Sure, there were those Independent Spirit Award nominations a little while back that I forgot to tell you about. But in a year where the expected big-ticket studio contenders are actually delivering for once (see: “Argo,” “Lincoln,” “Les Mis,” “Life of Pi”), the Indie Spirits are less a portent of Oscar buzz and more a nifty conversation piece (which is as it should be, really). They gave a nice boost of attention to “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” two mid-year contenders that definitely needed to be refreshed in people’s memories, but since the big productions weren’t involved, they didn’t clear up the wonderfully muddled Best Picture hunt a lick.
Which is not to say that yesterday’s New York Film Critics’ Circle announcement did that either. The NYFCC had the chance to solidify certain predictions and go for a combination prestige-critical success like “Lincoln” or “Life of Pi,” but instead they decided to shake things up and cast their support behind Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film that barely snuck in under the group’s deadline.
Bigelow’s Bin Laden thriller has obviously been on the radar for a while now, but even as recently as a couple of weeks ago it was difficult to say whether it would make any kind of awards play. Then out of nowhere the buzz for Jessica Chastain’s lead performance hit a fever pitch, threatening to eclipse the year’s “it” girl Jennifer Lawrence. And now NYFCC wins for Picture, Director and Cinematography make it clear that “Zero Dark Thirty” is going to be a major player. And unlike three years ago with “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t have to play the little-engine-that-could card – Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal are now Oscar winners, anointed members of the club that Academy voters can vote for without hesitation. Plus Sony Pictures has pushed the film with a solid marketing campaign – it still might be a tough box office sell, but picking up the label of critical darling and likely Best Picture nominee certainly doesn’t hurt.
Meanwhile, the NYFCC made it pretty clear that their runner-up was “Lincoln,” anyway: wins for Daniel Day-Lewis, Tony Kushner and a somewhat surprising Supporting Actress nod for Sally Field gave Spielberg’s film a tidy haul. I say “somewhat surprising” there because most people were predicting the theater-friendly crowd in NY would go for Anne Hathaway’s reportedly striking turn in “Les Mis,” but seriously – a) it’s Sally Field, b) it’s a very good performance by Sally Field, and c) did I mention it’s Sally Field? Hathaway was never going to run the table, so this is barely a blip on her campaign.
More genuinely surprising, in a very welcome way, was the group’s pick for Best Actress: eschewing the expected Lawrence-Chastain battle altogether, the NYFCC reached waaaaay back all the way back to March and reminded everyone about Rachel Weisz’s exceptional performance in Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea.” As a big fan of the film and Weisz’s leading turn, I love this choice. It does the critic’s duty of singling out an under-appreciated bit of filmmaking, while mixing up the Best Actress race a bit as well. It’s dangerous to get carried away based on one group of critics, but Weisz is a former Oscar winner herself and a major Hollywood name. She’ll need some more critic’s notices and maybe a SAG nod, but beyond Lawrence/Chastain that category is wide open.
The big loser of the day was “The Master.” If P.T. Anderson’s difficult, queasy film can’t even get traction from the critics, its Oscar campaign is dead in the water. The LAFCA will have to go for it in a big way on Sunday (and it’s got “Argo” to contend with there, which surely played like gangbusters to the LA crowd). “Beasts of the Southern Wild” also could’ve used some notice here, but Best First Feature went to David France’s acclaimed documentary about the AIDS epidemic, “How to Survive a Plague.” That’s a nice nod for France’s film, especially coupled with the news that it made the Academy’s ever-eccentric Documentary Feature shortlist as well.
The upshot of all this is that we still don’t really know anything. The National Board of Review will announce their Top 10 on Wednesday, a list that has lined up fairly well with Oscar the past couple of years. Then the LA critics on Sunday, with SAG and Golden Globe nominations following that. ‘Tis the season. Is this the start of another impressive run for Kathryn Bigelow, or just a sign of the madness to come? I’m betting on the latter.
UPDATE: If you want a breakdown of how every vote went down, this blog post by J. Hoberman is pretty fascinating. It turns out “Lincoln” was not, in fact, the next in line for Best Picture – that went to “Argo,” with “The Master” running third – and that Spielberg didn’t get a single vote on the first ballot for Best Director. In other words, this entire race is still wide open.
Best Picture: “Zero Dark Thirty”
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty”
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln”
Best Actress: Rachel Weisz, “The Deep Blue Sea”
Best Supporting Actor: Matthew McConaughey, “Magic Mike,” “Bernie”
Best Supporting Actress: Sally Field, “Lincoln”
Best Screenplay: Tony Kushner, “Lincoln”
Best Foreign Language Film: “Amour”
Best Animated Feature: “Frankenweenie”
Best Documentary: “The Central Park Five”
Best Cinematography: Greig Fraser, “Zero Dark Thirty”
Best First Feature: “How to Survive a Plague”