National Board of Review Awards

The first “real” awards of the movie season come from the National Board of Review, notorious for throwing a few curveballs at you while tending to solidify the status of several major Oscar contenders. You can’t be too sure about some of them — as I recall they gave “Best Director” to Tim Burton last year, and he did not end up receiving an Oscar nomination — but let’s take a look anyway and see if we can discern some of the major implications.

First, we have Slumdog Millionaire being named Best Film. In my previous entry I categorized this as a “likely” Best Pic contender; now I’m not only willing to say it’s a lock for a nomination, but I’d call it the frontrunner to win the big award in ’09.

NBR also lists their ten runners-up, in no particular order. First, the non-surprises: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Gran Torino, Milk, WALL-E, The Wrestler. That leaves three movies I’d call surprises (mostly due to what’s been left out): Burn After Reading, Changeling, and Defiance. Burn After Reading is a complete left-field pick, a fun but extremely odd and very slight Coen Brothers effort. Defiance isn’t out yet, but all the early reviews I’ve seen so far have been pretty uniformly disappointing. Changeling is not a huge surprise, especially because the NBR has such a huge Clint Eastwood fetish, but it’s a little jolting to see it here rather than Revolutionary Road, The Reader, Doubt, or Rachel Getting Married. This doesn’t mean those four movies are out of contention for Best Picture, and it doesn’t mean Changeling is suddenly in. But it does confirm to me that four of the five nominees are now very likely to be Slumdog Millionaire, Benjamin Button, Milk, and Frost/Nixon, with the fight for that fifth spot looking like something of a free-for-all (though if the Academy is smart they’ll put in Dark Knight). Could both of Kate Winslet’s highly anticipated films be denied?

NBR’s Acting awards don’t help Winslet’s cause much, either. They did give Best Actor to Clint for Gran Torino, but I’m pretty sure these guys would have given it to Clint if he were in The Love Guru. I guess this does confirm he’s a reasonably likely nominee this year, though I’d still put Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, and Frank Langella ahead of him. If Clint is in there that leaves a spot for Richard Jenkins, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Brad Pitt, and right now Jenkins has the most buzz for the little-seen The Visitor. So there’s another door potentially slammed on Revolutionary Road.

For Actress, Anne Hathaway gets the call for Rachel Getting Married. This maybe does give her a slight lead in the Oscar crowd, though frankly hers wasn’t even the best performance in that film let alone any other this year. Meryl Streep will inevitably receive her billionth nomination (but probably will not win). Kristin Scott Thomas has been widely expected to get in for I’ve Loved You So Long, but that movie gets no mention from the NBR. Hmm. I’ll still classify her as “likely,” although she probably now falls behind Melissa Leo (who shares the “Spotlight Award” with Richard Jenkins) for her raved about peformance in indie Frozen River. The fifth slot may well go to Angelina Jolie, horrifying a prospect as that is — particularly if that means Sally Hawkins gets dissed for her transcendental role in Happy Go Lucky.

And Kate Winslet? Not impossible, but…well…could be at the back of the line. We will see.

NBR did not give Supporting Actor to Heath Ledger (why so serious, NBR?) but he’s still winning his posthumous Oscar. This one goes to Josh Brolin’s very serious turn in Milk, which vaults him into position as a likely nominee. Philip Seymour Hoffman will probably end up in there too for Doubt, as he’s supposed to be typically brilliant. I think James Franco might get in there for Milk as well, and maybe surprisingly the last spot seems destined to go to Robert Downey, Jr. for Tropic Thunder. I guess I’ll actually have to watch that now. If anyone else fades, Bill Irwin could sneak in there for Rachel. Another dark horse is Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road, but so far that isn’t getting nominated anywhere else so why here?

Supporting Actress goes to Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She and Viola Davis in Doubt are the only pretty sure nominees in this year’s most wide open acting category. Who else? Could have Marisa Tomei, Rosemary DeWitt (the superior female performance in Rachel), Sophie Okonedo. Benjamin Button contains a bunch of well-received supporting performances from women, including Taraji P. Henson. This may actually be Kate Winslet’s best shot at getting nominated for her Nazi turn in The Reader, but I’m not 100% she’s being submitted for the Supporting category. If she wants a shot, she should be.

Best Director has been given to David Fincher, and it’s fair to say he probably will get his first much-deserved Oscar nomination this time for Benjamin Button. Hard to believe Danny Boyle isn’t also automatically in there, although he’s listed alongside an Indian co-director for Slumdog (Loveleen Tandan) so I’m not sure if that complicates things. Gus Van Sant and Ron Howard are extremely likely as well, so once again you’re left with that mysterious fifth spot, as in the Best Pic category. The Academy will often take this chance to reward a beloved director whose film is not in Best Picture contention, as they have in recent years with Julian Schnabel, Paul Greengrass, and Mike Leigh. That could mean Leigh stands a shot again this year for Happy Go Lucky, or possibly Thomas McCarthy for The Visitor. Of course, Clint Eastwood could always swoop in and spoil everything, too.

NBR’s Adapted Screenplay award is a tie between Simon Beaufoy for Slumdog and Eric Roth for Button, and they probably will remain the two on top fighting for the Oscar. Best Original Screenplay goes to Nick Schenk for Gran Torino, who now enters a potentially fierce battle with Dustin Lance Black (Milk), Robert Siegel (The Wrestler), Woody Allen and others.

Do I really believe Revolutionary Road is going to be universally shut out from all major categories? No, not yet. But it’s definitely been hurt today, and it’s difficult to see where it’s going to fit in with all these other highly competitive films. One thing we can say after today is our big buzz winners are Gran Torino and Slumdog Millionaire, which as I mentioned now has a very clear path to Oscar immortality.

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