Do Movie Critics Matter?

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In years with no clear front-runner, the Academy membership needs to consult critics' prizes with even greater care. So the Oscar voters will listen to us. How do I know? Because they usually do. And how do I know that? I have the research to back me up.

Here's what I did. I looked at the last four years of awards from five critics' groups: Boston, L.A., the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics' Circle. In each group I tallied looked the so-called six major categories — film, director, actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress — to see which awards matched with the Academy's. To these I applied a computation system so complex that only Bill James and his sabermetricians could understand or appreciate: two points for each critics' choice that won an Oscar, one point for each choice that got nominated, and none if the film or person was shut out. I call it the Oscrit scale.

In almost all cases, the critics' groups had anticipated Oscar nominations at least half of the time, and they often foretold the winners. Last year, for instance, the Boston group gave prizes to three who would be Academy winners (Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote as best actor, Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line as best actress, and Ang Lee for directing Brokeback Mountain) and three that didn't win but were nominated (Brokeback Mountain as best film, Paul Giamatti in Cinderella Man for supporting actor and Catherine Keener in Capote for supporting actress). Of the L.A. critics' prizes, two went to eventual Oscar winners and the other four to Oscar nominees. Et cetera.

Over the four years of my survey, the best predictor of Oscar glory was the National Society of Film Critics (with 27 points on the Oscrit scale), followed by the National Board of Review (25), L.A. (24), Boston (23) and New York (20). Perhaps the NSFC has an advantage because it votes in early January, long after the other critics have convened. That group has three or four weeks to sniff out the zeitgeist and, more important, get a perspective on the serious holiday films the rest of us have been shown in early December and have little time to reflect on.

Once in a while the critics' awards will have little overlap with the Oscar nominations. It happens when critics go crazy for some genre-bending effort — like Far from Heaven in 2002 or A History of Violence last year — that most Academy members just don't get. But that's the exception, not the rule. In general, all five groups are reliable forecasters of Oscar nominations.

Over the next few weeks, the publicity people will crank up their machinery around our prizes. The winners will rehearse the speeches they'll give at our awards parties, always saving the best lines in case, just in case, they need them on Oscar Night (Feb. 25). And we critics crawl back in our holes, happy at the anonymity. You see, we don't think it's our job to herald the Academy nominations. We're mainly interested in writing judiciously about the medium we love, and noodging people to challenge themselves, once in a while, at the movies.

Getting readers to see, and think about, good films: that's our reward, and award.

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