New York Film Critics Circle History and Preview

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And now it begins...

Originating in 1935, the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) have been a noteworthy player in the precursor Oscar season.  When reviewing their own website, they may seem to espouse a belief that their selections matter more than other critics’ groups, citing quotes from John Ford and John Huston indicating that awards from the NYFCC are “the greatest honor that anyone in my profession can receive” (Huston) and “it means more to me than any honor” (Ford).  They even identify themselves as “prize harbingers”.

So are they?  As part of an ongoing series this Oscar season, we will be looking at many of the more influential critics organizations and checking their track record in recent years to determine how accurate, how influential, and how the statistics shake out in terms of how can truly be known as “harbingers” or “kingmakers” during the Oscar season.

On Tuesday, November 29, 2011, the 77th NYFCC Awards will be the “first” awarding voice in the 2011 Oscar race, with all due respect to the Gotham Awards, Hollywood Movie Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the various festivals which debut Oscar hopefuls and build buzz and press in doing so.  Until their 2009 announcement, the NYFCC awarded their prizes on or about the first week in January, but to embolden their voice, the Circle moved to the second Monday of December that year, positioning themselves in front of the nomination pressers from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).  Apparently this was not early enough, as earlier this year the Circle announced they would trump the National Board of Review’s traditional “first of the season” announcement and announce on Monday, November 28 via Twitter.

Have they seen it?

But being first has its disadvantages.  In attempting to judge and award the best of the year, this November announcement comes early, as some films were simply not ready to be screened.  Recently, word broke that two films in particular, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo were simply not going to be available for the NYFCC, but would be available possibly for the National Board of Review and every other critics’ organization and nominating organizations throughout the month of December.  This sent the NYFCC in a tizzy and negotiations began between the group and the studios to try and get even an unfinished cut of these and potentially other films prior to their voting deadline.  Twitter reports surfaced last week that Columbia Pictures will screen a final cut of …Dragon Tattoo for the panel to review and consider.  The Circle agreed to move their announcement back one day in an effort to screen the film and essentially getting what they wanted.  It is unclear whether the Circle will have seen War Horse, although secret screenings have been occurring around the country, so it is possible.

There are many detractors to the Circle’s move this year and their desire to declare themselves as potential “kingmakers”.  So, how do they do?  Based on history, do their announcements anoint or destroy a potential winning actor or actress’ dreams?  I have looked back at the previous 20 years of awards given by the NYFCC and here, as with other groups, we will attempt to prepare you for what may or may not be coming down the pike.

BEST ACTOR:
Last year the NYFCC gave their Best Actor prize to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech, and Firth steamrolled his way to the Oscar.  The NYFCC have performed extremely well in earmarking eventual Oscar nominees in the last 20 years and their success rate with Best Actor sits at a whopping 90.5%.  NYFCC Best Actor winners have gone on to win the Best Actor Oscar 7 times since 1990.  Joining Firth in this list are Sean Penn (Milk), Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), Forest Whitaker (Last King Of Scotland), Geoffrey Rush (Shine), Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas), and Anthony Hopkins (Silence Of The Lambs).

12 NYFCC Best Actor winners have been nominated by Oscar but came up short on Oscar night, including 2009 – George Clooney (Up In The Air), 2005 – Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), 2003 – Bill Murray (Lost In Translation), and 2000 – Tom Hanks (Cast Away).

Paul Giamatti (2004, Sideways) and David Thewlis (1993, Naked) are the only winners who missed Oscar completely, although Giamatti’s snub was a gigantic surprise on Oscar morning.

The NYFCC have only awarded comedic roles a win three times – Newman (1994), Murray (2003) and Giamatti (2004), but have awarded 12 performances from films that went on to land a Best Picture nomination from the Academy.  The NYFCC have awarded 28.6% of their Best Actor prizes since 1990 to roles where actors portrayed real people, and if you die in your film…you also have a 28.6% success rate as well.

Who this helps?  Without seeing a nomination list it is tricky to determine this, but if George Clooney is viewed as a “frontrunner” for The Descendants right now and he wins, he would join Firth (2010), Day-Lewis (2007), and Whitaker (2006) as recent winners in a similar role.  The NYFCC have opted to award dramatic roles, like the Academy, but do not shy away from controversial performances.  Michael Fassbender could benefit for Shame, if the NYFCC opt to go the way of Penn (2008), Ledger (2005), and Day-Lewis (2007, There Will Be Blood) in recent years.  They do not take risks here though and they also do not award poorly received films.  This aids Brad Pitt (Moneyball), Gary Oldman (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist), all stars in films with a TomatoMeter over 90% right now.

Who this hurts?  The NYFCC will not award this prize to performances in films with bad reviews so Leonardo DiCaprio is a non-factor for J. Edgar.  Independent roles are not often prized, despite huge critical acclaim, so this is problematic for Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Woody Harrelson (Rampart), and Demian Bichir (A Simple Life).  Unless you are British, non-American actors have not won this prize in the last 20 years, so Jean Dujardin has a mountain to climb it would appear.  If you have several strong performances in a given year, the NYFCC look elsewhere when it comes to this category, so Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling would likely be hurt as well.

BEST ACTRESS:
Annette Bening took the NYFCC Best Actress prize last year for The Kids Are All Right, a role that many felt was the best of her career.  Bening went on to score a Best Actress nomination and had a glimpse of a frontrunner status until Natalie Portman started the avalanche and fervor that became Black Swan.  Bening followed in the footsteps of Meryl Streep, who was named Best Actress for Julie & Julia, which followed a win for Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008.  Three (mostly) comedic performances in a row cited by the Circle is an intriguing pattern to consider.  Also, the NYFCC have matched Best Actress 6 times since 1990, and not since Helen Mirren won here and at Oscar for 2006’s The Queen.  The history of NYFCC Best Actress reads like a list of frontrunners who lost their Little Golden Man, despite critically acclaimed performances that had strong Academy support.

Julie Christie won this and countless other prizes in 2007 for Away From Her but lost to Marion Cotillard on Oscar night for La Vie en Rose.  In 2004, Imelda Staunton had strong and vocal support for Vera Drake, scoring an Oscar nod, but ultimately losing out to Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby.

The Circle has successfully matched Oscar with the aforementioned Mirren, Reese Witherspoon (2005, Walk The Line), Hilary Swank (1999, Boys Don’t Cry), Holly Hunter (1993, The Piano), Emma Thompson (1992, Sense and Sensibility), and Jodie Foster (1991, The Silence Of The Lambs).

10 times the NYFCC have awarded an eventual Best Actress nominee and have been a bit more risky with their winners in years past.  Five recipients of Best Actress have missed an Oscar nomination – Hawkins (2008), Hope Davis (2003), Cameron Diaz (1998, There’s Someting About Mary?!??!), Jennifer Jason-Leigh (1995), and Linda Fiorentino (1994).

Who This Helps?  Well, the typically perceived 2nd or 3rd place contender has performed well with the NYFCC so publicists may want to be ready to call Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn) or Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady).  They are more willing to praise comedy with their Lead Actress winners so Charlize Theron (Young Adult) and perhaps, Michelle Williams gets that lift, with My Week With Marilyn being lighter and more humorous than initially perceived.

Who This Hurts?  Viola Davis has a lot working against her with the NYFCC as she is the “Frontrunner” going into the season and the Circle has looked elsewhere the last 4 years.  Only 7 performances have gone on to be a part of a Best Picture nominee and many feel The Help is a lock for that nomination.  The Circle seem to avoid risky or edgy performances with their leading ladies, so good luck Rooney Mara (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), and Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs).  Biopics do not receive much support either in this category, so it would seem that detail would deflate Williams and Meryl Streep’s choice  as well.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
Mark Ruffalo took home this award in 2010 for The Kids Are All Right and became the 8th winner in the last 20 years to land an Oscar nomination but miss out on the Little Golden Man.  Since 2006, the Circle have alternated in matching their winner to the Academy’s.  In 2006, Jackie Earle Haley won here for Little Children but lost to Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine.  Javier Bardem won both prizes in 2007 for No Country For Old Men, but in 2008 another split occurred involving Josh Brolin (NYFCC for Milk) and Heath Ledger (Oscar for The Dark Knight).  Christoph Waltz ran the table with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, while the Oscar honored Christian Bale (The Fighter) in 2010 over Ruffalo.

The NYFCC have nailed down an Oscar nominee or winner 61.9% these last 20 years and 8 times they have awarded performances that Oscar ignored, although this has not occurred since 2003.  They include Eugene Levy (2003), Dennis Quaid (2002), Steve Buscemi (2001), John Malkovich (1999), Bill Murray (1998), Harry Belafonte (1996), Kevin Spacey (1995), and Samuel L. Jackson (1991).  Curiously, the NYFCC awarded Kevin Spacey a Supporting Actor award for Outbreak, the same year he won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects.  Hmmm.

The NYFCC do not seem to like their Supporting Actor performances to be funny with Martin Landau winning in 1994 for Ed Wood, matching Oscar, and perhaps only Eugene Levy in 2003, those would serve as only two occasions where humor works.  In fact, they only match Oscar’s winner 5 times these last 20 years (Waltz – 2009, Bardem – 2007, Benicio del Toro in 2000, Landau, and Gene Hackman in 1992).

Who This Helps?  Frontrunners struggle in this category so if we look past Christopher Plummer and Beginners then that leaves us everyone else I suppose.  Villains have won 5 out of the last 6 years, so hello Albert Brooks (Drive)!   International performers have succeeded fairly well here so that may mean good news for Max Von Sydow (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), although his film is potentially one the Circle will not have seen.  Frankly, this field of contenders is hard to peg because the patterns are seemingly stacked against the typical names this season.  Perhaps, this is the year the Circle make a unique and surprising selection.

Who This Hurts?  Well on paper…everyone.  These potential contenders do not match NYFCC patterns all that well.  Waltz and Bardem have been the only frontrunners to win here and the Oscar since 2000, but Plummer could make that three.  Playing real people is of seemingly little interest so that hurts Jonah Hill (Moneyball), Kenneth Branagh (My Week With Marilyn), and Armie Hammer (J. Edgar).  Branagh also suffers with the dislike of comedy, another mark against Plummer and the rising buzz surrounding Patton Oswalt (Young Adult).  This will be a fascinating category to watch on Tuesday.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Remember these...

Similarly to Best Supporting Actor, the Circle have pegged Oscar winners and nominees 61.9% of the time, but recently they have matched the Oscar winner 4 of the last 5 years, including Melissa Leo (The Fighter) last year, and missing out with Amy Ryan in 2007 (Gone Baby Gone).  Famously, Marcia Gay Harden got a huge boost from the Circle in 2000 when she won this award for Pollock and took her longshot status all the way to a stunning Oscar win.

Comedic performances, or those which lean that way, have been fairly well received and international performers can spark enough interest to win here, such as Penelope Cruz in 2008 (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Shohreh Aghdashloo in 2003 (House Of Sand And Fog) and Gong Li in 1993 (Farewell My Concubine).

Only six performances have ended up in films nominated by the Academy for Best Picture in the last 20 years.

Who This Helps?  Frontrunner status has fared well for Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Mo’Nique (Precious…), Penelope Cruz, and Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), so Octavia Spencer in The Help could be off and running here.  The last 5 recipients have played women with wild emotional states and swings as a key component to their characters and thus, Jessica Chastain may appear on the radar for either The Help or The Tree Of Life.  Although they Circle often shun younger actors and actresses in all of their acting categories, Carey Mulligan may be someone they look at in Shame. 

Berenice Bejo (The Artist) could score here, based on new talent performing well recently and The Artist signifies Bejo’s American breakthrough.  With a nod and a wink to comedic performances, Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids might be intriguing, except if you discount Penelope Cruz’s winning performance as not a comedic performance, then Lisa Kudrow in 1998’s The Opposite Of Sex and/or Helen Mirren in 2001’s Gosford Park would be the most recent examples of honoring a comedic turn.

Who This Hurts? 

Shailene Woodley in The Decendants likely does not stand a chance as, other than Jennifer Hudson, the Circle have failed to award younger actors and actresses in their recent history.  Not being the frontrunner has hurt recently and so if Octavia Spencer is out in front right now, that does not bode well for the competition.

The Circle did select Maria Bello in 2005 for A History Of Violence, so perhaps something unexpected could transpire.  If so, Chastain’s name could be called, as could Mulligan or McCarthy.  The NYFCC often do not often reward older and storied actors in these supporting categories so Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet (Carnage), Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus) and Judi Dench (J. Edgar, My Week With Marilyn) are non-factors here.

BEST DIRECTOR:

With a staggering 80% rate of awarding eventual Oscar winners and nominees, this is a area of pride for the Circle certainly.  5 of the last 7 Oscar winning auteurs have been feted by NYFCC, and the Circle have failed to match up with Oscar in 2010 when David Fincher and The Social Network lost to Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech.  And in 2008, Mike Leigh won his second NYFCC Best Director prize for Happy-Go-Lucky.  Leigh, as was also the case in 1999 for Topsy-Turvy, failed to springboard his NYFCC win into an Oscar nomination for Directing.

New directors have fared well with their mainstream(ish) breakthroughs as Lars Von Trier (Breaking The Waves) won in 1996 and Quentin Tarantino scored a win in 1994 for Pulp Fiction.  Also, female directors have been awarded on 3 occasions in the last 20 years as Kathryn Bigelow (2009’s The Hurt Locker), Sofia Coppola (2003’s Lost In Translation), and Jane Campion (1993, The Piano) were honored.

In the last 20 years, Mike Leigh and Ang Lee have won this award twice.  Interestingly, Leigh has been Oscar nominated as a Director for two different films than the two he was been prized with here and Lee was snubbed in 1995 for directing Sense and Sensibility.

Who This Helps?  Frontrunning directors have generally been given a prize in this category as Fincher, Bigelow, The Coen Brothers in 2007 (No Country For Old Men), Martin Scorsese in 2006 (The Departed), Ang Lee for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, and Clint Eastwood in 2004 for Million Dollar Baby all won with NYFCC.  Although there is not an actual front runner, this should help all the names which are at the top of most prognosticator’s lists; Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Steven Spielberg (War Horse) and perhaps, New York’s own Woody Allen (Midnight In Paris) are at the top of the list.

Save Happy-Go-LuckyLost In Translation, and Gosford Park comedies have not done all that well with the NYFCC, so that moves Payne, Spielberg, and if they have seen the film, Stephen Daldry (Extremely Loud…) into contention.  The big mystery is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which no one has seen yet.  They will and David Fincher took home this prize last year when The Social Network was making the race seem over by early December 2010.

Who This Hurts?  Fincher, Bigelow, Leigh, The Coen Brothers, Scorsese, Lee, Eastwood are all big and iconic names and are also the last 7 winners of this award.  Altman’s won it twice as have Lee and Leigh,  Terrence Malick even scored for The Thin Red Line.  Point is, you need to be a name it would seem so that reduces Hazanavicius, Tate Taylor (The Help), and maybe even Daldry and Bennett Miller (Moneyball).

The lack of comedies and/or lighter fare may be key here as well.  So trouble looms again for Hazanavicius, along with Allen, Payne (if his film is viewed as more of a comedy than a drama), and Martin Scorsese (Hugo) and Spielberg (War Horse).

BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR:
The NYFCC have seen 71.4% of its Best Picture winners nab wins and/or nominations from the Academy.  In the last 20 years though, winners only match up 5 times2009 (The Hurt Locker), 2007 (No Country For Old Men), 2003 (Lord Of The Rings…), 1993 (Schindler’s List), and 1991 (The Silence Of The Lambs).

It would appear that the NYFCC have also not always rushed after the frontrunner.  While they and everyone anointed their top prize to The Social Network last year and Brokeback Mountain in 2005, they have made interesting choices such as Milk in 2008, Sideways in 2004, United 93 in 2006, Far From Heaven in 2002, and Mulholland Drive in 2001 (!).

7 of their last 20 Best Picture winners have missed a Best Picture nomination and they have nabbed the frontrunner 4 of the last 6 years.

Who This Helps?  Call your frontrunner.  The Descendants, The Artist, The Help…even Midnight In Paris or War Horse (if they saw it…).

Films with homosexual content and characters have won 3 Best Pictures since 2002, but nothing seems to fit that bill this year, although Shame may circle the wagons slightly in that regard.

Films made by highly respected veteran directors have done quite well, so films from Spielberg, Daldry, Payne, Malick, and Allen could certainly see a benefit there.

The Best Director and Best Picture prizes have matched up with the NYFCC 50% of the time in the last 20 years, so that bodes well for Alexander Payne, Michel Hazanavicius, and maybe David Fincher.

Who This Hurts?  Well, foreign-made productions (sans British films) have been ignored so Hazanavicius could be in trouble.

More recent winning films have been directed by long-working, heavily experienced directors, so The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Moneyball  look to be left out of the mix.

Save Mulholland Drive in 2001, the winning pictures are very straightforward and steeped in drama and intrigue.  This bodes poorly for The Artist, The Help, and Midnight In Paris, as well as Young Adult and Moneyball.

OTHER NYFCC CATEGORIES:

Best Animated Feature: 90% since 2001 in nabbing winners and nominees, missing Waking Life in 2001, which was not nominated by the Academy.

Best Screenplay: Awarding a general screenplay prize, regardless of adaptation or originality, has allowed NYFCC to hit 76.2% of future Oscar winners and nominees and 9 Circle winners have won Oscars, although not since 2007.

Best Cinematography:  The lone technical award matches nominees and winners with Oscar 52.4% of the time, but not since Slumdog Millionaire in 2008.  Japanese-lensed films and black-and-white have succeeded here and their options seem more progressive than other groups.  Winners of the past here include 2046, Elephant, The White Ribbon, In The Mood For Love, Hero, Breaking The Waves, and Black Swan.

Best Documentary/Non-Fiction Film:  Nominees and winners match 42.1% of the time, with the NYFCC accurately naming 2 of the last 3 Oscar winners.  Only three times however have Oscar and NYFCC matched on Best Documentary in the last 20 years, with just 5 other winners scoring nominations.  This is the group that have awarded their Documentary/Non-Fiction prize in years past to Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, The White Diamond), Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), Steve James (Hoop Dreams), and Terry Zwigoff (Crumb).

Best Foreign Language Film:  4 nominees in 20 years.  20% success rate here, with two Oscar winners and two eventual nominees.  The rules are considerably different with the NYFCC than with the Academy, as last year’s winner Carlos was ineligible for Oscar consideration last year because of international television airings of the film.  In 2006, a restored print of Army Of Shadows won this award, and other winners, including 2003’s City Of God and 2002’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, did not qualify for the Foreign Language Oscar but were nominated in other categories.


So…what do you think?
Are you ready for the Oscar season to commence with the NYFCC announcement?  

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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.