Critics Group Winners Could Give Academy Members More Guidance Than Usual This Year

Anne Thompson
·6 min read

The annual year-end film industry rituals continue as critics groups vote for the best of the year, with the results of the New York Film Critics Circle announced on Friday, and the Los Angeles Film Critics following on Sunday. And this time around, Academy voters could really use the input.

While some moved back their deadlines along with the Oscars — including the usual first taste-setter, the National Board of Review, as well as the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards — the two most influential critics groups chose not to wait. As a result, their winners could provide some guidance in this most unusual Oscar season.

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At a time when theaters in New York and Los Angeles aren’t building word of mouth, good films are hard to find, and FYC campaigns often fall into the ether, the critics groups help to steer voters toward must-see films. As screeners start to arrive, Academy voters are stuck at home like everyone else, either glued to the news or escaping from it. Put producer Lynda Obst in the newshound category:

That’s one point of view. But as many awards voters starve for strong movies to sample, the critics are steering them toward frontrunners like “Nomadland” (Searchlight), which won the Venice Golden Lion (as “Joker” did last year), the Toronto People’s Choice prize (won by “Jojo Rabbit” in 2019), IndieWire’s critics poll, and Chloé Zhao as Best Director in both New York and Los Angeles.

With the two-month Oscar delay, it’s early for a movie to be a frontrunner, but sometimes a gathering snowball picks up so much momentum that it never slows down. Roaming the margins of America’s arterial highways, “Nomadland” hits the zeitgeist this year in a powerful way.

At the same time, the critics groups have a bit more flexibility than Academy voters, and not all of their winners qualify for the Oscars. “Nomadland” almost took the Best Film prize in Los Angeles, but settled for runner-up. After both New York and Los Angeles gave Best Cinematography to Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” Amazon mini-series, a top player at fall film festivals, Los Angeles made an even stronger stand, declaring all five films (including “Lovers Rock” and “Mangrove”) the Best Film of the Year. Both groups awarded “Small Axe” cinematographer Shabier Kirchner as well. Amazon’s awards team made the decision months ago that the series would compete for Emmys, not Oscars, and these wins for the entire anthology — as opposed to individual entries, such as NYFF opener “Lovers Rock” — help cement the narrative that will resurface as its Emmys campaign comes together.

Similarly, neither New York nor Los Angeles chose to boost any of this year’s submissions for the Best International Feature Film Oscar. Instead they gave their foreign-language prizes to films that are not Oscar-eligible: Brazil’s “Bacarau” and last year’s Russian entry, “Beanpole.” (Notably, both movies also made Barack Obama’s list of 2020 viewing highlights.)

But some of the critics group prizes went to films that could certainly use the boost. Los Angeles went big for “Promising Young Woman” (Focus), awarding Carey Mulligan with Best Actress and giving rookie feature director Emerald Fennell Best Screenplay. This could turn the new release, which debuted back at Sundance, into a must-see after it dropped off viewers’ radars months ago.

NYFCC’s Best Film winner was “First Cow,” from writer- director Kelly Reichardt, an independent production that has already been nominated for the Gotham and will likely score Independent Spirit Awards nods as well. (Another Gothams and Spirits target is Radha Blank, writer-director-star of Netflix’s “The 40-Year-Old Version,” which took New York’s Best First Film award and LA’s New Generation award.) It’s hard to imagine “First Cow” as a big Oscar contender as well, but these awards can work wonders for more modest productions. In New York, Eliza Hittman’s Sundance and Berlin breakout “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Focus) won both Best Screenplay for Hittman, and Best Actress for newcomer Sidney Flanigan. In LA, the film was runner-up for Screenplay. The writers Branch often nominates auteurs like Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, Bong Joon Ho, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, and Taika Waititi. In light of that, it’s quite possible that Zhao, Reichert, Fennell and Hittman could follow.

Predictably, LAFCA filled in some gaps. NYFCC honored Spike Lee’s “Da Five Bloods” (Netflix) with Best Actor Delroy Lindo and a posthumous award for Supporting Actor Chadwick Boseman (in addition to a special prize for Lee’s short film about the pandemic response). Two days later, LA went with Boseman as Best Actor for another Netflix entry, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” as well as Boseman’s costar, August Wilson veteran Glynn Turman, for Supporting Actor. (Rising star Riz Ahmed in Amazon’s “Sound of Metal” was Best Actor runner-up.)

Heading toward the Oscars, the crowded Supporting Actor category is competitive, and every win helps push that contender forward. Boseman will become the first late actor to compete against himself at the Oscars, and is a favorite to win Best Actor.

Both groups, protestations to the contrary, seek to push deserving candidates into the center ring. NYFCC put a spotlight on Supporting Actress Maria Bakalova in “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” (Amazon), while LAFCA went with Korean movie star Youn Yuh-jung, who played the hilarious and moving grandmother in “Minari” (A24).

Among the crafts, Los Angeles gave Best Editing to Florian Zeller’s “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics) which is playing well with Academy voters. Production Design went to David Fincher’s elegant period biopic “Mank” (Netflix). But “Mank” composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won for “Soul” instead.

Coastal consensus also reigned in the animation race, as Pixar’s “Soul” was runner-up to Celtic winner “Wolfwalkers” (GKids) in LA, which also won New York. They will likely face a showdown for the Oscar. Both groups also anointed Garrett Bradley’s black-and-white memory poem “Time” (Amazon) for Best Documentary. With rigorous promotion from Amazon, the film is advancing toward inevitable Oscar contention in an intensely competitive field.

In other words, while critics group voters don’t try to predict the Oscars, expect many of these wins to stay in the conversation in the months ahead.

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