oscar race 2015 front-runnersEither there were a lot of great movies and performances in 2014, or there weren't very many at all. Neither scenario makes it easy to pick consensus front-runners this year, as the awards bestowed last week by the early critics' groups attest.

True, some prospects have been discussed for months. Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" doesn't seem to have hurt its Oscar prospects at all by being released way back in March, nor Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" by coming out in the summer. The New York Film Critics Circle, the first group to vote, recognized both films -- "Budapest" for Screenplay and "Boyhood" for Best Film, Director, and Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette). The NYFCC also reflected critical conventional wisdom by recognizing "Whiplash" co-star J.K. Simmons as Best Supporting Actor and "Ida" as Best Foreign Language Film.

But then, a couple days later came the awards list of the National Board of Review, another New York-based group. (Who are they? Their membership remains a mysterious, well-guarded list of people with unspecified ties to the film industry. They used to be famous for being the first group to announce its awards every year, but for the past few years, the NYFCC has managed to beat them out of the gate and upstage them. Nonetheless, both groups will host glamorous awards galas in Manhattan where the stars will come to collect the prizes announced last week.) And the NBR's picks bore little resemblance to the NYFCC's.

The NBR traditionally likes to spread the wealth. (A cynical observer might note: all the better to insure a greater number of stars will show up at its January awards ceremony.) So while the group really liked "A Most Violent Year" -- they gave it Best Film, Best Actor (Oscar Isaac) and Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain), they also cited an honorable-mention list of top 10 features, plus five documentaries, five foreign films, 10 independent films, and two "Freedom of Expression" awards (one for Jon Stewart's directing debut, "Rosewater," and one for civil-rights drama "Selma"). Plus, Isaac had to share Best Actor honors with "Birdman's" Michael Keaton. ("Birdman" also landed on the Top 10 Films list and earned a Supporting Actor prize for Edward Norton.) "The LEGO Movie" got Best Original Screenplay but not Best Animated Feature, which went to "How to Train Your Dragon 2." Clint Eastwood, long an NBR favorite and a traditional Oscar-race spoiler (for releasing little-hyped movies late in December that throw monkey wrenches into Oscar handicapping efforts) earned Best Director for his not-yet-released "American Sniper," which also landed on NBR's top 10 films list.

And then, on Sunday, came the votes from both the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Boston really liked "Boyhood" and "Birdman." The East Coast group gave "Boyhood" Best Picture, Director, Ensemble Cast, and Editing, while it gave "Birdman" Best Actor, Supporting Actress (Emma Stone), and Cinematography. It split Best Screenplay between the two films. Oh, and another Supporting Actor nod for "Whiplash's" J.K. Simmons.

As for Los Angeles, it also liked "Boyhood" for Picture, Director, Editing, and Supporting Actress (Arquette), while "Birdman" got just Best Cinematography. Simmons got yet another Supporting Actor citation, while Best Actor went to left-field choice Tom Hardy for one-man-show "Locke."

Confused yet?

The one area where there is consensus about front-runners is Best Actress -- not because a handful of women gave standout performances in 2014, but because there were so few standout roles for women that the actresses who played those roles were all but guaranteed of awards consideration. This, unfortunately, happens just about every year, as film acting continues to be largely a man's playground.

This year, those Best Actress contenders number about half a dozen: Amy Adams in "Big Eyes," Felicity Jones in "The Theory of Everything," Julianne Moore in "Still Alice" (a consensus choice confirmed by her win with the NBR), Rosamund Pike for "Gone Girl" (the only candidate most moviegoers will have seen), Hilary Swank for "The Homesman," and Reese Witherspoon for "Wild." To those names, we can now add Marion Cotillard, honored by the NYFCC and BSFC alike for her performances in both the little-seen "The Immigrant" and the not-yet-released "Two Days, One Night." And that's about it.

By contrast, there are many potential Best Actor nominees, starting with NYFCC winner Timothy Spall ("Mr. Turner") and NBR winners Isaac and Keaton. Joining Spall on the list of tortured, real-life English genius roles are Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything" and Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game." There's also David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in "Selma." Hardy wasn't really on anyone's awards shortlist, but he has to be now, thanks to the LAFCA. And don't forget Steve Carell's dramatic turn in "Foxcatcher," Jake Gyllenhaal's creepy turn in "Nightcrawler," Miles Teller's jazz prodigy in "Whiplash," or Ralph Fiennes's scheming concierge in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." And all that's before you get to the long-shot-but-not-impossible group: Bill Hader in "The Skeleton Twins," Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper," Chadwick Boseman's uncanny James Brown in "Get On Up," newcomer Jack O'Connell in Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken," or even John Lithgow in "Love Is Strange."

Still, if the critics groups that have voted so far haven't cleared up much confusion, they have done what they're supposed to do: expand the conversation to include as many worthwhile candidates as possible. Not that the critics are supposed to care whether or not the Academy ratifies their choices or overlooks them, but their awards do tend to bring the winners more attention and ultimately get more people to see the winning films. That's what matters more than the red carpets and awards banquets, right?

Nonetheless, this Thursday will see the announcement of the Golden Globe nominations, which tend to have the effect of solidifying conventional wisdom and narrowing down the field. We'll see then if the critics' voices make any difference, and if Hollywood voters are listening.

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categories Movies, Oscars