Critics' Awards Preview: Who Needs 'Em the Most?

Meet our new awards expert Joe Reid — keep up with his column for the predictions, news and opinions you’ll need to sound well-informed at parties for the entire awards season.

Next week marks the beginning of an important stage in the Oscar season: the critics' awards. After that comes an equally important stage in the Oscar season: people talking about how the critics' awards don't matter. The argument is that there is zero crossover between the people who vote for the critics' awards (that being, um, critics) and people who vote for the Oscars (that being various retired members of the Hollywood filmmaking community and also some agents).

It is, of course, completely true. But it doesn't mean the critics have no effect. If nothing else, a citation from a major critics organization -- and in this case we're talking about the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Board of Review* -- brings much needed attention to an awards contender. This is particularly true if the awarded film is a small release, or from earlier in the year, or a tough sell. Anything to convince potential Oscar voters that this is a movie you need to see.

*There is a whole other conversation full of indignant words about how the National Board of Review aren't critics at all but rather a shadowy cabal of back-slappers and star-gazers, but I'm not even getting into that. For the purposes of our conversation, the attention that an NBR prize garners works just as well as if they were "real" critics.

Of course, the critics' awards have value in and of themselves. One of the reasons awards season can become so tiresome is this idea that everything has to snake back to the Oscars. Some of my favorite critics' awards have gone to films and performers who have had no Oscar prospects at all. Yoon Jeong-hee winning the LAFCA Best Actress award for "Poetry" last year hopefully inspired a whole bunch of people who may not have seen that movie to watch if only to see what all the fuss was about.

But let's set the idea of left-field choices aside for the moment. We can let the critics surprise us when they vote next week (the New York critics on Monday, NBR on Wednesday, and the L.A. critics on Friday). What interests me are the movies that seemingly NEED a boost from the critics, either to fan flames that might be at risk of dying out, or to ignite a campaign we might not have even thought about. Here are, in no particular order, the eight films or performers who need to feel the critics' love the most.

#1 - "The Master"

Paul Thomas Anderson's film was THE choice among highbrow critics when it premiered in September. Since then, the rapturous early reviews were challenged by a second wave of underwhelming reactions. Now, what seemed to be a lock for the Oscars' artsy slot looks like it's in danger of sliding off ballots entirely. There's hope, though. In 2007, the Los Angeles critics named PTA's "There Will Be Blood" Best Film and Anderson Best Director, so clearly they're attuned to his rhythms. An acting prize or two also wouldn't hurt the chances of Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, or Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Phoenix especially could benefit from the support of critics, if only to supersede his recent cranky comments about how much he hates the Oscar race.

#2 - "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Indies always hope that the critics will take up their cause and help them make up for the star-power deficit that hampers them during an awards campaign. "Beasts" is a great underdog story, and a Best Picture citation, or Best Actress for Quvenzhane Wallis would go a long way to firming up those Oscar chances. But the person who could most take advantage of some love from the critics is director Benh Zeitlin. Take a moment and consider the competition he's up against this year: Spielberg. Zemeckis. Former winners Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, and Ang Lee. Former nominees David O. Russell, Quentin Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson. A-list actor Ben Affleck. Avant Garde legend Michael Haneke. Best Director is shaping up to be a bloodbath, and Zeitlin can use all the firepower he can amass.

#3 - "Argo"

ArgoFor a while there, "Argo" had the whole field to itself. It looked like Ben Affleck was poised to join fellow actors-turned-directors like Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, and Clint Eastwood, all having directed Best Picture winners. Then "Lincoln" showed up and made it a two-horse race. Now, in the span of about three weeks, the field is five-wide at least, with "Les Miserables," "Silver Linings Playbook," and "Zero Dark Thirty" all laying claim to the top spot. "Argo" needs some of that spotlight back. On paper, it seems like the perfect crowd-pleasing, artistically middlebrow movie to take the NBR Best Picture award. The trouble is, you could say the same about "Les Mis," "Lincoln," and "Silver Linings." In fact, I wouldn't be shocked to see "Life of Pi" take the top spot, feeling as it does like the perfect literary/fantastical combination of "The Hours" and "Hugo," two recent NBR winners.

#4 - "Zero Dark Thirty"

It's premiering at the exact right time, looking to dominate the conversation just when awards voters are starting to narrow their lists. If Kathryn Bigelow can pick up a Best Director notice (she won both the LAFCA and NYFCC in 2009 for "The Hurt Locker"), she starts looking very solid for the Oscar nomination. Jessica Chastain is already looking solid for the Oscar nomination. Now what she needs to do is elbow Jennifer Lawrence out of the way for some of these Best Actress awards. "The Hunger Games" means that Lawrence is always going to have the advantage of notoriety in this race. What Chastain needs to firm up is the idea that she's the actresses' actress.

#5 - Emmanuelle Riva and Naomi Watts

At the risk of the LAFCA striking me down with a bolt of lightning and another unpredictable awardee, the only other women in play for big-time Best Actress love are Riva, who has so consistently knocked critics out in "Amour," and Watts, who gets put through the wringer in "The Impossible." Even moreso than Chastain, Riva could do quite well playing the actorly card. And in Riva's favor, the L.A. critics haven't awarded an English-speaking actress since Sally Hawkins in 2008, haven't awarded an English-speaking actress in an American film since Vera Farmiga in "Down to the Bone" in 2005, and haven't awarded an English-speaking actress in an American film that anybody had heard of at the time since ... well, Naomi Watts in 2003 for "21 Grams."

#6 - Hugh Jackman, Denzel Washington, and John Hawkes

Once again, Daniel Day-Lewis is poised to make mincemeat of the critics awards. Both New York and L.A. critics have named him Best Actor three times, for "My Left Foot," "Gangs of New York," and "There Will Be Blood" (the NY critics had also thrown in a Best Supporting Actor for "My Beautiful Laundrette" previous to those). If he sweeps again, it's going to seem very hard to slow him down before taking home Oscar #3. If any of his competitors are hoping for an outside shot, unseating him as Critics' Choice would be a great start.

#7 - Any Supporting Actress Besides Anne Hathaway or Helen Hunt

As I've said before, Supporting Actress is heavy at the top -- just try unseating Hathaway or Hunt, or Sally Field, for that matter -- but it is hilariously wide open in those fourth and fifth slots. The accepted wisdom is that Hathaway is going to steamroll all competition with the critics as well, but it's an awfully mainstream performance in an awfully mainstream movie. A left-field citation for an Ann Dowd ("Complance") or a Kristen Stewart ("On the Road") or a Salma Hayek ("Savages") (okay, probably not a critics award) (but I'm keeping hope alive) could be a huge boost into open air.

#8 - The Screenplay Contenders

At this point, Best Picture is probably not in the cards for the majority of tiny films and indie contenders. But the screenplay categories often serve as a soft landing for well-regarded films that play as "too small" (whatever that means) for the bigger categories. It's an unfair hierarchy, but here we are. Anyway, a good showing with the critics could vault any number of smaller pictures into solid screenplay contention. Particularly something like "Middle of Nowhere," which just scored big at the Indie Spirits. Or "Promised Land," which is in danger of getting swallowed up by the big December releases. Or "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," or "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." The latter two are in the much more prestige-heavy Adapted Screenplay category, but momentum is momentum, and it could very well start here.