The New York Film Critics Expand the Oscar Race, for a Change

Momentum is gathering behind Boyhood, but no consensus has emerged on Best Actor and Actress.

The Weinstein Company

Just when it looked like the critics' awards portion of awards season had fallen into terminal lockstep with the steady march of the Oscar campaigns, here come the 2014 New York Film Critics Circle awards to disrupt that narrative—and a few others.

The 80-year-old New York institution gathered on Monday morning to vote on the year's best films. Its members emerged with Richard Linklater's Boyhood taking the top prize for Best Film, along with awards for Best Director (Linklater) and Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette). This, in and of itself, wasn't a huge leap for the NYFCC. Boyhood has been circling the Oscar conversation for months now, and while presumed contenders like Birdman and The Imitation Game have stepped up to challenge it, it remains one of the season's better bets.

But the New York Critics almost appeared determined to step outside of any kind of Oscar narrative with the rest of their awards. Best Actress went to Marion Cotillard, for her performances in both The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night, two festival-circuit hits that either hasn't made much of a splash publicly and hasn't opened at all yet, respectively. In choosing Cotillard, the NYFCC bypassed well-reviewed performances from Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon, and Rosamund Pike, generally agreed to be the actresses most solidly in contention for the Best Actress Oscar. It's not unprecedented; Rachel Weisz won in 2012 for a performance in The Deep Blue Sea that lay on the outskirts of Oscar plausibility. But in general, the NYFCC has hewed to the Streeps and Mirrens and Blanchetts who didn't necessarily need a critics-award boost to aid their Oscar chances, but got one anyway.

For Best Actor, similarly, the NYFCC went for a performance that sits uncomfortably in many Oscar forecasters' maybe-not-definitely pile: Timothy Spall in the soon-to-open British import Mr. Turner. The citations for both Cotillard and Spall—as well as for Jennifer Kent's Aussie horror film The Babadook in Best First Film and Darius Khondji's cinematography for The Immigrant—recall a time when the major film-critics awards (the NYFCC, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Board of Review) would throw their support behind a contender and attempt to put them into the conversation. As awards season has gotten longer, more bloated, and more publicized, it's become harder and harder to get the sense that any contender might take the race by surprise. Even Cotillard and Spall weren't off the map entirely. But things had been trending in the opposite direction.

When the NYFCC handed its top prizes to American Hustle last year, the divisive reaction was in part because it felt like the critics were abdicating their place in the awards ecosystem and just going with the hot Oscar hand of the moment. If nothing else, it seems the New York critics have once again decided to go their own way.

The other promising conclusion to draw from the NYFCC awards is that we may be looking at quite a few wide-open races for the Oscars. Sure, it's still likely that Julianne Moore's performance as a college professor diagnosed with Alzheimer's will pave the way for a career-honoring Best Actress win. And in a couple months' time, people might look at these Boyhood victories as the first step on an inevitable stomp down the road. But nothing quite feels like a consensus yet. Birdman was shut out here but might come roaring back with the L.A. critics. Harvey Weinstein isn't finished with The Imitation Game yet. Selma still feels like it's gathering steam. At this stage, and with picks like Spall and Cotillard, it's exciting to think that the critics might be working to expand the field of possibilities rather than narrow it.