Is sneaky ‘Nightcrawler’ inching its way into Oscars’ Best Picture race?

Out of the Toronto Film Festival, “Nightcrawler” just looked like a dark-horse performance vehicle for Jake Gyllenhaal, who has a showy, menacing role as a creepy newsman named Leo Bloom who sells violent crime video to a ratings-starved TV station in Los Angeles. But at recent precursor awards, the film has shown greater kudos potential. What about the Oscar race for Best Picture?

Can evil Jake Gyllenhaal (‘Nightcrawler’) snatch Oscar away from heroic rivals?

Yesterday “Nightcrawler” made the AFI’s list of the 11 best American films of the year. It was also nominated for Best Picture at the Online Film Critics Society Awards. Before that, it was included among the top 10 films by the National Board of Review, won Best Debut Director (Dan Gilroy) from the New York Film Critics Online, and was one of the most nominated films at the Independent Spirit Awards, including bids for Best Actor (Gyllenhaal), and Best Screenplay (Gilroy).

On one hand, it’s important not to put too much stock in critics’ organizations and other similar groups when it comes to predicting Oscars. While these groups help direct the traffic flow to the films academy voters need to watch before filling out their ballots, their tastes are often markedly different. NBR is full of film enthusiasts whose tastes have been skewing younger and younger in recent years. And critics often favor darker and grittier films than the industry does.

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Consider 2010, when the dark, brooding “Social Network” swept almost every available award early in the season, until industry groups started to chime in and the momentum immediately shifted to “The King’s Speech,” which never looked back. “Nightcrawler” could suffer the same kind of disconnect: a movie for critics, not the academy.

On the other hand, AFI’s list of the best films has closely resembled Oscar’s lineup for the last several years. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, seven of the nine Best Picture nominees were on the AFI’s list. In 2010, nine out of 10 Oscar nominees were cited by the AFI.

The biggest problem for “Nightcrawler” is that it’s not heroic or uplifting. The academy and its fellow industry groups usually like big, “important” films featuring characters they can rally behind, and no one’s going to rally behind the tragedy-porn news vultures in “Nightcrawler.” Sometimes films showcasing unsympathetic characters can succeed at the Oscars – like Best Picture-nominees “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” last year – but they usually require a proven Oscar pedigree; “Hustle” was directed by multiple-nominee David O. Russell, and “Wolf” was helmed by Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese, and both were chock full of Oscar-friendly stars.

Oscars frontrunners ‘Boyhood,’ ‘Selma,’ ‘Birdman’ among AFI top 11 American movies

That said, “Nightcrawler” does have a few significant advantages. One is that it includes an element of social commentary that might appeal to voters who would be hesitant to honor a straight thriller: it’s about how the corruption of the news media makes it possible for a sociopath like Leo Bloom to succeed. Setting the drama amid the Los Angeles media doesn’t hurt: it’s a world academy members will recognize.

But I think the most important thing going for “Nightcrawler” is passion. The film is not to everyone’s taste, but from what I’ve seen and heard, the people who love “Nightcrawler” truly love it, as evidenced by the recognition it has received thus far on the awards scene. It’s the kind of film that takes viewers by surprise and galvanizes them.

That’s vital because the academy’s current rules reward passionate support. As in recent years, there will be between five and 10 nominees for Best Picture, but all a film needs to be nominated is for five-percent of voters to rank it as their favorite. That’s a relatively low bar, and a film like “Nightcrawler” could clear it. After that, winning comes down to the academy’s complex preferential balloting, where consensus is the watchword, but passion is the key to a nomination.

Do you think “Nightcrawler” has enough passionate support to carry it to a surprise Best Picture nomination, or does it lack the uplift to even be considered? Click here to make your predictions in all top Oscar categories, or use our drag-and-drop menu below to get started. Your predictions generate our racetrack odds, and if you’re the user with the most accurate predictions when nominations are announced on January 15, you’ll win $1,000.

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