Off the Carpet: Three films surge as the Oscar season’s critical darlings

This tally will change throughout the day and certainly the week as more organizations declare 2014 superlatives, but at present, critics and precursor Best Picture honors break down thusly: seven for “Boyhood,” two for “Birdman” and one each for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Ida,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Nightcrawler,” “Selma” and “Snowpiercer.” But “Birdman” and “Grand Budapest” have led the lion's share of nominations announcements, making it clear, if this morning's BFCA list hadn't crystallized it, that the season's critical darlings are Wes Anderson, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Richard Linklater.

Of course, the only one of those films that needed the boost was “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” A March release that was always going to count on being brought back around by these groups, the film is having its “oh yeah” moment for voters who might be looking to take another peek, or move it on up the screener pile if they missed it earlier in the year. But so far, it's the media chiming in, as they did for “Moonrise Kingdom.” We need a little more to really mark it as a serious Oscar contender. If Ralph Fiennes had been chalked up alongside an everyone-saw-it-coming SAG ensemble nomination, I'd be closer. With DGA and/or PGA nominations, I'll be willing to go there fully. (Though “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a recent reminder that even then, there are no guarantees.)

Other films the critics have singularly stuck up for are “Snowpiercer,” “Nightcrawler,” “Under the Skin” and “Whiplash.” It's pretty clear Jonathan Glazer's film won't play to a broad Academy audience, though it really would have been nice if the usual effects house/industry politics hadn't again colluded to excise a truly great example of visual effects from the race this year. “Snowpiercer” could make headway with design pushes, particularly production design and makeup and hairstyling, and I know that gears were turning on that front a number of weeks ago. (BFCA nominee Tilda Swinton could even set her sights on a spot in the volatile supporting actress race.) And “Whiplash” is playing like gangbusters and should be alright.

But “Nightcrawler” is an interesting case. On one hand, it's a movie about journalism. Naturally journalists are going to speak up for it. I seem to recall “The Insider” being more or less the critics awards champ in 1999, so there's another example. But Jake Gyllenhaal has really roared in the competitive Best Actor race. It's hard to truly gauge the importance of the BFCA/HFPA/SAG trifecta in an era when BFCA categories stretching to six has become the norm, but it's a pretty strong showing regardless. What I'm wondering is whether Dan Gilroy's original screenplay could find room. With WGA ineligibilities, don't be surprised if it pops up there next month.

Speaking of Best Actor, Timothy Spall got out to a big head start with the NYFCC victory, but both he and “Mr. Turner” have struggled to get arrested since. Surprising for a film so critically hailed. I imagine BAFTA will do a lot to color the conversation on that movie, and I still believe it could be a surprising film with Oscar nominations. That includes in the Best Director category, where a number of upstarts could fall prey to the discerning branch's adoration for artists like Mike Leigh or even Bennett Miller.

Oh yeah, and wither “Foxcatcher?” It was a nice little surge with the SAG and HFPA attention, but Sony Classics co-chief Michael Barker played its absence on the critics' circuit down when I asked him about it last week. The BFCA proved that out with a vote this morning that may indicate the film is a tough broad sell. That's a movie that could have used some love from the regional crowds, I feel, but I'll be interested to see how the guilds perceive it next month.

Getting back to the critical darling trifecta, even with “Boyhood's” majority of wins, I see “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as particularly strong because they speak to a wider swath, as in below-the-line considerations. “Boyhood” has its editing going for it but the other two are craft giants in their own separate ways. That starts to matter a lot as people (or their assistants, heh) begin toiling over their ballots.

Whatever happens, just keep this mantra in mind: Critics don't vote for Oscars.

Just glancing over at our own predictions, it's interesting to take note of potential tallies (which I never really bother focusing on until late in the season). It seems to me that eight nominations is the ceiling for the most part. I have “Birdman” leading with that many and pretty much every possible nomination noted. “Boyhood” and “Selma” are each down for six but could easily push up to eight with this or that. I'm still waiting and seeing when it comes to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but the four predicted for it now could surge to eight with things like Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor added to the mix. And “Unbroken's” four could maybe move upwardly by a couple, but not many more than that.

The film that, interestingly enough, could come closest to double digits is “The Imitation Game.” With production design and cinematography nominations to go along with the seven I'm already predicting for it, that would take it to nine. Of course, Morten Tyldum is in no way secure, so there's leeway, but it still fits, to me, as a film the Academy could anoint this year and leave everyone wondering what happened to the exciting, up-in-the-air season – and I say that as a fan of the film.

Anyway, that's kind of where we are with the critics so far, and probably where we're likely to stay throughout the last two weeks of the year. The industry speaks up in earnest next month, with the editors on 1/2, the art directors on 1/5, the writers, cinematographers and costumers on 1/7, the makeup artists and hairstylists on 1/8, BAFTA on 1/9, the sound mixers and directors on 1/13 and finally, the visual effects artists and sound editors on 1/14. So we'll have a full slate of perspectives to consider by the time Academy nominations are announced on 1/15. That night, the anointed will hit their first red carpet as Oscar nominees at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards and the stage for phase two will be set.

See how it all starts to click into place?

Check out the Contenders section, which has been updated in light of recent developments.