LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Monday's New York Film Critics Circle winners are significant, not only because it's the first announcement of the season, but also due to the uncertainty of this year's Oscar race. They also offer validation for "Boyhood" (best pic, director and supporting actress Patricia Arquette), already considered a strong contender, but some of the biggest beneficiaries (and surprises) on Monday are "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Whiplash," "Mr. Turner" and "The Immigrant," since these honors can start to influence a voter's ballot.
Those four films, winning in screenplay, acting and cinematography categories, could also impact Oscar's wide-open picture race, but there's still plenty more critics and guild awards to hand out these next few months.
Arguably the most useful for studio honchos are the National Board of Review (whose results are announced Tuesday), the AFI Awards (Dec. 8) and the Golden Globe noms (Dec. 11), since each org names 10 films, and thus offers a better cross-section of the possible contenders.
As an Academy Awards bellwether, the NYFCC winners have had a 40% accuracy rate for the past five years. Those aren't great odds, but as the handouts begin, every announcement tells a studio's execs (and their rivals) whether their hopes seem realistic. As for the NYFCC's other 60%, most (but not all) went on to at least one Oscar nomination.
IFC Films' "Boyhood" has maintained critical heat since its July release. Its win on Monday wasn't a surprise, and the film will no doubt chalk up more honors in the next few months, but the honor marks a promising start to the Oscar season for Richard Linklater's 12-years-in-the-making drama.
Double-winner "The Immigrant" also gets a big boost, with attention to Marion Cotillard and d.p. Darius Khondji. That film's biggest Oscar challenge: It has been widely seen by critics, but not by general audiences or industry awards voters. (Cotillard was awarded for her work in that film as well as the foreign-language "Two Days, One Night.")
The screenplay award for "Budapest" is a good reminder that the stylish film has substance. It's a one-two punch for Timothy Spall and "Mr. Turner," after winning the actor award at Cannes. And in another Sony Classics picture, J.K. Simmons for "Whiplash" has been predicted many times as a supporting-actor nominee.
Jennifer Kent's win for "The Babadook" as best first film is a great pat on the back, but Oscar attention is unlikely. The film is currently playing a one-week run at a single theatre in Los Angeles, and unfortunately has not been widely seen; in addition, Academy Awards voters tend to avoid horror/suspense films.
The other were not surprises: "CitizenFour" (documentary), "The Lego Movie" (animated film), and "Ida" (foreign-language).
Despite Monday's announcement, best-picture hopefuls shouldn't be discouraged by this or other upcoming critics announcements. In recent years, "Brokeback Mountain," "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Social Network" were among the films that scored well in critics awards, but ended up also-rans when Oscar's best-picture award was handed out.
Last year's NYFCC winners included "American Hustle" for best film, screenplay and supporting actress, Jennifer Lawrence. Also winning were Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave") as director; Robert Redford ("All is Lost") as actor; Cate Blanchett ("Blue Jasmine") actress; and Jared Leto ("Dallas Buyers Club") supporting.
Blanchett and Leto won the Oscar; Redford wasn't nominated; and the others were nominated but didn't win. Since 2009, the critics' winners matched the Oscar victors two out of five times in most of the above categories (though the matches were spread out among the five years, with no consistency or pattern).