Broadcast film critics shine light on 'Into the Wild'

With critics groups chiming in from New York, L.A., Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., this week, a predictable pattern is emerging.

The nation's top movie reviewers are in a pessimistic mood, splitting their best picture prizes, so far, between the hellish visions of Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" (National Board of Review, and N.Y. and D.C. critics groups), Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" (L.A., and N.Y. online critics), and Andrew Dominick's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (S.F. critics).

But all that gloom and doom momentum was stopped in its tracks this morning when the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. (of which we are a member) announced nominees for its annual Critics Choice Awards.

The BFCA's picks, more often than not, have in its 13-year history managed to mirror the ultimate victors at the Oscars.

The group called last year's picture and director winners -- for "The Departed" -- along with acting champs Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson.

Today the BFCA threw some surprises into the mix, giving a big boost and a leading seven nominations for "Into the Wild," including writing and directing bids for Sean Penn and three acting nods, along with best picture.

Previously, and despite "Wild's" Gotham win, the Paramount Vantage film was thought to be further down in the pack.

Runner-up was Fox Searchlight's "Juno," the feel-good comedy, with six nominations, including best picture and comedy.

These films have barely been mentioned in the major critics contests so far. Now their stock is soaring, especially if they can add Golden Globe glory on Thursday.

Add to that tally five more BFCA nominations, each for four other films that have been otherwise mostly AWOL from the critics honor rolls. These neck-and-neck films include "Atonement," "Michael Clayton" (aside from some critical love for George Clooney from NBR), "Sweeney Todd" and "Hairspray."

With that kind of even playing field, you have a picture of a race that is probably more wide open than any in recent years.

Even so, the BFCA wasn't totally at odds with the other groups. Just as it dominated most critics' lists, BFCA gave "No Country" five major nominations (picture, supporting actor, director, writer and ensemble cast). And it drew "There Will Be Blood" three times, including picture, actor and music.

San Francisco favorite "Jesse James" scored only a Casey Affleck supporting nod.

Stakes in Thursday's Golden Globe nominations (where dramas and musical/comedies are separated) are clearly raised for early favorite "American Gangster." Its only nods from BFCA were for best picture and best song.

The modest BFCA attention for "Gangster" follows a complete snub by the other critics groups and the National Board of Review. The omissions of lead actor Denzel Washington, director Ridley Scott and writer Steve Zaillian in the critics choice kudos could spell potential trouble down the road for Universal.

Or not.

As one academy member told us this week, "Everyone thinks we follow what the critics do. It's simply not true."

The competitive best actor race saw favorites Clooney, Daniel Day-Lewis and Johnny Depp named, along with more surprising long shots in indie movies, such as Emile Hirsch from "Into the Wild," Ryan Gosling of "Lars and the Real Girl" and the heavily-tattooed Viggo Mortensen from "Eastern Promises."

Washington, Russell Crowe, Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks, Tommy Lee Jones and "Atonement's" James McAvoy were among many possibilities passed by.

The inclusion of comedic turns from "Enchanted's" Amy Adams and "Juno's" Ellen Page in the best actress race (along with Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard and Julie Christie) suggests that the BFCA may be reacting to the large spate of downer flicks dominating the awards season.

It would seem voters purposely rewarded lighter fare in major categories, something Gosling's nod might also indicate.

Christie, who won her first Oscar 42 years ago, has already piled up five of the critics' best actress honors this year giving her the Big MO among the female thespians.

Cate Blanchett, in the critically drubbed "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," got the sixth nomination in the actress category, one she actually won with the original "Elizabeth" in 1998.

The BFCA can't get enough of Cate apparently since she has also turned up in the supporting actress group for her Bob Dylan impersonation in "I'm Not There."

Speaking of supporting actress, new critics darling Amy Ryan, who has so far grabbed six awards for her performance as an unfit mother in "Gone Baby Gone," was nominated by the BFCA.

This makes Ryan the odds-on favorite to win over Blanchett. She was once thought to be as invincible as Dylan. Now she may be seeing her dreams of Oscar glory blowin' in the wind.

Having picked 37 out of 40 acting nominees in the last two years that went on to get Oscar nominations, this morning's BFCA announcement throws a new wrinkle into a curious and curiouser awards season, one that just can't wait for the next stop Thursday morning when the Golden Globe contenders, the granddaddy of all precursor awards, will be unveiled.

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