Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors

2011 NSFC Awards: liner notes

This coming Tuesday, Jan. 24, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce nominees for its 2011 awards. In at least one large-looming respect, the slate is by definition unpredictable. After two years of fielding ten nominations in the Best Picture category (as opposed to five every year between 1944 and 2008), the Academy has rejiggered the rules in a way that means we not only can’t predict what will be nominated—we can’t predict how many films will be nominated. Could be five, could be ten, could be anywhere in between. The elusiveness inheres in the new requirement that, in addition to accumulating a lot of points in the overall nomination voting, a film has to be the first-place choice of at least 250 of the Academy’s several thousand active members. We can be fairly confident of a few films that will qualify: the charming specialty number The Artist, a black-and-white silent movie about the era when talkies took over the medium; The Descendants, a warm but not at all sappy or gooey comedy-drama of a family in crisis, in paradisiacal Hawaii yet; and Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s first-ever movie for the family market, a 3-D tour de force and another picture hearkening back to the dawn of cinema. The outlook for critical faves such as The Tree of Life, Melancholia, and Drive is much more problematical, especially with such conventional Oscar bait as The Help and War Horse chomping noisily at the bit. I’ve pretty much given up on the idea of my own top film of 2011, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, showing up anywhere but perhaps the Best Actor category (all hail George Smiley, I mean Gary Oldman). Astoundingly, the actors’ guild failed to extend a Best Ensemble nomination to that film’s world-class cast—and the ensemble award is often predictive of what will take Best Picture on Oscar night.

Meanwhile, I’ve recently pored over the tally sheets from the Jan. 7 awards voting by the National Society of Film Critics Awards, so I can fill in some gaps in the original report I posted. Nothing world-shaking. This wasn’t one of those years when a film scored by far the greatest number of points on the initial Best Picture ballot, only to lose much of its voting strength—and the award—on subsequent votes. (That happened to Saving Private Ryan, in both Picture and Director categories, in 1998.) See, NSFC rules hold that to win in any category, the candidate must achieve a plurality of points and appear on the ballots of a majority of the members voting. Since there’s no prior slate of nominees, and members are free to vote for any three candidates they choose among myriad possibilities, the arithmetic can get spread pretty thin and first-ballot victories tend to be rare.

In the latest contest for Best Picture, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life outpointed its closest competitor, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, 33 to 29 on the first ballot. With 48 members participating (remarkable: that’s only eight shy of the current membership total, 56), a film needed to have support from at least 25 voters (doesn’t matter whether it’s a first-, second-, or third-place vote). No film came close. Tree of Life got 18 votes; Melancholia, 13. At this stage of the voting, all proxy ballots—the votes of members not present at the voting site (nowadays, New York City landmark Sardi’s)—drop out. This year (as with Saving Private Ryan), apparently much of the constituency for Tree of Life must have been out-of-towners; its point score dropped to 28, on 11 voters’ ballots. Melancholia stood firm, scoring exactly the same number of points it had the first time, 29, on only one fewer ballot than before, 12. With the voting population drastically reduced on this second go-round, that was good enough to qualify as a majority. Melancholia by a nose; Tree of Life first runner-up.

Minutiae: 32 films got some kind of vote on the first ballot for Best Picture. On the second, there were only 15. Numbers three through eight on the first ballot were: Hugo (25/12), The Artist (24/11), the Iranian film A Separation (23/10), A Dangerous Method (22/11), The Descendants (18/9), and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (13/7). On the second and decisive ballot the order changed to A Separation (20/11), Hugo (17/11), The Artist (13/7), A Dangerous Method and the long-shelved Kenneth Lonergan picture Margaret (both 6/3), and The Descendants (5/3). Make of that what you will.

Best Director also was settled in two ballots, and in this case the order of preference at the top didn’t change. Terrence Malick enjoyed dramatically higher support, 45 points from 20 voters, than closest rivals Martin Scorsese (29/14) and Lars von Trier (28/13). But even with his big lead, Malick still hadn’t been on a majority of ballots cast, so the people in the room tore some new voting slips and made it official: Malick, Tree of Life, Best Director with 31 points from 12 voters (nine of those giving him their top vote), versus 29/13 for Scorsese and 23/10 for von Trier. Asghar Farhadi, A Separation, wasn’t too far behind with 20/10. (What-have-you-done-for-us-lately Dept.: In the 2010 awards David Fincher’s The Social Network took NSFC honors for Picture and Director. This year neither Fincher nor his new film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, received a single vote.)

The arithmetic was more impressive in the Best Screenplay voting. Here Farhadi and A Separation took a dramatic lead in the first round with 40 points on 16 ballots. Moneyball was second with 28/14. Again, a second vote did it—and look, despite the significant reduction in number of people voting, A Separation lost virtually no ground, finishing with 39 points from 13 members. Read that again: every single vote A Separation received on the decisive ballot was a first-place, 3-point vote. Moneyball (by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin), the New York Film Critics Award winner in this category, stayed in second with 22/11. Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris, had been third and remained third, 16/8.

Brad Pitt had been the New York Film Critics’ choice for Best Actor, for Moneyball and The Tree of Life both, and had little trouble racking up another win with the NSFC. Bra (what’s left when we subtract the ngelina) pulled 44 points from 18 voters in initial balloting, well ahead of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s Gary Oldman, 33/14, and the closely grouped Jean Dujardin of The Artist (27/16), Michael Fassbender (of half the movies in 2011, 27/14), George Clooney for The Descendants (but probably not The Ides of March, 26/11), and Michael Shannon, Take Shelter (25/13). Yet again, a second vote was all that was needed, giving Brad Pitt 35/15. Oldman held at second, 22/11, and Dujardin at third, 19/8.

Best Actress in a Leading Role became the first category of the day to occasion a third ballot. First time around, Meryl Streep looked primed to echo her New York Film Critics win for channeling Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, with 38 points from 16 voters. Kirsten Dunst, Cannes Festival winner for Melancholia, pressed close with 33/17, followed by Yun Jung-hee of Poetry (25/11), Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn and/or Meek’s Cutoff (21/9), and Viola Davis, The Help (20/11). Dunst took the lead on the second ballot, 29/11, with Streep and Yun tied, 18/9 and 18/8, respectively. The gap widened between them and Williams (9/6), with Keira Knightley of A Dangerous Method (identically 9/6) and Anna Paquin, Margaret (9/4), now edging Davis (8/4), who was tied with Charlize Theron, Young Adult. Still not on a majority of ballots. Dunst kept her lead and won in the third round with 39/14 (almost all first-place votes). Yun eclipsed Streep, 25/11 to 20/8, to become first runner-up. Who’s the iron lady now!

Supporting Actor brought one of those neck-snappers, with the biggest point tally of the day so far still falling short of victory: that damned majority-of-ballots requirement again. The man who commanded 51 points from 22 voters was Albert Brooks, for his bloodcurdling villainous turn in Drive. As the gentleman said in another context, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. There’s no pain.” And on the second ballot, “It’s over. It’s over.” Brooks took the prize in round two with 38/14, followed—as on the first ballot—by Christopher Plummer, Beginners (24/10), and Patton Oswalt, Young Adult (19/10). We should also note that for his sublime Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method, Viggo Mortensen on the first ballot received 15 points from five voters—3-pointers all the way. He still had 15 on the second ballot, from seven voters now, and placed fourth both times.

At some point midway through 2011 it became incontrovertible that the Supporting Actress of the year—if not the actress, period—was Jessica Chastain. In the final analysis, the NSFC did not beg to differ. However, on the first ballot Chastain ran second to Janet McTeer, excellent in Albert Nobbs. McTeer drew 37 points from 18 voters, to Chastain’s 32/17. Shailene Woodley of The Descendants came third with 27/12, and several other players had a shot: Jeannie Berlin, Margaret (20/8); Octavia Spencer, The Help (19/10); Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids (17/8); Carey Mulligan, Shame (and Drive perhaps, 15/7); and Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus (15/6). In the end it was probably Chastain’s amazingly prolific year that did it. Of some half-dozen 2011 performances she was cited for The Tree of Life (one of the most iconic roles ever), Take Shelter, and The Help; her point total on the second ballot was 30, with support from 13 voters. Berlin came in second by standing firm, 19/8. Woodley, with 17/7, finished just ahead of onetime leader McTeer, 16/9.

In case you were wondering, yes, the day did boast a couple of first-ballot victories. Emmanuel Lubezki (Hungarian name, Mexican nationality) had a blowout win for Cinematography, with 31 members in good standing awarding him 76 points for his luminous work on The Tree of Life. That makes even 41 points seem a distant second; Manuel Alberto Claro got them for Melancholia (19 voters). Robert Richardson finished second runner-up for Hugo, 33/14. Foreign-Language Film was almost as big a win, with Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation claiming 67 points from 29 voters. Mysteries of Lisbon, by the late Raúl Ruiz, scored 28/14; Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, 22/9. Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy got 17 points from eight voters even though it’s mostly in English!

The other category covered by the NSFC, Nonfiction, went three ballots. Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams led on all three, finally making it official with 35 points from 13 voters. Herzog also took second runner-up for Into the Abyss (18/8). Slivered in between was his closest rival throughout, Steve James’ The Interrupters (26/9—all but one of those nine a 3-point vote).

As for the Oscar nominations, you wanna get up at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, they’re on the E! channel. Don’t expect much resemblance to what the National Society of Film Critics had on their mind.