Off the Carpet: The critics close ranks

Earlier today we launched this season’s edition of The Circuit, which will track the ups and downs of the precursor circuit from the critics awards to the guild announcements all the way through the Oscars and more. But things will get serious later this afternoon as the New York Film Critics Circle sits down to hold its annual vote.

The job of the critics this time of year is to be honest about their view of quality, yes, but also to stand up for titles and individuals lost in the shuffle. Sometimes those calls line up with Oscar, sometimes not, but the road begins to get paved with these announcements. And the narrowing process — particularly in a shortened phase one window — is crucial.

In recent years the NYFCC has gone with films such as “The Artist,” “The Social Network,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Milk,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Sideways,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Far From Heaven.” The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, meanwhile (which announces on Friday), has sprung for “The Descendants,” “The Social Network,” “The Hurt Locker,” “WALL-E,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Sideways,” “American Splendor” and “About Schmidt.”

Clearly, the two organizations have their own identities, even if they have agreed four times over the last decade. All but one of the last 10 NYFCC winners has gone on to a Best Picture Oscar nomination, you’ll note, while the Los Angeles crowd has stood up for films that didn’t make the cut on three occasions. The two groups have agreed on a winner four times over that spread of time, but only once has that agreed-upon film gone on to take the Best Picture trophy: 2009’s “The Hurt Locker.” (Of course, if you go back farther, you find more examples. But I’m keeping it fairly recent.)

That makes for a nice segue to “Zero Dark Thirty.” I think it’s entirely possible that both the NYFCC and the LAFCA go for Kathryn Bigelow’s dense, disciplined depiction of the hunt for Osama bin Laden this year, which would be a massive feather in its cap as Sony figures out — very late in the game — its Oscar strategy. And as I Tweeted earlier this week, the film might be the worst thing to happen to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” which, after failing at the box office, has one more shot at being remembered by the Academy: the critics awards.

Of course, Anderson’s film will get its share of kudos throughout the precursor circuit. It may even win with the New York or Los Angeles crowd (LA went for Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” in 2007 over the Coen brothers’ Best Picture winner “No Country for Old Men”). It’s certainly a film that needs the boost more than the still-to-release “Zero Dark Thirty,” but nevertheless, those are two major films to watch for as these groups begin to announce superlatives over the next several weeks.

Also in need of a boost going into the rest of phase one are indie darlings “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Moonrise Kingdom.” The latter in particular could register with the NYFCC. And let’s not forget about Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which, in a less competitive year, could easily land Best Film honors from both New York and Los Angeles. It still might.

Then there’s Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” clearly a critical favorite this year ever since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. And it’s a film in need of a significant push from the critics as Sony Pictures Classics continues to angle it for a Best Picture nomination. Perhaps the LAFCA continues its string of outside-the-box Best Actress winners by spotlighting Emmanuelle Riva. (Though I expect Jessica Chastain will take her share of those prizes along the way.)

In the middle of the two announcements, on Wednesday: the National Board of Review. Even though it’s an organization as old as the hills, the NBR isn’t all that respected, but I’ve always argued that the membership’s tastes often dovetail with the Academy’s, even if the announcement doesn’t, in and of itself, move the needle. It’s a barometer more than an impetus, if you will. The last decade’s winners: “Hugo,” “The Social Network,” “Up in the Air,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Good Night, and Good Luck.,” “Finding Neverland,” “Mystic River” and “The Hours.” That’s a perfect 10 on Best Picture nominations and two winners.

This is where I think “Lincoln” could register, or perhaps even “Les Misérables” (it’s a New York-based group) or “Argo.” Also lurking is “Silver Linings Playbook,” which might manage support from the group. And “Life of Pi” could really use the perceived boost of a win there, too.

Next week, the Broadcast Film Critics Association will jump into the pool. It’s a much larger organization than most critics groups, which explains why it tends to have a broader overall vision of the season than the rest. When you have 250 people choosing rather than 30, and in a very different, more simplified voting method, you tend to get a wider cross-section. But also, by the very nature of things, you get an earlier snapshot of the season, which is why films like “Invictus” show up sometimes.

I think the group’s list has been mostly commendable the last couple of years, and it certainly has a choice crop to pick from this time around. “Argo,” “Les Misérables,” “Life of Pi,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Zero Dark Thirty” all seem likely to me. “The Master” is probably a good bet, too, but beyond that, I don’t know. “Amour” could be relegated to the foreign list, while the last films to screen — “Django Unchained” and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” — could certainly have the right balance of skill and entertainment to register, or they might not. “Flight,” too, for that matter, while the aforementioned indie favorites are also very much in play. So that’s 12 strong contenders for 10 spots.

Meanwhile the narrative of the season has quickly settled into one of “the studios are back with a vengeance.” How will the upcoming announcements reflect or reject that notion? We’ll see.

After all that groundwork is laid, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (rendered more meaningless than ever this year by the Academy’s timeline shift) will chime in with the Golden Globe nods. And beginning on 12/12, the guilds. SAG, PGA, DGA and WGA are, as ever, the announcements that truly matter, as these are the people who cross over with the Academy’s membership. Those lists will be more reflective than any of where we stand.

So batten down the hatches. It’s about to get loud.

Check out my updated predictions HERE and, as always, see how Guy Lodge, Greg Ellwood and I collectively think the season will turn out at THE CONTENDERS.