There is a chicken/egg factor when we look upon the awards that preface each year's Oscar nominations. A month's worth of critic organizations and specialty guilds will have announced their nominations and/or winners while the lot of us speculate what is foreshadowing and what is merely prediction. On Thursday, Dec. 2 the National Board of Review will officially kick off awards season with their top ten and winner's list that has no time to wait for some of the year's late unscreened releases.
From there we will await word from the big cities -- L.A., N.Y. and Chicago -- with legitimate opinions. And then more party throwers from the Golden Globes to the Broadcast Film Critics Association; the latter always hoping to up their guesstimate percentages on the Oscar game. Each group eventually folds into part of a greater collective, though, and no matter if their choices match up to Academy voter tastes or are just playing a game to boost their rep, somebody might just be listening. And it could be the difference between a nomination and a snub.
You can look back over several years to find the same sort of patterns in the voting numbers, but 2009 helps frame the narrative. In the top six award categories (Picture, Director and the four acting slots), the top three to get the most mentions (either by winning or getting nominated in some degree) ended up with an Oscar nomination. Best Director and Actress it was the top four. For Best Actor, the top five were George Clooney, Colin Firth, Jeremy Renner, Jeff Bridges and Morgan Freeman. Does that list look familiar? There were 19 films that got singled out for Best Picture amongst all the groups and guilds. Those getting four nominations/wins or more were all in the running for the Oscar. In other words, the top eight. Only 'District 9' and 'The Blind Side' were able to make the final cut and the latter did not even get a single nod for any of the big prizes.
So it remains to be seen which films and performances are going to be the standouts amongst this year's awards. 'Hereafter' is destined to show up on the National Board of Review's list since they love having Mr. Eastwood as their guest. (Both 'Changeling' and 'Gran Torino' made their top ten list in '08.) But it probably won't even make the Top 19 of the precursor season. (Unless they 'Iwo Jima' it by awarding it Best Picture, which is entirely possible.) 'The King's Speech' and 'The Social Network' may be your leaders with 'Inception', 'Toy Story 3' and 'True Grit' filling in your list of five. From there it could be any combination of '127 Hours', 'Another Year', 'Black Swan', 'The Kids Are All Right' and 'Winter's Bone'. And don't forget those 19 films from '09 included films of a comedic variety that factored into their own special categories. Which means you could also see 'Despicable Me', 'Get Low', and 'How To Train Your Dragon' amongst the possibilities.
Of your lead actors and actresses, we will likely see a lot of Colin Firth ('The King's Speech'), James Franco ('127 Hours'), Annette Bening ('The Kids Are All Right') and Lesley Manville ('Another Year'). On the male side there should be a sprinkling for Robert Duvall ('Get Low') and Jeff Bridges ('True Grit'), but the fate for the final slot could come down to how well that Jesse Eisenberg ('The Social Network'), Ryan Gosling ('Blue Valentine') and Javier Bardem ('Biutiful') are represented. Hopefully the critics will remember that Leonardo DiCaprio had two great performances in 2010 and will reward him with some mentions for 'Shutter Island' and/or 'Inception'. Though don't you hate when a group can't make up their mind and just lists every film they were in? Just pick one already. (COUGH: 'Shutter Island')
The ladies' side is going to be more bunched up then usual. Last year it was Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep getting 17 mentions, Gabourey Sidibe getting 11 and then Sandra Bullock and Saoirse Ronan tying with 4. (Helen Mirren eventually got Ronan's nod after only two nominations from SAG and the Globes.) There will probably be no running away with wins or nominations this time around. Will Julianne Moore be competing with Bening for lead or will one of them eventually go supporting (a la Jake Gyllenhaal for 'Brokeback Mountain')?
Natalie Portman will be rewarded for doing her best to anchor 'Black Swan's goofiness. Another 'Shutter Island' rep in Michelle Williams has the benefit of duality with her strong work in 'Blue Valentine'. Nicole Kidman ('Rabbit Hole') and Halle Berry ('Frankie & Alice') promise to have stretch runs with late entries into the race. And do not count out Jennifer Lawrence ('Winter's Bone') who, aside from any indie nominations, is likely to be supported by critics like me who may have been in her camp as far back as the film's Sundance premiere. Anne Hathaway ('Love & Other Drugs') is a toss-up at this point. What may seem like a slam-dunk kind of role - that she is really quite good in - she may end up being supported more by the Golden Globes in the Comedy department (along with Reese Witherspoon 'How Do You Know' and Gwyneth Paltrow "Country Strong') than by critics and their overall response to the film.
Last year only 3 out of 40 nominations of the Top Eight categories were received without benefit of a single mention (either victor or nominee) from any of the critic groups or guilds: Maggie Gyllenhaal (Supporting Actress), 'The Messenger' (Original Screenplay) and 'The Blind Side' (Best Picture). This is the first leg of awards season and the tone will be set with a number of the locks we expect going in. But with momentum sometimes being the difference between a nod and a snub, hopefully the studios have got their screeners in the mail and are courting the critics as we speak. Send 30 Rock's Tracy Jordan to the National Board of Review, Hollywood Foreign Press and Broadcast Film Critics Association. That's all they need to send you an invite to their party.