You have to take with a pinch of salt any conclusion drawn from the announcement of the 2010 National Board of Review Awards. As traditional starting gun of the film awards season they manage to gather a lot of attention but the clout they have on the rest of the awards race is limited at best.
The Oscar hopes of many films start and end in the NBR and, as a rule of thumb, one might argue that films that win here won’t fare well later in the season, especially on the big night at the Academy Awards.
For better or worse the NBR has an unmistakable commercial bent. Its allegiance to the Hollywood studio system in general and to some filmmakers or actors in particular, most notably George Clooney and Clint Eastwood, detracts from the credibility of the awards. Films like The Bourne Ultimatum, The Devil Wears Prada, The Dark Night, Star Treck or The Painted Veil have all been included in their top ten films in different years. However, there is a refreshing disobedience in some of their choices. Last year they gave the acting accolades in the supporting categories to Woody Harrelson and Anna Kendrick, while Christopher Waltz and Mo’Nique swept virtually every other award on their way to the Oscars, and back in 2006 I was thrilled when they named Catherine O’Hara best supporting actress of the year for her performance in For Your Consideration, a turn that was sadly ignored by other critics’ awards.
This year, however, I think that the NBR may have set the tone for what we are likely to see during the rest of the season, at least in the Best Picture category. Right now I don’t see any film that can actually beat The Social Network as best picture of the year, maybe with the exception of The King’s Speech, a film I haven’t seen yet and therefore I am unable to judge.
Of Gods and Men was named best foreign film and, given the artistic merits of the film and its Oscar-friendly subject-matter, it could well land France a much longed-for comeback to Oscar-winning territory.
Ecstatic is the only word I can find to define how I feel about the NBR’s 2010 choice in the acting categories, especially for the female performers. Lesley Manville and Jacki Weaver delivered my two favourite performances of the year in Another Year and Animal Kingdom, respectively. I have been singing the praises of Lesley Manville’s performance and speculating about her Oscar chances since I saw Another Year at the Sarajevo Film Festival back in July (see my review: https://imitationlife.wordpress.com/2010/07/27/another-gem/#more-541), and this award places her at the centre of the Oscar race and will probably cast a light on the question of whether she should be campaigned as leading or supporting actress.
The campaign in favour of Jacki Weaver as best supporting actress started in Imitation of Life as soon as I saw Animal Kingdom, a superb Australian criminal film that could get the attention it deserves if Weaver goes on reaping awards (see my review: https://imitationlife.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/jackie-weaver-for-best-supporting-actress/#more-679).
I am well aware that the way to the Oscars will be hard for these two great actresses. This year’s race is full of Hollywood heavyweights like Annette Bening, Natalie Portman, Nicole Kidman or even Jennifer Lawrence (winner of the Breakthrough award at the NBR) in the leading category, and Diane Wiest, Barbara Hershey, Sissy Spacek or Melissa Leo in the supporting race, but at this relatively early stage of the season we have the right to dream.
The most surprising choice of the NBR was arguably one of the writing awards, which went to Chris Sparling for his original screenplay for Buried, a film that was also included in the list of top ten independent films of the year. I have been following this film since the very beginning. I was lucky enough to catch its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and I could feel the enthusiasm it was received with by the audience. Since then the film has become a festival favourite (it was honoured in Deauville and Strasbourg) and, maybe more importantly, a commercially successful film, but it had remained curiously absent of traditional award scrutiny.
I have the impression that Lionsgate, the distribution company that bought the rights of the film, has put no effort in the awards season campaign, probably because it was more than satisfied with the box office results. The NBR nod can undeniably help to dig up Buried from the oblivion, but at the end of the day there are only five films nominated in each category, and right now I can think of at least 7 pictures with better chances of an Oscar nomination in the Best Original Screenplay field. Inception, The Kids Are All Right and The King’s Speech are, in my opinion, locked for a nod, while The Fighter and Black Swan can get nominations by default if they dominate the big categories. Then we have Mike Leigh’s Another Year (the most brilliant piece of film writing this year) or Sofia Coppola, a past winner who can never be overlooked. Even Blue Valentine is still in the race. Years of Oscar scrutiny tell me that this is one of those films which, like Frozen River, end up getting Best Actress and Best Screenplay nominations.
In fact, the NBR may have honoured the impossible idea behind Sparling’s script rather than the achievement in writing. Buried stands out for its arresting direction and its solid technical craftsmanship, not for its writing. Although the win at the NBR will certainly increase the film’s visibility in the awards circuit, a directing Oscar nomination for Rodrigo Cortés, the film’s helmer, is still a pleasant delusion. Taking into account last year’s excellent choice of technical awards, however, I don’t rule out a surprise Oscar nomination in the Cinematography category. It would be remarkable that an award that used to be clumsily given out to pictures ‘with beautiful landscapes’ would go to a film that takes place in a coffin.
The LA and NY critics’ awards will be announced on Sunday and Monday. We will have then a clearer picture of the real Oscar chances of Lesley Manville, Jacki Weaver and Buried.