The National Board of Review kicked things off by naming Mad Max: Fury Road its Best Picture and giving acting awards to Matt Damon (The Martian), Brie Larson (Room), Sylvester Stallone (Creed), and Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight). The New York Film Critics Circle countered with Carol, Michael Keaton (Spotlight), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), and Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria). Last weekend, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association picked Spotlight as its Best Picture, and recognized the performances of Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs), Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), Michael Shannon (99 Homes), and Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina). Best Director went to Ridley Scott for The Martian, Todd Haynes for Carol, and George Miller for Mad Max, respectively.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, critics are speaking up for a popular summer hit and big-budget franchise reboot that received uncommon praise for its artistry and craft. The Martian is another blockbuster drawing plaudits for elaborating upon a blueprint audiences have been handed a dozen times before. Films like Carol, Room, and Brooklyn are small end-of-year dramas that are more typical critics group fare. Rylance and Fassbender were honored for their work in films that underwhelmed on opening but are now gathering steam, and Los Angeles critics’ awarding Alicia Vikander for the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina served as a mild rebuke to her more conventionally awards friendly work in The Danish Girl, in which she plays a tearful wife (which, unfortunately, is practically the definition of Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars).
Then there are the most idiosyncratic choices. By honoring tiny indie flicks like Clouds of Sils Maria, 99 Homes, and 45 Years, these groups are seeking to revive chatter about worthy but basically forgotten films just in time for Oscar voting, which is the entire point of being a film critic. Rather than just reinforcing tired narratives—there was one year when every group gave half of its major awards to Sideways, in case people didn’t get that it was well-liked by critics—they’re making an effort to highlight choices that can start conversations. They’ve even managed at the same time to acknowledge audience favorites like Stallone, throwing some weight behind a candidate who might otherwise seem like a sentimental choice at best.
So what of the Oscar race? Things will be somewhat illuminated by the Golden Globe nominations, which are announced Thursday. But that group’s penchant for picking Hollywood superstars, and its division of film nominations into “comedies” and “dramas,” will only reinforce the wide-open nature of the race. Some have pointed out that the “wide-open” narrative crops up on Oscar prognostication websites every year, a tired cliché journalists lean on until the Globes and various Guild awards bring things into tighter focus. But this year it really is the case: The “frontrunner” narrative has so far failed to take shape, with a relatively even balance of arguments for and against the potential winners.