faintly disreputable genre film hasn't won Best Picture from the Oscar people since 2003's "Return of the King." I don't expect "Max" to win an Oscar for Best Picture, though the combination of the NBR award and plaudits from critics' groups might make nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress (Charlize Theron) more likely. Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor, meanwhile, went to "The Martian"—director Ridley Scott, Drew Goddard and Matt Damon, respectively—artists who would probably be considered "populist" choices if they snuck into the Oscars, because the film is considered more entertaining than deep (it's being pushed for Best Comedy at the Golden Globes). Jennifer Jason Leigh got Best Supporting Actress for Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight," which should set the stage for Leigh to be honored by other groups (she's been around forever; it could be time for a "thank you for being you" award from the Academy). The rest of the choices aren't terrifically unexpected (Sylvester Stallone as Best Supporting Actor for "Creed," Brie Larson as Best Actress for "Room," and so on) but the other ones feel like agenda-setting, flag-planting picks. "The Martian" may get some nominations come Oscar time, but who out there honestly expects it to win anything, as it did from NBR?
This is a pretty mild set of awards by NBR's standards. Last year, they picked "A Most Violent Year" as Best Picture, plus the film's stars Oscar Isaac (tied with Michael Keaton of "Birdman") Jessica Chastain as Best Actor and Actress. The year before that, they gave Best Picture and Best Director to "Her," Best Actor and Supporting Actor to "Nebraska" castmembers Bruce Dern and Will Forte, Best Supporting Actress to Octavia Spencer for "Fruitvale Station," and Best Animated Film to "The Wind Rises." For comparison, check out the Oscar choices for those same years—and please bear in mind that my point is not that the Oscar winners were comparatively undeserving, though some were, but that the NBR picks were more original, more provocative.
Also important: you can judge the audacity and creative thinking of an awards group not by what it nominates but by what it selects as a winner in each category.
It's one thing to throw a nod to Ridley Scott for "The Martian" because he's been around forever and has been nominated and lost before (his best shot was 2000's "Gladiator," but he lost to Steven Soderbergh for "Traffic"), or to Jennifer Jason Leigh for "The Hateful Eight" because she's been defiantly original for over three decades without ever being nominated for an Oscar (or an NBR award). It is quite another thing to actually vote them in as a winner in a major category.
And this is rarely what happens at the Oscars. You do see some overlap between the NBR awards and the Oscars, of course—the awards in 1980 and 1982, to name but two years, were pretty close to those of the Academy, and the Board gave their award for Best Picture of 1989, the year of "Do the Right Thing," to "Driving Miss Daisy," for crying out loud; like the Oscars, they have a weakness for White Elephant-type biopics and costume dramas—but there are more years when the winners (not the nominees!) diverge strikingly, in ways that make the Board seem wiser about deciding which films and artists were really at the tops of their games during a given year.
Steven Spielberg finally won an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director in 1993, for "Schindler's List," cementing his bid to be regarded as a serious filmmaker (as if "Close Encounters" and "E.T," aren't serious works of popular art; but I digress!). But by that point the Board had already given Spielberg two Best Picture awards, for 1985's "The Color Purple" (the Academy chose "Out of Africa") and 1987's "Empire of the Sun" (the Academy went with "The Last Emperor"), both of which have aged quite well and were not properly appreciated by critics upon first release. In 2006, the Academy chose "The Departed" as Best Picture (a "just give Scorsese a damn award already!" choice, whatever that film's merits or demerits) while the Board went with Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima," one of Eastwood's most unusual labors of love, a WWII film in Japanese with English subtitles. The 2001 Oscars chose "A Beautiful Mind" for Best Picture and Best Director; the Board went with "Moulin Rouge" for Best Picture and Todd Field for "In the Bedroom," which, whatever else one might say against them, are a lot more tonally and stylistically original than Ron Howard's leaden biopic. In 2005, the group gave Best Picture to "Good Night and Good Luck" (a better film than the Academy's choice, "Crash," but what isn't?), but it gave Best Actress to Felicity Huffman for "Transamerica" (the Oscar went to Reese Witherspoon for "Walk the Line") and Best Supporting Actor to Jake Gyllenhaal for "Brokeback Mountain" (the Oscar went to George Clooney for "Syriana").
It's choices like these that make me treasure the Board, no matter what sorts of snarky remarks are made each year about their presumed qualifications or lack thereof. During awards season, the proof is in the winners. Not the nominees—the Oscars throw nominations all the time to films and artists they would never honor in competition—but the winners. That a lot of major Board winners never win anything major again is proof of how against-the-grain their picks can (sometimes) be. As the awards season gets underway and you see one critic's group after another rubber-stamp the same basic set of winners (with only a few notable variations) the Board's sensibility seems increasingly valuable.
In fact I might go back and watch "A Most Violent Year" Again—I was pretty hard on it, but who knows? They might've seen something in it that I didn't. And if so, it would not be the first time.
The National Board of Review's complete list of awards and nominees is here. I encourage you to spelunk. You might come away with some good viewing suggestions, or at least fodder for a few arguments.