Soon the year-end critics' awards may give us the first tangible indicators of where Oscar season could be going. When the New York Film Critics Circle votes on December 3, I don't want to hear just the expected names and biggest campaigners parroted back to us. I want voters to think outside the box -- because what distinguishes the top critics from other award voters is the single most important factor: they see everything.
That's why relatively obscure films like "Yi-Yi" and "Waltz with Bashir" sometimes win Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics, and why great, underseen performances by Kim Hye-ja ("Mother") and Yun Jeong-hie ("Poetry") have won Best Actress from the Los Angeles critics. And was I the only one who did a happy dance when the New York critics awarded the screenplay for "The Secret Lives of Dentists" in 2002? For that matter, am I the only one still excited about a screenplay win from 2002? Must be the writing nerd in me.
Usually, Oscar voters spurn such picks, but on occasion they're inspired by them. Take, for example, Marcia Gay Harden ("Pollock"), who wasn't nominated by the Golden Globes or Screen Actors Guild Awards, but that didn't matter. The bounce she got from winning at the New York Film Critics Circle was strong enough to propel her across the Oscar finish line.
This year it may be hard to get around the one-two punch of "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity." In any other year those films might have swept the way "The Social Network" did in 2010; in fact, with 97 and 96 on Metacritic, respectively, "12 Years" and "Gravity" have actually outscored "The Social Network."
Truth be told it would be hard to fault the critics if they do end up splitting all the major prizes between those films. So far "12 Years" and "Gravity" are the best I've seen this year by a wide margin. But there's no shortage of other worthy films to consider, so there's room to spread the wealth.
"Blue is the Warmest Color" is the foreign film most likely to be singled out by critics' groups, but I hope they can also find room for "The Hunt," particularly Mads Mikkelsen's performance as a teacher wrongly accused of sex abuse. He's already a proven winner, taking Best Actor at Cannes in 2012.
A number of other films enjoyed critical acclaim that exceeds their Oscar buzz, like "Short Term 12," "Frances Ha," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "The Spectacular Now." The sci-fi comedy "The World's End," about a pub crawl interrupted by the apocalypse, is the last film you'd expect to be an awards contender, but it scored higher on Metacritic than "Blue Jasmine," "Prisoners," "The Butler" and "Rush."
Maybe I'm forgetting something. Critics, if there's a great three-hour Lithuanian movie about the human condition I've missed, you've probably seen it, and you should give awards to it. Because there's plenty of time to whittle down the possible contenders into the definite contenders, but until then we can still recognize that there's more to honoring films than just anticipating what the Academy will do.
What under-the-radar films and performances would you like to see nominated? Visit our message boards, where our posters are rooting for films including "Stoker," "The Place Beyond the Pines," "The Way Way Back," and "Kill Your Darlings."