What time is it? It’s movie awards time!

It’s December 28, 2011.  The next Academy Awards will be held on February 26, 2012.  Which means … we are already well into the awards season!

Now you may be thinking, “whaaaa?  It’s two months away — whaddaya mean, we’re already into it?”  Well, what I mean is, we’re already into it.  Because the Oscars are only the culmination of a three-month-long orgy of the film industry and ancillary businesses patting each other on the back for another year of consistent profits and slightly less consistent artistry.  Plenty of awards have already been given, and numerous groups will be giving out more of them all the way up to the big Academy shindig 60 nights from now.  Heck, the screeners (special DVD copies of film) have been going out for weeks already, and sites like The Wrap and Gold Derby are currently festooned with enough “For Your Consideration” ads to choke Louis B. Mayer (and maybe even Oscar Mayer, no relation).

To date, trophies (real or metaphorical) have been handed out by the National Board of Review (the traditional first-awarders), the New York Film Critics Circle (this year’s first-awarders, as they bumped their announcement up to swipe some glory from the NBR), the International Press Association, and the film critics societies in Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit, Florida, Indiana (!), Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, San Diego, the Southeast, Toronto, Utah (!!!) and Washington, D.C.  And there are plenty more to come as other critics’ group throw in their two cents, culminating in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe awards on January 15.  After that, the reviewers give way to the Hollywood (and elsewhere) guilds and a few independent groups, who’ll be passing out shiny baubles up to the eve of the Oscars themselves.

But already, a few trends have begun to emerge in the voting of the various groups, which give some indication as to who the Academy will nominate, and perhaps even who will win come 2/26/12 …

Let’s do this one category at a time:

(Well, after my usual caveat … I haven’t seen most of the films that are in the running for these awards.  The only people who have, to be quite frank, are film critics, a small percentage of Academy members, and folks who live in New York or L.A. and spend all their time and money watching movies.  Thankfully, you don’t need to have actually watched the films to know about them — you can read all about them in some detail on the Internet — or to follow the Oscars race.  In fact, sometimes one is better off not having watched them, so your own biases don’t get in the way.  You do have to pay attention, understand how things usually work in the field, and spend a good amount of time — and time, I have.  Last year, without seeing the vast majority of nominated movies, I still picked 18 of the 24 Oscar winners correctly, more than a lot of movie experts.  Okay, onward …)

Best Picture: The leader in the awards season so far has been Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist, a tribute to Hollywood in the 1920s, silent films and the people who made them.  Of the 19 groups I’ve cited above, eight gave it their top honor, and it’s been duly anointed as the early favorite for the Best Picture Oscar.  The problem (as I see it) is, The Artist is itself a silent film, done in black and white, and I suspect that when the rubber meets the road, many voters will see it as a too-cute novelty rather than a legitimate Best Film of the Year.  And I don’t know they’re wrong.

There are other contenders, though.  Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, about a Hawaiian real estate mogul dealing with his wife’s near-death, some embarrassing revelations about said wife, two daughters with whom he’s never been close, and a possible big land deal, has pulled in four best-picture awards of its own.  Martin Scorsese’s children’s film Hugo (an orphan makes some amazing discoveries while living in a train station in 1930s Paris) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (a middle-aged man reminisces on growing up in Texas while trying to figure out his place in the universe) have also received multiple nods; The Tree of Life also won the Palme d’Or for Best Picture at the Cannes Film Festival (beating out, among others, The Artist).  And there’s a growing wave of support for Nicolas Winding Refn’s crime drama Drive, about a getaway-car driver who finds out a contract has been put on his life.

Of these, there’s a good chance all of them will get nominations for Best Picture at the Oscars … though it’s hard to say, as the Academy has changed the nominating rules again.  The last couple of years, the top ten vote-getters in the initial balloting got a nom; starting this year, it’ll be the top five, plus any other film that gets at least 5% of the vote.  We could end up with ten nominees, or five, or anywhere in between.  At this point, I’d say four movies — The ArtistThe Descendants, Hugo and The Tree of Life — are pretty much locks, with the other one-to-six coming out of a pool that includes Drive, The Help, Moneyball, War Horse, 50/50, Midnight in Paris and maybe even Bridesmaids.

Best Director: Look no further than the first five flicks I mentioned in the Best Picture discussion.  So far, from the aforementioned 19 critics’ societies, five have chosen Hazanavicius for their director’s prize, five picked Scorsese, four Malick, four Refn, and one Payne.  (Refn also won the director’s award at Cannes.)  None of them could be considered the favorite, though at the Oscars the Best Director voting tends to correlate with Best Picture, which might give Hazanavicius the lead.  (Or it might not.)  This group looks like it might be the five the Academy nominates as well, though Payne could lose his slot to Steven Spielberg (for War Horse), Woody Allen (for Midnight in Paris) or George Clooney (for The Ides of March).

Best Actor: Clooney, as the land baron in The Descendants, looked like the awardee apparent for a while, but he’s got stiff competition from Michael Shannon (a family man either anticipating an apocalypse or suffering from schizophrenia in Take Shelter), Michael Fassbender (as the functioning sex addict in Shame) and Brad Pitt (as the stern father in The Tree of Life, and/or something resembling Billy Beane in Moneyball).  So far Clooney has won three, Shannon four, Fassbender three and Pitt two, with the rest split among The Artist‘s Jean Dujardins, Drive‘s Ryan Gosling, 50/50‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy‘s Gary Oldman and Win Win‘s Paul Giamatti.  At this point, I’d say Clooney and Shannon are the only shoo-ins for Oscar nominations; Fassbender would be if Shame wasn’t rated NC-17, but he’s still close.  The other two spots — you could pick any pair from the rest and not go wrong.

Best Actress: Since last February, this was supposed to be Meryl Streep’s year to pick up a third Oscar (she won her second back in 1983!) and seventeenth nomination, for her dead-on portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.  But like two years ago, when her Julia Child got passed in the final lap by Sandra Bullock, another actress has snuck up on Meryl’s blind side (sorry).  This time it’s Michelle Williams, whose role as another 20th-century female icon (Marilyn Monroe) in My Week with Marilyn has pulled in nine wins to Meryl’s two.  Also in the mix are Tilda Swinton (as the mother of a school shooter in We Need to Talk About Kevin) and Elizabeth Olsen (Mary-Kate and Ashley’s big sister, as an escapee from a cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene).  I’d be surprised if any of these four didn’t make the Academy’s final five; the fifth nominee is anyone’s guess, but The Help‘s Viola Davis probably has the best shot, followed by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Rooney Mara, Young Adult‘s Charlize Theron, and Glenn Close for Albert Nobbs.

Best Supporting Actor: Finally, an easy one, as this already looks like a two-man race between Christopher Plummer (as a septuagenarian coming out of the closet in Beginners) and Albert Brooks (as a volatile mob boss in Drive).  Plummer (seven wins so far this year) is 82 and didn’t get an Oscar nomination until two years ago; Brooks (11 wins this year) is 64 and has never gotten one, so they’re both sentimental favorites.  I’m pretty confident one or the other will win in February.  Possibles to round out the nominees list include Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn), Jonah Hill (Moneyball), Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method), Nick Nolte (Warrior) and Patton Oswalt (Young Adult).

Best Supporting Actress: At the other end of the spectrum, this category is a total crapshoot.  Jessica Chastain has won awards for The Tree of Life, for Take Shelter, has a Golden Globe nod for The Help, and received one trophy (from the L.A. Film Critics Association) for all SIX films she was in this year, so I guess she’ll get an Oscar nomination for … something.  Shailene Woodley is likely too, as the contemptuous older daughter in The Descendants.  Others in contention: Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (both for The Help; there’s a debate about whether Davis’ role was lead or supporting), Berenice Bejo (The Artist), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs), Carey Mulligan (Shame), Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus), Amy Ryan (Win Win) … the list goes on.  The only guarantee is that a lot of people will be up in arms over who doesn’t make the final ballot.

Best Screenplays (Original and Adapted): Believe it or not, the early favorite for Original Screenplay is Woody Allen, who could be looking at his fifteenth Oscar writing nomination (and third win) with Midnight in Paris.  (And you thought he was dead.  Ha!)  But it’s a wide-open category this year, with other potential contenders such as The Artist‘s Hazanavicius, The Tree of Life‘s Malick, 50/50‘s Will Reiser, Win Win‘s Thomas McCarthy, Margin Call‘s J.C. Chandor and Diablo Cody for Young Adult.  The Adapted Screenplay race is another two-horse affair at present, with Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants) leading by a nose over Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian (Moneyball).  George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (The Ides of March); Hossein Amini (Drive); Tate Taylor (The Help); and Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan (Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy) also have good shots at an Oscar nom.

Technical awards: A lot of the critics’ groups don’t bother with the technical categories, and the rest pick and choose, but there are a few trends.  The Tree of Life‘s Emmanuel Lubezki has all but swept the cinematography awards.  Hugo has picked up the majority for visual effects and art direction, though The Artist is giving it a good run in the latter.  Ludovic Bource’s musical score for The Artist has snagged four of the nine citations in that area, with no one else getting more than one.  And watch out for The Muppets in the Best Song category, as both “Man or Muppet” and “Life’s a Happy Song” have won already this season.  (Speaking for myself, if “Life’s a Happy Song” doesn’t at least get an Oscar nomination, I’m going to be extremely ticked.)

Special categories: The race for Best Animated Feature is all but over — Rango has won thirteen of a possible seventeen awards so far.  (The Adventures of Tintin has three, with Arthur Christmas snapping up the last one.  Sorry, Po and Lightning — it’s not your year.)  The foreign-language film winners are (as usual) all over the place, but a consensus is building for Iranian film A Separation and Spain’s The Skin I Live In.  (Now watch neither of them get nominated.  The Academy’s method for selecting foreign films is tres screwed-up.)  And while there are a lot of worthy candidates for Best Documentary Feature, three films — Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Project Nim and Senna — have scooped up the majority of the awards so far.

And the key words on all of the above are “so far” — because we’re a long way from the finish line.  Here are the remaining critics’ awards:

  • January 2: Online Film Critics Society
  • January 5: Central Ohio (yes, Central Ohio — hey, I’m just the messenger) Film Critics Association
  • January 7: National Society of Film Critics, Houston Film Critics Society
  • January 8: Kansas City Film Critics Circle
  • January 9: Denver Film Critics Society
  • January 12: Broadcast Film Critics Association (Critics Choice)
  • January 15: Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes)

And then the professionals — the people who actually make films — start giving their trophies, beginning with the Producers Guild on January 22.  Then the Academy Award nominations are announced on the 24th, and things really heat up.  I’ll do my best to update this whole mess on the 23rd, and maybe even throw in some Oscar-nomination predictions.  But for now, I think you’ve got enough to chew on, yeah?

In fact, you know what I’m gonna do tonight?  I’m gonna watch The Tree of Life and see if it’s as good as everyone seems to be saying it is.  (Hopefully, that won’t throw off my prediction-making process too much …)


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