Off the Carpet: ‘Unbroken’ breaks and the (real) precursor awards begin

It seemed worthwhile to hold off on today's column until after the New York Film Critics Circle spoke up. But really, while their picks were uniformly inspired and valid, they didn't do a lot to change the complexion of this year's race. If anything, Timothy Spall needs to be taken a little more seriously now; as a bubble contender, something like this could tilt the scales, or at the very least encourage voters to watch the film. But “Boyhood” we saw coming, and it could very well win the National Board of Review award tomorrow (though watch out for “Selma” there). And the LA critics will add to all of this in a week's time as well, as will the Gotham Awards tonight.

For now, all the cards are on the table as “Unbroken” finally screened widely yesterday and reviews have been published. So far, it's not looking great on that score. Variety took aim at it on these shores while across the pond, Screen International and the Guardian and Telegraph newspapers were none too impressed. And for those who could populate their reviews with a little more than mere Oscar claptrap, positive notices have even been laced with reservation.

Nevertheless, Universal doesn't necessarily need the critics to insinuate this one into the race. I've laid out my personal issues with the structure and overall handling of the material, and they appear to be shared elsewhere, but the key here will be to get people reacting to Louis Zamperini's story more so than how it was delivered as a film. Never underestimate how far that sort of thing can go.

But I don't think it's set up to be the big winner this year. I think Jolie may struggle to find herself in the Best Director five. I think no actor from the film will be nominated. And I think the screenplay, in any normal year, would be off the table, but the adapted category is so utterly desolate there just aren't many other options. I would wager you'll find a number of campaigns are breathing a sigh of relief this year that they can float on in past exiguous competition.

My gut feeling has long been that “The Imitation Game” was one to watch out for, which is relatively hilarious considering Harvey Weinstein is not staffed up like he usually is on the campaign trail. And that's not a knock on his team; they're doing a great job. He just hasn't had the artillery, and yet the film is skating right along without needing overt “awards consulting.” It just plays. How about that?

But Paramount can absolutely win. A month ago, they probably would have been shocked that it would be “Selma” rather than “Interstellar,” but that just goes to show how volatile and mercurial an Oscar race can be. However, Ava DuVernay's film – which is refreshingly not a typical greatest hits “biopic” – won't be getting screeners out to the Screen Actors Guild in time. So that early boost will be fully dependent on nomination committee members showing up at the screenings that were set for them. It may work out and the film could rack up nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Ensemble. But even if not, the studio was in this same position with “The Wolf of Wall Street” a year ago, and that turned out OK for Oscar nods. “Selma” will probably be a stronger phase two play, as the film heads out into wide release the week before Oscar nominations are announced.

Also saving their firepower for phase two is team “Boyhood.” It seems obvious the film will be the critical darling of the year. With the NYFCC prize under its belt already, it's likely to dominate the regional critics circuit much like “12 Years a Slave” last year. Tomorrow the National Board of Review could light the fuse for “Selma,” and next week the Los Angeles Film Critics Association could do the same for “Birdman” (or vice versa or whatever), but IFC and its hired guns surely knew Richard Linklater's opus was going to be strong in this phase. After the nominations, that's when it will be time to throw down the gauntlet. I personally think Linklater is destined for the Best Director Oscar at this point, but will that carry through for the film, too?

In a nutshell, “The Imitation Game” plays broadly, “Boyhood” plays to critics and “Selma” is somewhere in between, finding that perfect balance.

So that's the three-horse race to me, with all the unknowns finally, well, known. Now we observe. Critics will continue to have their say throughout the month, and their mission is this: get the people to watch certain movies. The New York crowd did a great job of that by throwing prizes at “Mr. Turner,” “Two Days, One Night,” “The Immigrant” – films that may be languishing toward the bottom of the screener pile. Voters will spend the holidays catching up and ballots will go out two days before the end of the year. After that, a new phase: the guild and industry awards and nominations announcements.

So the engine is thoroughly revved here. It's time to peel out.

The Contenders section has been fully updated.