Alex's Oscar Column #03

December 19, 1999

New York Film Critics Circle Award Reactions

The venerable New York Film Critics Circle is inarguably one of the most influential of critics organizations, and their award selections often play an important factor in getting exposure for films prior to the Oscar nomination ballot deadline. While they have a reputation for rewarding dark-horse candidates -- the offbeat selection of Cameron Diaz as Best Actress for her work in last year There's Something About Mary prompted double-takes across the continent -- they've been surprisingly reliable in singling out eventual Best Picture Oscar nominees. You'd have to go back to Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas in 1995 to find a NYFCC Best Picture winner that didn't go on to nab an Academy Award nomination.

This makes their 1999 recognition of Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy as the NYFCC Best Picture, and Leigh himself as the Best Director winner, particularly interesting. While the selection can't be said to have come out of nowhere (kudos to Scott Tobias for accurately predicting in the previous Oscar column "that critics groups will rain prizes on it"), it's not one which many were expecting -- I, for one, certainly hadn't -- and even notorious curmudgeon Leigh seemed pleased with the recognition, allowing "I don't especially like that they pit us filmmakers in competition with each other, but it is awfully nice to have this double approbation. It certainly helps the profile of the film."

That it most certainly does. USA Films must be crowing at their good fortunes, with Topsy-Turvy now emerging alongside Being John Malkovich as a genuine double-threat for Oscar nominations in multiple categories; if nothing else, the high-profile success of the Leigh picture with the New York Film Critics Circle certainly augments its 'must-see' among Academy members a few notches. In this wide-open year, confirmed by the fact that as of this writing five major critics' groups have weighed in with each of them citing different films as their respective Best Picture winners, this fortune would seem to elevate Topsy-Turvy, Leigh, and probably lead actor Jim Broadbent as being genuine Oscar threats. (I remain intriguinged by Mr. Tobias' comment that Leigh's Gilbert & Sullivan picture is 'more accessible' than Secrets & Lies, considering that I thought the latter was eminently accessible.)

Fledgling USA Films, the amalgamation of the former Polygram Filmed Entertainment and October Films which was created this year, also must be pleased with the New York Film Critics Circle for bestowing their Supporting Actor and Actress prizes to John Malkovich and Catherine Keener, respectively, from Being John Malkovich. Both must be considered leading candidates for Academy Award nominations in their respective categories.

Other than the Topsy-Turvy victories, the New York Film Critics Circle awards heralded little in the way of surprises. Best Actor winner Richard Farnsworth of The Straight Story seems en route to an Oscar nomination, and the much-feted Best Actress Hilary Swank seems guaranteed to have her name announced in February for her work in Boys Don't Cry; at this point, she's far and away the frontrunner in the category and would appear to be a solid bet to win the Oscar. Foreign-Language Film winner All About My Mother is similarly a lock to get an Oscar nomination, and will probably pick up the gold statute come March. Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club also appears to be destined for a nomination in the feature documentary category, although given the history of this category in the Academy, you can never be too sure.

Despite the Screenplay prize from the NYFCC for Election (and the preceding New Generation award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association), I'm still rather tentative about Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's prospects for scoring an Adapted Screenplay nomination. The competition in this category is extremely heavy -- December alone sees an onslaught of adaptations hit the screen: Angela's Ashes, The Green Mile, Snow Falling On Cedars, Girl, Interrupted, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Cider House Rules, Miss Julie, Titus, The Hurricane, Simpatico, Onegin, The End Of The Affair, A Map Of The World, Ride With The Devil, The War Zone, Anna And The King, Stuart Little (okay, this won't be a screenplay candidate). With all of those candidates, in addition to many of the earlier possibilities -- Eyes Wide Shut, The Insider, Mansfield Park, The Iron Giant, The Winslow Boy, An Ideal Husband, etc. -- I'm far from optimistic that Election can manage to wrangle a Screenplay nomination out of the Academy; a Writers Guild Award nomination would certainly held set the Payne & Taylor script apart from the rest of the field. (I'm personally also ambivalent about the excessive use of voice-over in the film; while it often works, much of the time I felt like I ought to just read the book.) One thing in its favor: the Writers Branch is much more adventurous than the Academy as a whole, and I expect it would be more receptive to the film. (As an aside, it's unfortunate that the past twelve months have seen a number of clever pictures ostensibly targetted for teens -- Rushmore, Election and Dick -- utterly fail to catch on with audiences; it reinforces the perception that loud and dumb, rather than sly and sharp, is the way to go.)

I'm also a somewhat uncertain about the Oscar prospects of NYFCC Cinematography winner Freddie Francis for his luminous work on The Straight Story. It's certainly a deserving accomplishment, but I'm uncertain if he'll be able to crack through the strong competition in the category -- Conrad L. Hall has one spot locked up, and I imagine that Emmanuel Lubezki, Dante Spinotti, Robert Richardson, and Larry Smith are among the other frontrunners.

Among the remaining NYFCC winners, Being John Malkovich's victory in the Best First Feature category over the likes of American Beauty and Boys Don't Cry bodes well, and while I'd be pleased if South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, the New York Film Critics Circle's choice for Best Animated Film, received some attention for Best Picture from the Academy, obviously I'm not counting on it. (The songs, though ...)

Toronto Film Critics Association Award Reactions

While the Toronto Film Critics Association is still relatively new -- this is only the third year in which awards have been doled out -- given that Toronto is one of North America's largest and most important film markets (with the highest per capita movie attendance on the continent) and film centers (roughly $694 million worth of film and TV production over the past year), their prize selections are increasingly gaining significance in the film awards scene.

Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights follow-up, Magnolia, was clearly the big winner with Toronto critics this year, winning the Best Picture and Director awards, along with a share of the Screenplay prize (held with Charlie Kaufman's zany Being John Malkovich script). While I remain cautious about the film's chances for a Best Picture Oscar nomination -- Anderson strikes me as the sort of filmmaker whose style, while wowing and reaping raves from many, will also irritate and alienate some -- it seems probable that Anderson may get a second Academy Award nomination for his original screenplay, and certainly his aspirations for a Direction nomination are buoyed by this acclaim.

There's otherwise little at which to remark among the Toronto winners; Hilary Swank continues to rout the competition by winning the Best Female Performance prize for her performance in Boys Don't Cry, while Oscar nomination-lock Kevin Spacey scores his first critics' prize for American Beauty. Charlie Kaufman's original screenplay for Being John Malkovich is an iron-clad lock for an Academy Award nomination; you can bet your pension on this one. That Léa Pool's sensitive little Emporte-Moi (Set Me Free) won the Best Canadian Film prize over local heavyweight Atom Egoyan's latest, Felicia's Journey, is rather indicative of the latter's cool reception and minimal Oscar prospects.

Golden Satellite Nominee Reactions

As in virtually every year, I'd literally forgotten about the Golden Satellites until their nominations were announced. An offshoot of disgruntled members from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the International Press Association are now in fourth year and have grown to 240 members, yet remain quite low in profile; while strategically adopting a position in the calendar where their award nominations precede those of their rival Golden Globes, the Golden Satellites still do not receive nearly as much attention in the media or, it seems, in the industry itself as their counterparts; trade advertisements glow over Golden Globe nominations received, but Satellite recognition is rarely mentioned.

My primary problem with the Golden Satellites is that they are far too indiscriminate with their recognition. While the Golden Globes have thirteen competitive film categories, the Satellites maintain twenty-four, each consisting of six, rather than five, nominees. By dividing all of the performance categories into "Drama" and "Comedy Or Musical", and throwing in a "Animated/Mixed Media" Best Picture category, they stretch the competition in each of the categories very thin; it diminishes the significance and value of a Satellite nomination when there are so many which are issued, several which go to mediocre accomplishments that could be deemed as "filler" in order to simply make up the requisite six candidates per slot. The International Press Association should really consider tightening up on the number of categories -- it's fairly transparent that the motivation over doling out so many nominations is to assist studios in promotion of their films, and it hurts their credibility as a legitimate press (as opposed to publicist) organization. (I'm dismayed by how some so-called film critics' groups seem to operate under the perception that their function is to serve as a publicity wing for studios; while they need not necessarily be adversaries, I hardly think it's appropriate for film critics to be determinedly complicit with studios.)

Back to the Golden Satellites. It becomes rather difficult to comment on their nominations as they've recognized almost every achievement in the film year of 1999 (okay, an overstatement, but not by much), so it may perhaps be easier to discuss what won't be a factor in the Oscar race. Among the pictures listed in the Motion Picture - Drama category, all of them are possibilities in the Best Picture Oscar race except for Snow Falling On Cedars (which fared surprisingly strongly with the Satellites); while many have had strong praise for the film's visuals and particularly Robert Richardson's cinematography, positive assessments for the film itself have been few and far between. I wouldn't count on this getting an Oscar nomination. Significant omissions: The Green Mile, The Hurricane, The Sixth Sense.

In the Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical category, on the other hand, almost none of the films are likely to be in the running for the Best Picture Academy Award race; the only possibility would be dark horse Being John Malkovich. I don't really expect that Bowfinger, Dick, Election, An Ideal Husband or Notting Hill will get anything other than negligible support in the Best Picture category from AMPAS voters. Similarly, the six pictures in the Best Picture - Animated / Mixed Media category (which really were the only viable contenders -- this must've been a no-brainer to select) are unlikely to factor in the Oscar race, although I'd certainly be glad to see The Iron Giant or Toy Story 2 surprise. (Satellite nominee Princess Mononoke is not even eligible for Academy consideration, having been Japan's foreign language film representative last year.)

I'm curious what prompted the International Press Academy to cite Sleepy Hollow as a comedy. While much of it was tongue-in-cheek and Johnny Depp's cowardly Ichabod Crane provided some chuckles, I question this classification. In any case, Johnny Depp, Rupert Everett (An Ideal Husband) and Steve Zahn (Happy, Texas) are unlikely to get Academy attention in the Best Actor category; one could make an argument for any of the other nine recognized performers. Most notable may be the omission of Tom Hanks (The Green Mile) in the Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama category, although it's certainly a more crowded lot than its Comedy/Musical counterpart. Certainly not a good sign for Hanks, though. Also conspicuous in their absence: Anthony Hopkins (Titus), Ralph Fiennes (The End Of The Affair), Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley).

In the Actress category, Snow Falling On Cedar's Youki Kudoh and Felicia's Journey's Elaine Cassidy have no chance at getting Oscar nominations -- Cassidy, in particular, was an agreeable blank. I'm also mildly dubious about Julianne Moore (An Ideal Husband), Frances O'Connor (Mansfield Park), Julia Roberts (Notting Hill) and, to some degree, Reese Witherspoon (Election). (I also wonder why All About My Mother is considered a comedy; I agree with Variety's assessment that it's a drama with comic elements -- I think its tone is more serious than, say, American Beauty, which was deemed a drama.) Notably missing in action: Julianne Moore (The End Of The Affair).

I actually like many of the Golden Satellite Supporting Actor nominees, although I'm dubious about their Oscar nomination prospects. (Bringing Out The Dead is a comedy? I'll bet that would be news to Martin Scorsese.) I thought that Doug Hutchison's performance in The Green Mile was much more noteworthy than his Oscar-favored co-star Michael Clarke Duncan, although I'm dubious his possibilities about actually getting an Academy Award nomination. Titus nominee Henry J. Lennix should be considered a contender for AMPAS attention, and while I didn't care for Happy, Texas, William H. Macy was certainly the best thing in the picture. It's also nice to see Dan Hedaya get some recognition for his amusing turn as Richard Nixon in Dick. I found Rhys Ifans terribly irritating in Notting Hill, but grant that a significant number thought that he stole the movie from his illustrious co-stars. On the other hand, I felt vaguely embarassed for Alan Rickman for Dogma (that is, until I saw him in trailers for Galaxy Quest -- cripes!); he certainly won't be getting an Oscar nomination. Glaring omissions: John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich), someone from American Beauty. (Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense was cited for the Outstanding New Talent prize and pulled from competition.)

The Supporting Actress category is so up in the air that I don't really have all too many qualms about the Golden Satellite choices. I don't expect that Erykah Badu (The Cider House Rules), Charlize Theron (ditto), Tori Spelling (Trick) or An Ideal Husband's Cate Blanchett (whom I liked) will get any substantial AMPAS support, but the remaining Satellite nominees are all possibilities to varying degrees. (Despite Sissy Spacek's limited screen time in The Straight Story, she's someone I should have included in my initial assessment of the category, particularly given the nature of her character.) No real glaring omissions here, other than arguably Julianne Moore (Magnolia) or Thora Birch (American Beauty).

Among the Satellite Director selections, I'm skeptical about Scott Hicks' chances for his helming of Snow Falling On Cedars; the remaining five nominees are viable Oscar possibilities. Similarly, in the Original Screenplay category, after shedding Golden Satellite nominee Pamela Gray for A Walk On The Moon, the other five nominated screenplays may very well constitute the final five Academy Award nominees. On the other hand, the Adapted Screenplay category features three Golden Satellite nominees which probably will not factor heavily into the Oscar race -- Felicia's Journey, Onegin, and A Map Of The World.

I'm pleased that the International Press Association recognized Michael Howells' nice production design on An Ideal Husband; I feared that his fine accomplish would be forgotten come year-end. The visually sumptuous The Emperor And The Assassin scored strongly in the Golden Satellites in technical categories, but it's questionable whether or not the cliquish AMPAS branches will be as receptive. I'm pleased that the overpraised Eugenio Zannetti production design in The Haunting was passed over, and am a little surprised that John Fenner of Eyes Wide Shut and Gavin Bocquet (Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace) didn't receive any cites for their solid work. Dante Ferretti (Titus), Luciana Arrighi (Anna And The King) and especially Rick Heinrichs (Sleepy Hollow) all seem Oscar-bound.


Given the time-sensitive nature of the subsequent section of this column -- the Golden Globe nominees are due to be announced tomorrow morning -- I'm going to delay the Mailbag section until the next Oscar column.

Golden Globe Nominee Predictions

My usual disclaimers: I'm hardly an expert on the tastes of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, as my track record (laughable as it is) at predicting nominees will certainly attest -- a pathetic 60% in the "major" categories last year (down from 71% in 1997), with a miserable 49% overall in 1998 (dropping from 63% in 1997). I find that it really takes a different sort of mindset when considering Golden Globe nominations as opposed to Oscar nominations -- the HFPA seems more susceptible to trends and star power when selecting their nominees; the celebrity factor often plays an important role. (Or, as David Poland of bluntly puts it: "the Globes are a freakin' slut fest".) I also do not have an eligibility list for the Globes; some of the performances or achievements I cite may not have been screened prior to the HFPA deadline and hence are invalid picks.

That being said, here are my predictions (otherwise known as wild, flailing guesses with little basis in reality) for this year's upcoming Golden Globe nominees. (Note that these do not indicate my own personal preferences in any way -- often quite the contrary.)

Best Motion Picture - Drama
American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes
The Hurricane, directed by Norman Jewison
The Insider, directed by Michael Mann
Magnolia, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
The Talented Mr. Ripley, directed by Anthony Minghella

Best Motion Picture - Musical / Comedy
Analyze This, directed by Harold Ramis
Being John Malkovich, directed by Spike Jonze
An Ideal Husband, directed by Oliver Parker
Man On The Moon, directed by Milos Forman
Notting Hill, directed by Roger Michell

Best Performance By An Actor In A Motion Picture - Drama
Russell Crowe, The Insider
Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story
Kevin Spacey, American Beauty
Denzel Washington, The Hurricane

Best Performance By An Actor In A Motion Picture - Musical / Comedy
Jim Carrey, Man On The Moon
Rupert Everett, An Ideal Husband
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Flawless
Sean Penn, Sweet And Lowdown
Robin Williams, Bicentennial Man

Best Performance By An Actress In A Motion Picture - Drama
Annette Bening, American Beauty
Jodie Foster, Anna And The King
Julianne Moore, The End Of The Affair
Meryl Streep, Music Of The Heart
Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry

Best Performance By An Actress In A Motion Picture - Musical / Comedy
Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
Julianne Moore, An Ideal Husband
Julia Roberts, Notting Hill
Sharon Stone, The Muse
Reese Witherspoon, Election

Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role In A Motion Picture
Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules
Tom Cruise, Magnolia
Michael Clark Duncan, The Green Mile
Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense
Christopher Plummer, The Insider

Best Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role In A Motion Picture
Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense
Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted
Julianne Moore, Magnolia
Samantha Morton, Sweet And Lowdown
Sharon Stone, Simpatico

Best Director - Motion Picture
Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia
Michael Mann, The Insider
Sam Mendes, American Beauty
Anthony Minghella, The Talented Mr. Ripley
M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture
American Beauty: Alan Ball
Being John Malkovich: Charlie Kaufman
The Cider House Rules: John Irving
Magnolia: Paul Thomas Anderson
The Sixth Sense: M. Night Shyamalan

Best Foreign Language Film
All About My Mother, directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Earth, directed by Deepa Mehta
The King Of Masks, directed by Wu Tianming
The Red Violin, directed by François Girard
Three Seasons, directed by Tony Bui

Best Original Score - Motion Picture
American Beauty: Thomas Newman
The Cider House Rules: Rachel Portman
The Green Mile: Thomas Newman
Sleepy Hollow: Danny Elfman
Toy Story 2: Randy Newman

Best Original Song - Motion Picture
"(I) Get Lost", The Story Of Us
"Then You Look At Me", Bicentennial Man
"When She Loved Me", Toy Story 2
"The World Is Not Enough", The World Is Not Enough
"You'll Be In My Heart", Tarzan

Will I do even worse than last year? (Is that even possible?) Tune in on the 20th to find out...

Reactions to the Golden Globe nominees and other critics' awards in the next column, as well as more responses to feedback, questions and suggestions. Feedback? -- e-mail me. (From here on, any Oscar-related correspondence received will be presumed to be approved for possible use in future columns with the originator identified, unless indicated otherwise.)

Alex Fung (

Back to film page.