National Board of Review History and Preview

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I think they are fine not being first...

The oldest film critics’ organization in existence, the National Board of Review began in 1909 as an act of defiance when then-New York City Mayor George B. McClellan revoked all licenses associated with the exhibition, distribution, and presentation of moving pictures in the city.  The organization published its first film review in 1909 and became rather influential in the 1930s and 1940s where movies would seek the approval brand from the Board itself.  As the years of passed, the Board have honored the best in film each year, culminating in pronouncement of the National Board of Review Honorees, generally announced in the first days of December and presented in a gala event to the Board’s recipients in the first week of January.

As the oldest film critics organization, they have traditionally been the first voice in the Oscar season, much more influential in decades gone by.  Now, in a landscape and frankly, a sports season of sorts, populated by 30-40 regional critics groups awarding movie prizes which, in turn, amplify, stagnate, or suppress the momentum of a film’s chances going forward in the Oscar season, the National Board of Review are the Iowa caucus of our nation’s Presidential Election Primary season.

Or they were.

The New York Film Critics Circle for reasons only they, and perhaps, the National Board of Review will ever understand launched a shot across the NBR’s bow and moved ahead of the NBR’s December 1, 2011 announcement date.  The NBR, comprised of more than 100 non-movie professionals, stayed silent on the matter and the NYFCC stumbled into well-documented trapdoors when it became public knowledge that they made demands on seeing high profile films first.  While Sony/Columbia sent a cut of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the NYFCC reportedly were told “NO” by Warner Bros. regarding Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and other films were sparsely attended by the Critics group.

And yet, not seeing all of the films has never hampered the National Board of Review.  When reports have surfaced in recent years, that the Board convened, screened, and studied, and then voted on only what they could see or was screened for them, they raised up all the controversy of a shoulder shrug.  It is comical at times how much weight the NBR are afforded when it comes to whether or not 100+ folks can make or break an Oscar campaign, but thus is the nature of the beast that Awards Circuit and all the rest of the Oscar prognosticators try to tame each and every year.

As part of our ongoing series attempting to see just who are the most influential when it comes to the Oscar precursor season, our second investigation looks at the last 20 years of awards feted by the National Board of Review.  And again we ask, how do they do? Based on history, do their announcements anoint or destroy a potential winning actor or actress’ dreams?  The results perhaps  surprise you.

BEST ACTOR:
Last year, the NBR gave their Best Actor prize to Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network, initially being the first public voice to start the unprecedented avalanche of precursor awards given to David Fincher’s film.  Interestingly, the Board snubbed The King’s Speech except for a ranking in their Top 10 Films of the Year (which is actually The Top 11 because they do not list their actual Best Picture winner in their year-end Top 10 list.  I don’t get it either…).

In the last 20 years, the National Board of Review have matched their Best Actor just 7 times with the Academy’s selection and their winners have gone on to land a nomination 78.3% of the time.  Curiously, 4 of those 7 matching winners came in a 4-year span from 2003-2006 when Sean Penn (Mystic River), Jamie Foxx (Ray), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King Of Scotland) won here.

George Clooney is a favorite of the NBR, winning Best Actor in 2007 (Michael Clayton) and 2009 (Up In The Air), along with his directorial effort Good Night and Good Luck land a stunning Best Picture win in 2005.  Clooney has been Oscar nominated for all of those performances and dare I mention the word Descendants at this point?!?!

In recent years, they have loved to award prizes to actors portraying real people, i.e. Eisenberg, Whitaker, Hoffman, Foxx, Javier Bardem in 2000 (Before Night Falls), Russell Crowe in 1999 (The Insider), and Sir Ian McKellen (Gods And Monsters).

Also, only five NBR Best Actor winners have missed a nomination with the Academy.  Clint Eastwood in 2008 for Gran Torino (more on Eastwood later…), Campbell Scott for Roger Dodger in 2002, Billy Bob Thornton in 2001, Jack Lemmon for Glengarry Glen Ross in 1992, and Robin Williams in 1990 for Awakenings.  Williams shared Best Actor with Robert DeNiro for both appearing in Awakenings, only DeNiro was Oscar nominated and Williams was snubbed.

Who this helps? We are not privy to runners-up or nomination lists with the NBR, so only looking at winners, George Clooney seems right in the crosshairs for his third win in five years with The Descendants.  Their appreciation for the real-life portrayal could see Brad Pitt’s stock continue to soar after his recent NYFCC victory for Moneyball. Leonardo DiCaprio might resuscitate a bit here with J. Edgar, but all eyes seem to have left that performance because of the tepid response to the film.  Note that Morgan Freeman shared Best Actor with Clooney in 2009 for Invictus.  Eisenberg was a departure for the NBR, because they typically select tried and true actors who arguably are “due”.  Again, tally marks go on your paper for Clooney and Pitt.  Perhaps, Ryan Gosling could sneak in if the Board feel he is due or the Eisenberg win showed a changing of the guard of sorts.

Who this hurts?  Honestly?  Everyone else it would appear. The NBR seldom award international actors and have not awarded Best Actor to a European actor since 1998, and only one time, in 2000, have they prized a foreign-language performance.  So, Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), and Michael Fassbender (Shame) are probably not getting a publicist’s phone call.  Independent films are ignored in this category so add Woody Harrelson (Rampart), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), and Demian Bichir (A Better Life) to the Do Not Call list.

BEST ACTRESS:
All of the criteria that defines Best Actor is not applicable to the NBR’s Best Actress award because British-born actresses have won this award 4 of the last 5 years.  Lesley Manville is your returning champion with the NBR for Another Year, a performance many felt was a lock for a Best Actress nomination before the NBR named her their recipient.  Famously, Manville did not get Oscar-nominated and that is HUGE with the NBR and their Best Actress prize.

Only twice has this ever happened.  90.9% of the Best Actress winners from the NBR have landed Oscar nominations.  Manville in 2010 joins Mia Farrow (Alice, 1990) as they only two women to not make the leap to the Oscar shortlist.  And even more interestingly, only 27.3% of the time has the NBR and Oscar Best Actress matched.

In 2006, the Helen Mirren Express started with the NBR and Mirren won virtually every honor imaginable for The Queen.  Halle Berry and Julia Roberts matched up in 2001 and 2000, respectively, and the Berry campaign only gained traction because of her surprise win here.  Frances McDormand won for Fargo in 1996 in both ceremonies, and Holly Hunter (The Piano, 1993) and Emma Thompson (Howards End, 1992) are the only other women to win both.

Essentially, if they name you, you are all but guaranteed a nomination in the Best Actress race, because they only miss out once every 20 years.  Unless, things are changing…

Who This Helps? Let’s start across the pond and take a look at what British women are in line…um…well.  Wait a second.  Meryl Streep is standing there, portraying Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady and reportedly delivers an extraordinary performance.  Pay attention to this please.  Meryl Streep has only one the NBR Best Actress award one time.  Streep was awarded the prize for Sophie’s Choice in 1982.  You want to talk about someone viewed as due?  Game, Set, Match, right?  Well…

Another characteristic to consider is that they will award those who seem due, although Anne Hathaway in 2008 (Rachel Getting Married), Carey Mulligan (!) in 2009 (An Education) and Manville would buck that trend.  Preceding those names though we have Julie Christie (Away From Her), Mirren, Felicity Huffman (Transamerica), Annette Bening (Being Julia), Diane Keaton (Something’s Gotta Give), Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven), dating back to 2002.

So, hello Viola Davis (The Help), Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Tilda Swinton (We Need To Talk About Kevin), and Charlize Theron (Young Adult).  Theron did not win here in 2003 with Monster, one of the scant few Best Actress prizes she did not garner back then.

Lastly, independent films have been well received in this category and so perhaps breakout Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) garners some consideration.

Who This Hurts?   This is tricky to judge because the likely frontrunners for the Oscar race stand in somewhat stark contrast with the voting patterns.  Barring an unforeseen Tilda Swinton upset, the Best Actor sentiment of “You Are Due” is not common here.

Edgy and risky performances, which I’ll define as Felicity Huffman in 2005, Holly Hunter in 1993, and the split win for Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis for Thelma and Louise in 1991 also do not impress these voters.  So, Rooney Mara (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) suffers mightily here and yes, they will have seen the film.  The voters are not all that keen on their lead actresses portraying real people either so Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn) is likely not scoring here either.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
The NBR will cite multiple films often times for their acting winners so, following that logic through, 27 film performances have won this award in the last 20 years.  Only 18.5% of the time have the NBR’s Best Supporting Actor winner gone on to win the Little Golden Man and it happened last year when Christian Bale (The Fighter) started his near-sweep through awards season here.  The last time the NBR winner took home Oscar was all the way back in 2002 when Chris Cooper was viewed as an upset Oscar winner for Adaptation.  Bale essentially ended a 7-year drought with his win!!!

Jim Broadbent matched up in 2001 for Iris and Kevin Spacey and Joe Pesci matched up in 1995 and 1990, respectively.  Winners of this prize have gone on to an Oscar nomination 90% of the time, although if you include Anthony Hopkins winning a Supporting Actor prize here for The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 (he won the Lead Actor Oscar for the same work), then that total upticks to 95%.  So, essentially you are an automatic nominee who is not going to win, based on the NBR’s history with this award.

The winners of this award represent a list of names that were critics darlings of their respective year and arguably landed Oscar nominations because of the critics rapturous support of their performances.  Woody Harrelson (The Messenger) is the most recent example of this in 2009, while Casey Affleck in 2007 (Assassination of Jesse James…), Alec Baldwin in 2003 (The Cooler) and Thomas Haden Church in 2004 (Sideways) are additional names to point to in that regard.

Who This Helps? Christopher Plummer has frontrunner status and is in an independent production, which has helped Harrelson, Josh Brolin (Milk, 2008), Casey Affleck, Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, 2005), Church, and Baldwin in recent years.  Older actors, however, are not winners of this prize, as Hopkins and Broadbent are the only aged winners of this award (Broadbent was 52 and Hopkins 54 when they won here).  The only other independent film contender seems to be NYFCC winner Albert Brooks (Drive).  Brooks at 64 years old and winning here would fly in the face of the age bias the NBR have perhaps unknowingly put in place with this prize.

Critical darlings fare strong so that opens the door to a long list of potential surprises.  Ezra Miller (We Need To Talk About Kevin) should be considered as should Jonah Hill (Moneyball) and Patton Oswalt (Young Adult), all three new to the scene and receiving strong marks from critics around the country.

Who This Hurts? Frontrunners are often not cited here, so Plummer could lose here certainly.  The age issue hurts Brooks, Nick Nolte (Warrior), Kenneth Branagh (My Week With Marilyn) and they will not have seen Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, so Max Von Sydow is a non-issue.  Films poorly received but containing strong performances are ignored so Armie Hammer will not be called tomorrow for J. Edgar.  Assessing the landscape then, if not Plummer, who?  You tell me.  This winner will either make history with the NBR voting practices or be a left-field surprise.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
The NBR perform poorly as “kingmakers” for their Best Supporting Actress winners and their hopes for Oscar.  Only FOUR winners have gone on to win the Oscar and only ONE, Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) has done it since Juliette Binoche in 1996 (The English Patient).  If you are named the Best Supporting Actress by the NBR, you have been nominated for an Oscar 60% of the time, a recent uptick in success when shockingly from 1997-2006, only Laura Linney (Kinsey) and Patricia Clarkson (Pieces Of April) saw their wins translate to Oscar nominations.

In 2010, Jacki Weaver surprised many by winning this prize for Animal Kingdom, a small and barely scene Australian crime drama, which was the first film many voters saw arrive in their mailbox and had a goofy Peter Travers quote as the basic marketing campaign.  Trying to make heads or tails of the NBR’s selections is headache inducing with this category, because they are few, if any, patterns to hold on to.

For awhile they chose women who had virtually no chance at an Oscar nomination, but again – those days seem to have passed.  Do they go young?  Sometimes.  Do they go old?  Well, no, not really.  Do they opt for the critical favorite?  Kind of.

Who This Helps? Hmm.  Well, drop the frontrunner immediately.  Then usher into the room Jessica Chastain (The Help, Take Shelter, and/or Tree Of Life), Carey Mulligan (Shame) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants).  It is possible that they will look at the ensemble work found in Carnage and reward Jodie Foster or Kate Winslet, although that would not fit their character really.  They have awarded international actresses in the past, Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005) and Weaver, along with Lupe Ontiveros (Chuck & Buck, 2000).  Perhaps, Berenice Bejo sneaks in for her turn in The Artist.

Who This Hurts? Octavia Spencer (The Help) is the one most hurt by the disregard for the frontrunner.  Although the hours that pass by make this category at the Oscars seem more and more up in the air. The age bias hurts Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus), Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) and perhaps Jodie Foster as well.

Only Catherine O’Hara in 2006 (The Mighty Wind) stands as a recent comedy winner, although Christina Ricci (The Opposite Of Sex, 1998) and the aforementioned Lupe Ontiveros were honored.  Still, I don’t think a Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) surprise happens here either.  This is as up in the air as it gets and no, Anna Kendrick (50/50) is not going to win here like she did in 2009 for (ahem) Up In The Air.

BEST DIRECTOR:
Are you getting the sense that the NBR are not as influential as they are often thought to be?  Take a look at the Best Director category, where only 50% of their winners have been nominated for the Directing Oscar.  Wow.  And they have matched Oscar’s Best Director 25% of the time since 1990.  Sigh.

Last year, David Fincher won his 2nd Best Director NBR prize in three years for The Social Network, and they honored him for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button in 2008.  Yet, no public whining for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on their part?  Too soon?

Although Clint Eastwood has only won this prize once since 1990, and for Invictus in 2009 no less, his films have traditionally performed well with the NBR.  So, many felt that J. Edgar would springboard its momentum with the NBR, but that is (hopefully) not happening.  Matching only five times in 20 years in one thing, but look at the NBR winners versus Oscar winners in recent years, it is quite interesting to say the least.

Fincher/Tom Hooper in 2010 was preceded by Clint Eastwood (NBR)/Kathryn Bigelow (Oscar) in 2009.  Fincher for Button in 2008 gave way to Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire).  The Coen Brothers won Oscar in 2007 (No Country For Old Men) but the NBR opted for Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd…).  Michael Mann over Clint Eastwood in 2004, Edward Zwick over Peter Jackson in 2003 and Philip Noyce over Roman Polanski in 2002 also stick out in surveying the list.

Only 4 times in the last 10 years, as their winner been Oscar nominated, so…

Who This Helps? Well, um…I’m not entirely sure.  David Fincher certainly.  The Board only name one name and the do not list runners up, so it is anyone’s guess how close the perceived frontrunners have ever been to winning here.  I suppose the surprise factor comes in play here so Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Bennett Miller (Moneyball), and even Martin Scorsese (Hugo) could land here.

The common thread through the last several Best Director NBR winners, like in most NBR categories not named Supporting Actress, is that they award an accomplished, or at least known, commodity.  So, certainly Steven Spielberg fits the bill (he has won this category once…in 1987 for Empire of the Sun!!), as does Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Woody Allen (Midnight In Paris) and certainly Terrence Malick (The Tree Of Life).

The NBR also tend to honor storied and successful directors at peculiar times.  Eastwood for Invictus, Mann for Collateral, Tim Burton for Sweeney Todd all are recent examples of this occurring, as is the aforementioned Spielberg win, Alfred Hitchcock’s lone NBR prize for Topaz in 1969, and Stanley Kubrick’s tie with Robert Altman in 1975 for Barry Lyndon and Nashville, respectively.  So, while Eastwood, Scorsese, Spielberg, and Woody Allen have won her before, it would not be in the years or for the films you would expect, and so perhaps one of them surprises tomorrow.

Who This Hurts? The frontrunners are not frontrunners here.  But who are they?  Payne, Spielberg, even Hazanavicius could emerge here, although in the case of Michael Hazanavicius, only Shekhar Kapur stands as the only international, non-British director to receive this prize since 1990.  The NBR shun newcomers recently, with only Todd Field’s In The Bedroom winning Best Director in 2001, standing as the last time a fresh face won this award.  So…in that vein, apologies to Hazanavicius, Tate Taylor (The Help), and perhaps Bennett Miller (Moneyball).

Also, a film perceived to be a comedy has next to no shot.  Erin Brockovich was cited along with Traffic for Steven Soderbergh in 2000 and not since Fargo and Sense and Sensibility winning back-to-back here in 1996 and 1995 has any comedic-type of anything been honored.  Sorry to Woody Allen, Hazanavicius, Jason Reitman (Young Adult), and maybe Alexander Payne, although The Descendants  is much more dramatic, with occasional comedic flourishes.

BEST FILM:
If you win here, you are a Best Picture nominee 90.9% of the time.  If you are listed in the NBR’s Ten Best Films list (really their Eleven Best List), you are headed to a Best Picture nomination 72% of the time.  So, finally, a category where the frontrunners are safe, right?  Yes and no.

The NBR may have the ability to predict your likely Best Picture nomination by declaring your film as the Best, but you only stand a 31.8% chance of seeing that NBR win became an Oscar win.  And even more alarming, only twice since 2000 have the two organizations matched.  Both the NBR and the Academy tabbed Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and No Country For Old Men (2007) as Best in Show, and they have only hit it once from 1995-2000, when they championed American Beauty in 1999.  Oof.  If we did not include 1990-1994 in our analysis, those numbers would be borderline tragic.

They also grab ahold of the perceived frontrunner on occasion but have also launched a film’s Oscar hopes into the stratosphere.  While they have seen both The Social Network and Up In The Air fall short at the end of the Oscar marathon, they entered films such as Quills, Finding Neverland and Good Night and Good Luck into the Oscar conversation.  Other Best Film winners which were surprises include Gods and Monsters, Shine, and Letters From Iwo Jima. There’s that Eastwood love once again.

Who This Helps? Get ready The Descendants, The Artist, and The Help.  If you are truly out in front at the moment, this may be your next step in the journey to Oscar.  Then, whoever is named must immediately hire more publicity staff and pay them all long hours because you are going to have to work extremely hard to see this NBR win become an Oscar win.

In terms of winning here though, dramatic films are the winner, and only Finding Neverland and Moulin Rouge! shake from that pattern.  This makes Descendants, Moneyball, The Help, and perhaps even The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (if they honor their love of David Fincher) as potential winners tomorrow.

Then again, it is not inconceivable that War Horse strikes a chord with this group, as they tend to consider period pieces and historical-tinged dramas, as evidenced by their awards given to Neverland, Iwo Jima, The Hours, Quills, and Good Night and Good Luck.

Who This Hurts? The silent film The Artist looks in trouble, one because it is a comedy-tinged drama and history tells us that chocolate does not mix well in the NBR peanut butter.  Also, a film viewed as a foreign production is often relegated to the Best Foreign Film category and the only film with any foreign leanings whatsoever was Letters From Iwo Jima directed by Mr. Clint Eastwood!!!

Certainly Midnight In Paris, Young Adult, and perhaps The Descendants suffers from the comedy bias as well.  Hugo would be too left-of-center and likely viewed as a children’s movie.  And with all due respect to previous winners, more challenging films have not succeeded at all so it would be downright shocking for The Tree Of Life to land a win here; same with the NC-17 Shame and what is perceived to be contained within The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Then again, the love them some Fincher lately…

OTHER NATIONAL BOARD OF REVIEW CATEGORIES:

 

Does "The Descendants" get back on track tomorrow?

Best Foreign Film:  The winner is left out of their Top 5 Foreign Films list, so they aggravatingly name 6 Best Foreign Language Films.  Only 23.8% of the NBR winners are winners of the Oscar, the last of which was 2004’s The Sea Inside.  Shockingly, if eligible for an Oscar nomination, which has occurred 15 times over the years, 13 of those winners have moved on to an Oscar nomination in the Foreign Language Film category.  86.7%!

Screenplays: Matching the Academy, the NBR award an Adapted Screenplay and Original Screenplay prize, implementing Screenplay awards in 2003.  Only two Original Screenplay winners – Juno and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have matched for an Oscar win, but 6 of the 9 winners have gone onto the nomination list.  With Adapted Screenplays, the numbers improve in terms of winners matching Oscar (4 for 9), and the nomination totals are the same, running 6 for 9.

Best Animated Feature: Implemented the same year that the Academy introduced their Animated Feature award, the NBR have matched Oscar 8 of 10 years and every winner has been nominated by the Academy.  Their differential with Oscar came in 2005 and 2006 when they named Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride and Cars as their Best Animated Features and the Academy selected Wallace and Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit and Happy Feet for the win.

Best Documentary/Non-Fiction Film: Matching Oscar 33.3% of the time in terms of winners, the NBR have been on a roll, hitting those 7 out of 9 times in the last 9 years!  They missed this category every year from 1991 until 2002 when they named, as did the Academy, Bowling For Columbine, as Best Documentary.  Last year’s Waiting For “Superman” was shockingly left off of the Academy shortlist and was ineligible for the Oscar, but in recent years this has been a strong indicator of what might be the frontrunner.

Best Ensemble Cast:  When analyzing this category as some sort of a Best Picture Oscar indicator, this category seems to provide a Best Picture/Best Film disconnect for voters.  They are not interested in giving this prize to an eventual Best Film winner or an Oscar contender, matching their Ensemble win with an Oscar nominated Best Picture three times in the 17 years this category has been in place.  Each time this has happened, the film has won the Oscar however, so if a frontrunner lands this prize tomorrow, pay attention.  Last year’s The Town received this award and scored one lone Oscar nomination for Jeremy Renner as Best Supporting Actor.  Films such as It’s Complicated, Mrs. Henderson Presents, and even Nicholas Nickleby have won this award.  Essentially, look for a well-liked ensemble film with no shot at an Oscar Best Picture win and pull from those contenders.

Breakthrough Award:  It is unclear whether they will split the Breakthrough categories into Actor and Actress, naming just one Breakthrough last year.  That recipient Jennifer Lawrence went on to score an Oscar nomination and when looking at the Breakthrough Award acting winners, 40% of named actors and 58.3% of named actresses have made the leap to Oscar’s shortlist.  In fact, most of these successes have come in recent years as names such as Rinko Kikuchi, Ellen Page, Gabourey Sidibe, Viola Davis, and Ryan Gosling, among others, have scored nominations the year they were presented with this prize.

So…what do you think?
What will be the aftereffects and significance of the National Board of Review?
Are they as influential as they are said to be?
Discuss this in our forums!

And let’s see what our Editor-in-Chief, Clayton Davis, predicts…

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My love of film began at the age of 7 when my parents not only gave me a television, but HBO to boot. My first theatrical experience was "E.T." My first movie cry came with "Old Yeller". "The Usual Suspects" made me decide to make movies and film writing a priority in life, even knowing the twist beforehand. My passion for film, music, and pop culture in general can be isolated to my youth. My love for film took root in high school. Above all else, movies and art, in any form, exist to entertain and I remain much more interested in how art affects others, more than with myself. But I love the conversation and to have a chance to share my thoughts and be a part of the community here is a unique and enriching experience.