I'm talking about the period between the end of November and the announcement of the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations a couple weeks later, when the race is still wide open and consensus has yet to calcify. Then the critics' groups start to weigh in, a new one almost every day, and a picture of the race comes into sharp focus.
It's worth noting that no single critics group -- and this includes the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, whose handful of members vote for the Golden Globes -- is an especially accurate predictor of the Oscars all by itself. It's the consensus among all these groups that begins to suggest the actual Oscar nominating slate. That's why the first couple weeks of December were so exciting. With the strictly indie Gotham awards giving best picture to "Inside Llewyn Davis," the New York Film Critics Circle honoring "American Hustle," the National Board of Review going for "Her," and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association giving the top prize to tying winners "Her" and "Gravity" -- and with no one (yet) going for putative front-runner "12 Years a Slave" -- for a moment there, we truly had a competitive, unpredictable race.
Then came the wave of local critics' groups. The Boston Society of Film Critics (of which I am a member) gave Best Picture, Director, and Actor to "12 Years a Slave" but bucked trends a little by giving Best Supporting Actor to the late James Gandolfini ("Enough Said") and Best Supporting Actress to "Nebraska" salty senior June Squibb. The Houston Film Critics Society gave most of its honors to "12 Years" and "Gravity." The Chicago Film Critics Association gave "12 Years" five prizes, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Supporting Actress. The Southeastern Film Critics gave top honors to "12 Years" and "Gravity" and offered a now-familiar acting-prize line up of Chiwetel Ejiofor (Best Actor for "12 Years"), Cate Blanchett (Best Actress for "Blue Jasmine"), Jared Leto (Best Supporting Actor for "Dallas Buyers Club") and Lupita Nyong'o (Best Supporting Actress for "12 Years"). The St. Louis Film Critics offered a nearly identical list.
The Golden Globes offered a familiar list as well. "12 Years" dominated, though "American Hustle" tied it with seven nominations. Given that Globe voters often seem to choose with an eye toward creating the most glittering guest list for their awards show, it's almost a surprise that they went for critical consensus choices instead of big boldface names. Critics love Oscar Isaac in "Llewyn Davis," rookie Barkhad Abdi as the chief pirate in "Captain Phillips," racer Daniel Bruhl in the should-have-been-a-bigger-hit "Rush," heart-rending newcomer Nyong'o in "12 Years a Slave," octogenarian character actress Squibb in "Nebraska," and indie queen Greta Gerwig in the much more obscure "Frances Ha," and while they're not the kind of names that will make viewers tune in to the Globes show, they're up for prizes anyway. At least no one can accuse the HFPA this year of poor taste.
The Broadcast Film Critics Association, which hands out the Critics Choice awards, is made up of actual reviewers, and while its choices have no more prestige or predictive value than anyone else's, it does manage to get celebs to show up at its Los Angeles-based, televised awards show in January. There's no need to take its selections seriously -- its inclusion of Scarlett Johansson ("Her") and Oprah Winfrey ("Lee Daniels' The Butler") among Supporting Actress nominees is unlikely to find many emulators among other awards groups -- but it's nice to see the likes of Brie Larson recognized for under-seen indie "Short Term 12."
The one early awards-nominating group that really does have some predictive value on its own is the Screen Actors Guild, since there's some overlap between members of SAG and the Academy, whose largest branch belongs to the actors. Or at least that was true until two years ago, when SAG merged with fellow union AFTRA, so now the SAG awards voters are only 60 percent actors. That's diluted the group's crystal-ball power somewhat. Last year, for instance, they picked only 14 of the eventual nominees, down from 18 or 19 at their peak. They gave Best Supporting Actor to "Lincoln" co-star Tommy Lee Jones but ignored eventual Oscar winner Christoph Waltz ("Django Unchained") completely. So the fact that, this year, they snubbed such buzzed-about Best Actor Oscar contenders as Robert Redford ("All Is Lost") and Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Wolf of Wall Street") doesn't necessarily spell doom for these actors. And while "Dallas Buyers Club" and "August: Osage County" got more SAG nominations than expected (and at the expense of "Wolf" and "Llewyn Davis"), that doesn't mean "Dallas" and "August" are sure things, though they may get more consideration now from Oscar voters than they might have otherwise.
One reason "Wolf of Wall Street" hasn't done better may be an error in tactics. That is, Paramount didn't screen it soon enough or send out DVDs. It screened for Boston Critics only a couple days in advance of the Dec. 8 awards vote, and while it was a runner-up in many categories, it didn't score as high as it might have had it been given more time to make an impact. Among other critics groups, large numbers of voters may never have seen it at all.
The chorus of new announcements from critics' groups will continue for the rest of the year, but the time for major upsets, for new players to take the field, is over. Next month, there'll be a rerun of this month's action, on a larger scale, complete with red carpets and gowns and actual prizes being handed out on TV (or in New York banquet halls), but as with this month's flurry of activity, none of it will mean much. Just remember the one January date that really matters: the 16th, when the actual Academy Award nominations are announced.