Sunday, December 7, 2014

Critical mass: The race is on to crown the year’s best films

Ellar Coltrane stars in the critical smash Boyhood.

If the Gotham Film Independent and Independent Spirit awards are the starting gun for the race to the Oscars, this week is when all the contenders shift into high gear. Within a two-week span, we will have heard announcements from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, groups in Boston and Washington, as well as several online organizations. The Golden Globes, for whatever they are worth, will announce their nominees, and so will the Screen Actors Guild.

Around this time, a consensus forms in the critical community for what will be “the most critically acclaimed film of the year” – a phrase you may recognize from movie posters and DVD boxes. Of course, this is not one organization. There is no hive mind controlling what the mythical “they” will choose. Each group is made up of individual reviewers voting for what they like best. If one film rises to the top, we should consider it more confirmation than conspiracy.

Here is what has won with the announcing groups so far. See if you notice a pattern:

NY Film Critics Circle – Boyhood
LA Film Critics Association – Boyhood
Boston Film Critics – Boyhood
NY Online Film Critics – Boyhood
Boston Online Critics – Snowpiercer
Gotham Awards – Birdman
National Board of Review – A Most Violent Year

Clearly, Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making odyssey Boyhood is picking up the early steam. If we remember back to the film’s July opening and its sterling reviews, this is not particularly surprising. Film review aggregator sites such as Rotten Tomatoes (99 percent fresh) and Metacritic (100/100) would seem to suggest we can expect more of the same as the year wears on. There is nothing wrong with this necessarily, though one wishes more groups would think a little more outside the box as the Boston Online Critics did.

However, this does not mean much when it comes to what will likely win the Academy Award for Best Picture. As with most precursor awards and recognitions, critical acclaim does more to keep a film in the conversation for the Oscars than to propel it toward victory. Linklater, who has earned his share of recognition for writing and directing the film, should probably clear his schedule for the last Sunday in February, but he may not want to write that victory speech just yet. It is a long way from December to the Dolby Theatre stage.

With that in mind, let us take a look at some of the other contenders building momentum as the awards circuit barrels ahead.

Michael Keaton is generating best actor heat for his performance in Birdman.

Michael Keaton has picked up a number of best actor awards for his career-best work in Birdman, while Timothy Spall has earned kudos for his turn as famed painter J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner, which will be in theaters at the end of December. The Julianne Moore best actress train is off to a smashing start for her performance in Still Alice, but a bit more surprising has been the love for Marion Cotillard’s dual performances in The Immigrant and French-language drama Two Days, One Night.

In the supporting world, Patricia Arquette so far has ruled the roost for her performance as the mother of the central character in Boyhood, though the Los Angeles Film Critics threw a curveball today and awarded Arquette best actress. It is a development that will bear monitoring throughout the season. In best supporting actor, J.K. Simmons’ towering performance as a maniacal music teacher in Whiplash is head and shoulders above everything else and probably will remain there.

Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan star in Wes Anderson's colorful romp The Grand Budapest Hotel.

As mentioned, Linklater has earned the lion’s share of early directing awards for his opus, while also picking up some traction in the screenplay field. More intriguing there is the heat surrounding Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel script, which will likely remain a player throughout the season. Elsewhere, Laura Poitras’ Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour has dominated the nonfiction world, and The Lego Movie seems to be pulling away in the animated race.

There are still many kudos left to hand out on the road to the Academy Awards and much time left for this film or that to gain or lose momentum. I have found the best way to treat these early awards is as a crib sheet. If you have not caught up with everything – and really, how many of us can – the critics’ awards are a great map to the multiplexes, offering mostly fantastic suggestions for anyone wondering on what to spend their hard-earned $10-15.

For people such as myself, who watch these things closely and tend to overanalyze, it is a crazy time of year. For the rest of the world, it is barely a blip on the radar. Yet, there is a happy medium. One need not be obsessed to see the value in year-end consensus. One need only be concerned with making good decisions when heading out to the movies. In the end, anything that fosters a love of quality film cannot be that crazy.

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