CATEGORIES Movies, Oscars, Awards
Is 'The Hurt Locker' heading for an upset of Oscar favorites 'Precious' and 'Up in the Air'? The action drama about an Iraq War bomb squad suddenly looks like an awards season front-runner, thanks to votes of confidence from the Boston and Los Angeles film critics groups.

The Boston Society of Film Critics gave the movie an especially strong endorsement in Sunday's announcement of the BSFC's annual film awards, with 'Hurt Locker' taking home five prizes (the most the BSFC has ever given to a single movie), including Best Picture. Is 'The Hurt Locker' heading for an upset of Oscar favorites 'Precious' and 'Up in the Air'? The action drama about an Iraq War bomb squad suddenly looks like an awards season front-runner, thanks to votes of confidence from the Boston and Los Angeles film critics groups.

The Boston Society of Film Critics gave the movie an especially strong endorsement in Sunday's announcement of the BSFC's annual film awards, with 'Hurt Locker' taking home five prizes (the most the BSFC has ever given to a single movie), including Best Picture.

The Boston critics group (of which I am a voting member) prides itself on having some influence over the rest of the year-end awards season prize-giving. The BSFC is one of the first groups each year to announce its citations, and it has successfully anticipated the eventual Academy Award nominees and winners in several categories over the last few years. The group's taste tends to be a little more eclectic than most, with winners often plucked from outside the usual mainstream range of awards favorites. For instance, a few years ago, the BSFC was the first American group to recognize then-unknown Adrien Brody's performance in 'The Pianist,' a role for which he went on to win a Best Actor Oscar.

The Boston voting process, often contentious, involves a complicated system of weighted balloting that often leads to second and third rounds of voting that ultimately produce consensus choices, winners that the whole group can live with even if they're not everybody's favorite. This year, however, there was little dispute. 'Hurt Locker' won its prizes easily on the first or second ballot. Besides Best Picture, it also earned Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow), Best Actor (Jeremy Renner), Best Cinematography (Barry Ackroyd), and Best Editing (Bob Murawski and Chris Innis). Couple these prizes with the ones announced the same day by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (which gave 'Hurt Locker' Best Picture and Best Director) and the American Film Institute (whose annual 10-best list also includes 'Hurt Locker'), and the little-seen military drama suddenly looks like the film to beat. ('Up in the Air' had more buzz as of last week, but it was shut out in Boston and took home only a Best Screenplay prize in L.A.)

On Monday afternoon, the New York Film Critics Circle chimed in with Best Picture and Best Director prizes for 'Hurt Locker' as well.

The other film with the most Oscar buzz right now is 'Precious.' Boston gave the film a Best Supporting Actress prize for Mo'Nique's terrifying performance and honored the cast with a Best Ensemble prize (an award with no Oscar or Golden Globes equivalent), for which 'Precious' tied with 'Star Trek.' (See? Eclectic taste.) And while runners-up don't count in movie awards, 'A Serious Man' did take second place in Boston for Best Picture, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography, and it won for Best Screenplay. So Joel and Ethan Coen's drama may have a strong level of support out there, just below that of the three front-running movies.

Elsewhere, the Boston group favored what look like nationwide consensus choices. Meryl Streep won Best Actress for 'Julie & Julia,' so that race now looks like a two-woman contest between her and 'Precious'' Gabourey Sidibe. 'Inglourious Basterds' villain Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor, a race that's been his to lose since Cannes last May. Pixar's 'Up' cemented its front-runner status with Boston's Best Animated Film prize.

On the other hand, other major awards groups may or may not echo Boston's choices for Best Documentary ('The Cove') and Best Foreign Language Film (France's 'Summer Hours,' a choice seconded by New York.) The BSFC named 'District 9''s Neill Blomkamp the Best New Filmmaker, and it gave its first-ever prize for Best Use of Music in a Film to 'Crazy Heart,' with its score full of original country songs.composed by T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton.

The BSFC has accurately predicted the last three Best Picture Oscar winners. Seven of the group's last 10 Best Director winners earned Oscar nominations, and three went on to win. Its Best Actor winners have been nominated eight times out of the last 12, with six going on to win Academy Awards. Boston has named the eventual Best Actress winner in four of the last five contests. Boston called the last two Supporting Actor Oscar winners (Heath Ledger and Javier Bardem) and the last Supporting Actress winner (Penélope Cruz). All of the Boston screenplay winners over the past 12 years have been nominated for Oscars, and three of the last five have won.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association announces the Golden Globe nominees on Tue., Dec. 15, and more regional critics groups will announce their winners in the days and weeks to come. No doubt Oscar voters will be paying attention before they mail in their own nomination ballots by the Jan. 23 deadline.