Does ‘critical thinking’ influence the Oscars?
Does “critical thinking” influence the choices made by the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?
Each year in the last five years, one or two movies have easily dominated the North American (U.S. and Canada) film critics’ Best Picture category*:
- 2003: Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King with 11 wins and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation with 6 wins.
- 2004: Alexander Payne’s Sideways with 12 wins and Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby with 6 wins.
- 2005: Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain with 14 wins.
- 2006: Paul Greengrass’ United 93 with 11 wins and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed with 7 wins.
- 2007: Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men with 17 wins to date.
Of these (not including No Country for Old Men), only United 93 failed to be shortlisted for the Best Picture Oscar. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, and The Departed were their respective years’ Oscar winner.
March 2007 update: No Country for Old Men was this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner. “Critical thinking” apparently remains influential.
‘Critical thinking’ often means groupthink
Before we proceed, it should be noted that although movie critics (and movie bloggers) enjoy dismissing the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association as starstruck whores, the same could be said of nearly every North American critics circle, society, and association.
In the last few years, for every award given to a (pre-The Departed) Vera Farmiga (the Los Angeles Film Critics‘ 2005 Best Actress) or a Ken Takakura (the San Diego Film Critics‘ 2006 Best Actor) or a Zhang Yimou (the National Society of Film Critics‘ 2005 Best Director) many more went to the likes of Peter Jackson, Sean Penn, Charlize Theron, Bill Murray, Annette Bening, Hilary Swank, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Jamie Foxx, Reese Witherspoon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Helen Mirren, and Forest Whitaker.
In all fairness, the Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston film critics can’t be blamed if their picks are similar to everybody else’s, for they’re usually the first voting bodies to announce their selections. And whether intentionally or not, the San Diego Film Critics Society and the National Society of Film Critics are generally quite good at avoiding the groupthink tendencies that plague other critics’ groups. But these two are exceptions.
The usual suspects + odd star out Amy Adams
This year, awards season “critical thinking” hasn’t been much different.
For instance, with rare exceptions such as Best Supporting Actor Vlad Ivanov for Cristian Mungiu’s Romanian drama 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, critics’ winners in the acting categories have been restricted to Hollywood and ”Hollywood-friendly” names: Julie Christie, George Clooney, Daniel Day-Lewis, Javier Bardem, Ellen Page, and Marion Cotillard, who must have an excellent publicist. (Just think of the incessant Best Actress buzz since Olivier Dahan’s French-language Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose / La Môme opened at the Berlin Film Festival in early 2007.)
The surprising odd star out is Amy Adams. Although Kevin Lima’s Enchanted was a major late-year hit and Adams’ performance was quite well received, the 2005 Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee (Junebug) has been all but ignored this awards season.
Less surprising is the total – or near total – absence of Gordon Pinsent for Away from Her, Mirjana Karanovic for Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, Sam Riley for Control, Tang Wei for Lust Caution, Sabine Azéma for Private Fears in Public Places, Anamaria Marinca (the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Best Actress runner-up) for 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Ulrich Mühe for The Lives of Others (a 2006 release that opened in 2007 in some parts of the United States).
Apart from Mühe, who died earlier this year, these (non-Hollywood) actors should all call Marion Cotillard to get her publicist’s contact info. Come to think of it, Amy Adams might consider doing the same.
Critics’ influence on the Oscars
Once again, does “critical thinking” influence the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?
A quick glance at studio Oscar ads – prominently displaying critics’ award winners, “Best of” lists, and good notices – clearly shows that North American film critics do, to some extent or other, have an undeniable influence on the Academy Awards.
Realistically, without critical raves and year-end awards, would In the Bedroom, Lost in Translation, Sideways, Capote, Brokeback Mountain, and Letters from Iwo Jima have landed a Best Picture Oscar nomination?
After all, during awards season Academy members receive countless screeners. They have time to watch only a handful of movies before their ballots are due. Thus, critics’ awards and Best of the Year picks help Oscar voters decide which lucky titles will get seen before they mail in their choices.
‘Critical thinking’ helps Julie Christie & Amy Ryan
This year, if Away from Her star Julie Christie and Gone Baby Gone supporting player Amy Ryan – perhaps even No Country for Old Men – had been ignored by North American critics’ groups, they would most likely be ignored by the Academy as well. As it stands, they’re (co-)front-runners in their respective categories.
Case in point: no matter how well liked upon its release, John Carney’s Irish romantic musical Once has little chance of landing a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar nod, while Christie’s Away from Her co-star, Gordon Pinsent, no matter how effective his performance, has just about a 0 percent chance of being shortlisted for Best Actor.
Particularly influential Los Angeles & New York film critics
When it comes to the Academy Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA) and the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) are the most influential groups, as many of their voters represent some of the top publications in the United States.
Even though Steven Spielberg’s 1993 holocaust drama Schindler’s List was the last movie to be named Best Picture by both the LAFCA and the Academy, from 1993 to 2006 only three LAFCA winners failed to be shortlisted for the Best Picture Oscar: Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (1995; shortlisted for Best Director), Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt (2002), and Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor (2003).
In the LAFCA’s Best Actor and Best Actress categories during that same period, co-winner Ally Sheedy (High Art, 1998; tied with Fernanda Montenegro for Central Station), Michael Douglas (Wonder Boys, 2000), Liam Neeson (Kinsey, 2004), Vera Farmiga (Down to the Bone, 2005), and co-winner Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, 2006; tied with Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland) were the only five leads who failed to receive either an Academy Award nomination or the statuette itself.
Last year, LAFCA Best Actor co-winner Forest Whitaker and Best Actress winner Helen Mirren went on to win Oscars.
NYFCC vs. Oscars
As for the NYFCC, the odds of an Oscar match are similar to those of the LAFCA.
There have been two matching Best Picture winners since 1993: Schindler’s List and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
Moreover, only five NYFCC winners failed to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination: Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy (1999), David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002), and United 93 (2006). Of these, only two — Topsy Turvy and Far from Heaven — failed to receive a Best Director nod.
Also from 1993–2006, only six NYFCC winners in the Best Actor and Best Actress categories failed to get an Oscar nod or take home an Oscar statuette: David Thewlis (Naked, 1993), Linda Fiorentino (The Last Seduction, 1994; the film was deemed ineligible for the Oscars because it had been shown on U.S. cable television prior to its big-screen debut), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Georgia, 1995), Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary, 1998), Hope Davis (American Splendor & The Secret Lives of Dentists, 2003), and Paul Giamatti (Sideways, 2004).
Much less influential at the Academy Awards is the Village Voice / LA Weekly critics poll. Yet, perhaps because of a lack of either Oscar politics or internal politics, these polls generally offer a less standardized, less mainstream, less Hollywood list of favorites. That’s why they’re worth checking out. See below. (Full list here.)
Critical thinking: ‘Village Voice’/’LA Weekly’ poll
Curiously, the top Best Film title is Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood – not critics groups’ favorite No Country for Old Men.
- There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson.
- No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen.
- Zodiac, David Fincher.
- 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu.
- I’m Not There, Todd Haynes.
- Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel.
- Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett.
- Ratatouille, Brad Bird.
- Colossal Youth, Pedro Costa.
Unlike the Best Actor list (see below), the Best Actress roster is more evenly divided, with ten or more votes going to each of the Top 15 performers.
- Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
- Julie Christie, Away from Her.
- Carice van Houten, Black Book.
- Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose.
- Ellen Page, Juno.
- Nicole Kidman, Margot at the Wedding.
- Laura Linney, The Savages.
- Kate Dickie, Red Road.
- Marina Hands, Lady Chatterley.
- Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There.
Daniel Day-Lewis is the favorite by a wide margin. Once you go past the Top Five, listed actors received only scattered votes — including one for Michael Moore in Sicko.
- Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood.
- Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises.
- Frank Langella, Starting Out in the Evening.
- Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
- George Clooney, Michael Clayton.
- Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah.
- Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Savages.
- Christian Bale, Rescue Dawn.
- Gordon Pinsent, Away from Her.
Chris Cooper, Breach.
Best Supporting Actress
All Top Ten Best Supporting Actresses were listed for English-speaking roles. Cate Blanchett is the Village Voice/LA Weekly poll’s favorite; yet she has been losing out to Amy Ryan in the many U.S. critics groups’ awards.
- Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There.
- Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone.
- Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton.
- Leslie Mann, Knocked Up.
- Jennifer Jason Leigh, Margot at the Wedding.
- Zoe Bell, Grindhouse.
- Kelly Macdonald, No Country for Old Men.
- Marisa Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
- Samantha Morton, Control.
- Catherine Keener, Into the Wild.
Best Supporting Actor
Oscar favorite Javier Bardem topped the Village Voice/LA Weekly list, followed by Casey Affleck. The latter’s performance in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford also found its way onto the Best Actor roster (see above).
- Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men.
- Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
- Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War.
- Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood.
- Vlad Ivanov, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
- Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton.
- Max von Sydow, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
- Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn.
- Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Superbad.
Best First Film
Actors turned directors Sarah Polley and Ben Affleck did quite well in this category.
- Away from Her, Sarah Polley.
- Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck.
Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy.
- Control, Anton Corbijn.
- Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud.
- In Between Days, So Yong Kim.
- 12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu.
- Great World of Sound, Craig Zobel.
L’Iceberg, Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon & Bruno Romy.
Manda Bala / Send a Bullet by Jason Kohn.
No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson.
The Band’s Visit, Eran Kolirin.
The Lookout, Scott Frank.
No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the U.S.-made Iraq War disaster, has already won several awards from critics’ groups and is a likely Oscar contender.
- No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson.
- Into Great Silence, Philip Gröning.
Lake of Fire, Tony Kaye.
- Terror’s Advocate, Barbet Schroeder.
- Manda Bala / Send a Bullet by Jason Kohn.
- The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Seth Gordon.
Manufactured Landscapes, Jennifer Baichwal.
My Kid Could Paint That, Amir Bar-Lev.
West of the Tracks, Wang Bing.
- I for India, Sandhya Suri.
Our Daily Bread, Nikolaus Geyrhalter.
Sicko, Michael Moore.
The Cats of Mirikitani, Linda Hattendorf.
The Life of Reilly, Frank L. Anderson & Barry Poltermann.
The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Sophie Fiennes.
Best Undistributed Film
Secret Sunshine also topped the indieWIRE critics’ poll as the no. 1 Best Undistributed Film in the United States.
- Secret Sunshine, Lee Chang-dong.
- Useless, Jia Zhang-Ke.
- In the City of Sylvia, José Luis Guerín.
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, Eric Rohmer.
- Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, John Gianvito.
The Man from London, Béla Tarr.
You the Living, Roy Andersson.
- Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield & La France, Serge Bozon.
- Frownland, Ronald Bronstein.
Import/Export, Ulrich Seidl.
These Encounters of Theirs, Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet.
Final remarks about “critical thinking” in 2007: the Village Voice/LA Weekly list also includes, with fewer votes, the year’s worst films. Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and Rob Reiner’s The Bucket List were the top picks, followed by Zack Snyder’s 300 and Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II.
Next in line is Jason Reitman’s popular and generally well-received Juno, which goes to show that one person’s fun-fun-fun movie is another’s monumental bore – or worse.
Javier Bardem No Country for Old Men image: Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage.
Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek In the Bedroom image: Miramax Films.
Jake Gyllenhaal Zodiac image: Paramount Pictures / Warner Bros.
“’Critical Thinking’ & Oscar Influence + Eclectic & International Critics’ Poll” last updated in September 2018.