With the New York Film Critics Circle announcing their awards this morning at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Oscar landscape shifted — and suddenly Brad Pitt is on top. Way on top. With a best actor win, Pitt overtook current frontrunner — and good friend — George Clooney, riding high on "The Descendants" terrific reviews. Hopefully, this news won't test the Ocean's 11 co-stars' bromance. The biggest surprise may be that this mainstream Hollywood matinee idol charmed the notoriously fractious and often contrarian group, which has been awarding prizes since 1935.
Pitt's acting win is also a big boost for the A-lister's two movies — the baseball dramedy "Moneyball" and the art-house puzzler Tree of Life. While "Moneyball" also won best screenplay, "Tree of Life" earned Best Cinematography and the Circle recognized Pitt's co-star Jessica Chastain for best supporting actress in that and other films, including "The Help" and "Take Shelter."
Not only does this put Pitt in the lead for best actor — it also pushes "Moneyball" up the ladder in the top ten Best Picture nominees — probably to a rung among the top five. However, Pitt may have some 'splaining to do to his partner Angelina Jolie, whose directorial debut "In the Land of Blood and Honey" was snubbed by the group when it failed to be recognized as a best first film.
But what's good for Pitt is bad news for Clooney. He did not make a strong showing in the Best Actor race today. He barely made a dent in best director for "Ides of March," much less best supporting actor. Also hit was "The Descendants" juggernaut, with NY critics' favorite Alexander Payne not winning Best Director. The closest the Hawaii-set film came to recognition was in the best screenplay category, where it definitely will land as one of the best adapted screenplay nominees, despite today's loss. Shailene Woodley was in play for best supporting actress and still may have a spot in the top five nominees, but only if the movie performs more strongly in other critics awards.
The critics never explain their choices, but I infer that Pitt won because he demonstrated his range — from the stern and distant father in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," a movie without easy explanation in which he plays an iconic American patriarch, to the Robert Redfordesque handsome hero as Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane in a movie ripped from the headlines about America's favorite pastime. In other words, he used his star power to give wattage to a film that wasn't successful at the box office, and he made starring in a smart American studio movie seem easy. And the critics definitely favored "Moneyball" over "The Descendants" today — the proof is in the "Moneyball" screenplay win.
It may be that even though Clooney excelled as an upper class man in Hawaii belatedly accepting responsibility to family and nature, and brought both humor and pathos to the role, the majority of the New York critics didn't consider it enough of a stretch. I'm of the opposite opinion: to me, Clooney is a latter-day Clark Gable. I think he opened up a window on this character, a man who reveled in being the "back-up parent" until disaster struck. His range is demonstrated as much by his jealousy-fueled mad dash in slippers to find out who his wife was cheating with, as his final quiet moment where he connects with his two daughters.
One thing is clear: Pitt won on his merits. Unlike the Golden Globes, the NYFCC is not voting by who they want to attend the dinner. And, add to that, George Clooney won the award two years ago for "Up in the Air." Now, perhaps, it's Pitt's turn.
In another surprise, the winner of the Best Director-Best Picture daily double was French director Michel Hazanavicius (who?) and "The Artist" (what?) So what if most of America has yet to see the black-and-white arthouse film — they will now! This is a big shot in the arm for a buoyant silent movie with unknown stars — at least in America — Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. All are now bound for the Oscar shortlist.
There were also plenty of snubs to go around, particularly for old-guard filmmakers. Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," an early favorite before it screened, pulled up lame. Also passed over were Martin Scorsese for Hugo and Clint Eastwood for the D.O.A. "J. Edgar." Spielberg got doubly dissed because not only did War Horse not get recognized, but the group decided not to even bother giving an animation award this year, muzzling "The Adventures of Tintin." David Fincher got no love either for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," even though the Circle's voting was delayed a day so that the group could screen it. The overall sense was that this English-language adaptation of the Swedish bestseller was dutiful in the way of "The Da Vinci Code," rather than inspired.
While the NYFCC can be a barometer of the Oscars — last year it predicted three awards actor Colin Firth ("The King's Speech"), supporting actress Melissa Leo ("The Fighter") and documentary "Inside Job" — it's often most successful at defining the race and ensuring that some alternative choices get attention.
For those criticizing the group of black-wearing New Yorkers for going light in the end by embracing "The Artist" — here's an insider nugget. It was a fight to the finish between "The Artist" and Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" — how bi-polar is that? Anti-depressants won. The awards will be handed out on Monday, January 9th in Manhattan. Oscar nominations are announced Tuesday, January 24, 2012.