oscars statuettesMuch will be made of the victories at Sunday night's Golden Globes and the impact they'll have on the Oscar race, but the truth is, they'll barely have any. For Academy members, voting on the Oscar nominations ended three days before the Globe ceremony (the results of that vote will be announced this Thursday, Jan. 15), and voting on which of those nominees deserve prizes doesn't begin until February 6, far enough in the future for many voters to forget who won Globes on Jan. 11.

What, then, does matter at this stage of the game? Here's a hint: it's not lofty, thoughtful deliberations, based on a year of observant moviegoing, of which films and performers displayed the most aesthetic merit. Rather, it's the little things.

For instance, did President Lyndon B. Johnson actually order FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to extort Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into submission, or did Hoover simply try to blackmail King on his own initiative? Maybe to you, this seems like a minor historical detail, but it's at the crux of the controversy over Oscar-contender "Selma," one that has refused to die down in recent weeks. As this column noted last week, historians, witnesses, and other LBJ defenders have come out of the woodwork to criticize "Selma"'s portrayal of LBJ as unduly antagonistic toward King's goal of legislating voting rights protections for African-Americans when, in fact, the two leaders shared the goal but differed only on timing and tactics.

There's now a counter-backlash of "Selma" defenders, dismissing the pro-Johnson pundits as miffed because, for once, a civil rights movie is being told from the point of view of the black organizers and participants, rather than the white-savior protagonist that Hollywood treatments of the struggle typically shoehorn into the forefront. (See "Mississippi Burning," "Ghosts of Mississippi" and "The Help" for examples.) What's more, the "Selma" defenders say, the movie is being held to an impractically high standard for historical accuracy, earning much more condemnation than this year's other fact-based dramas that also have fudged true-life details.

Indeed, the controversy over "Foxcatcher" stems from one scene that its real-life subject, wrestler Mark Schultz, doesn't like. Complaints about "Unbroken" stem from its final moments, which seem to gloss over POW Louis Zamperini's post-traumatic stress disorder and the role his faith played in helping him heal from it. "The Imitation Game" seems to get plenty wrong about Alan Turing, but aside from Christian Caryl's epic takedown of the film's inaccuracies, there's been little grumbling about the film's inaccuracies.

Audiences may not care about such angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin arguments -- indeed, they've given "Selma" a rare A+ grade at CinemaScore -- but Oscar voters have been known to take notice of such things. After all, the reported inaccuracies of "Foxcatcher," "Unbroken," "The Imitation Game," and others seem par for the course in a standard historical biopic, but "Selma" is not a standard historical biopic. It offers a view of history that does not center on the deeds of great white leaders or even great black leaders, but rather of hundreds of anonymous rank-and-file people doing the grunt work of advancing their cause. That's the kind of subtlety that can trip up both partisan historians and Academy voters.

Of course, there are even more mundane and petty things that can make a difference at this stage of the competition. For instance, the availability of awards-season screeners, the studio-supplied DVDs that awards-group voters have come to rely on in order to catch up with movies that either came out early in the year and have since left theaters or haven't been widely released in theaters yet. Last week's announcement of the Producers Guild Award nominees -- usually a strong barometer for Oscar's Best Picture category -- failed to include "Selma," and the culprit, at least according to Variety, was the failure to send screeners to voters for the various guild prizes in time. (The Screen Actors Guild also failed to nominate "Selma.") After all, Variety noted, "American Sniper" was also released in just a handful of theaters at the very end of 2014, but its screeners went out in time, and it did earn a PGA nod. Both groups had to pick their nominees before the LBJ brouhaha broke, so the absence of screeners really could have been a major factor. Academy voters did get the discs, but they may be influenced by the failure of the actors and producers to recognize the film.

Then there was the "Whiplash" complication. For months, critics and distributor Sony Pictures Classics have been touting the drama as a possible Best Original Screenplay contender, but the Academy chose to classify it as an adapted screenplay. The reason? Filmmaker Damian Chazelle first shot a small portion of the script in order to attract the financing needed to shoot the rest of it. That short played at Sundance, so the Academy considered the completed feature-length film to be based on previously released material. So a lot of Academy voters may have failed to vote for "Whiplash," since it didn't appear on the ballot where they expected to find it. What's more, the Adapted Screenplay category is more competitive, since it includes such noteworthy adaptations as "Gone Girl," "The Imitation Game," "Inherent Vice," "The Theory of Everything," "Unbroken," and "Wild."

Chazelle did get an Original Screenplay nomination this weekend from the BAFTAs, the British Academy Awards. Overall, the BAFTA slate looks almost exactly like the predicted Oscar slate that will be announced on Thursday, with the same actors and films that have been frontrunners on this side of the Atlantic. The biggest BAFTA surprise was how much love there was for "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which earned the most nominations of any film (12). It could be that the Brits like the Wes Anderson film's international flavor and its British leading man (Ralph Fiennes) in particular. But the BAFTA list, too, counts as a little thing, as Hollywood rarely pays any attention to what happens overseas except for box office counts. Still, the Academy is awfully Anglophilic -- think of the victory of "The King's Speech" over "The Social Network" four years ago, or the domination of this year's likely Best Actor slate by such British performers as Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch ("The Imitation Game"), David Oyelowo ("Selma"), Eddie Redmayne ("The Theory of Everything"), and Timothy Spall ("Mr. Turner"). It certainly doesn't hurt "Budapest," then, that the Brits really, really like it.

One little thing that won't have any impact at all: the vote by the National Society of Film Critics this week that named Jean-Luc Godard's "Goodbye to Language" as Best Picture. That was quite a shock -- yes, Godard is still alive (he's 84) and active, the last lonely survivor of the wave of European art-house directors who revolutionized world cinema half a century ago. No, the real shock was that the NSFC didn't succumb to critical groupthink and pick "Boyhood" or "Birdman" or "Selma" but actually chose to honor the movie they found most artistically satisfying, regardless of whether or not it was on anyone's Oscar radar or whether or not anyone had been campaigning for it. A foreign-language film that's barely enjoyed a theatrical release in America, an experimental attempt to harness 3D for art-film purposes, and a highbrow personal essay that's so different from every other 2014 release that it doesn't even seem to belong to the same medium, "Goodbye to Language" hasn't been a part of the awards-season conversation at all, and the endorsement of the NSFC won't change that. Why? Because Oscar season isn't about merit -- or at least not merit alone. It's about merit and a thousand other little considerations.
categories Movies, Oscars