If "Slumdog Millionaire" is really the new "Chariots of Fire" — a little indie flick about champion underdogs that wins best picture at the Oscars — then it just hit a kudos jackpot by being named best picture of 2008 by the National Board of Review. In 1981, the National Board of Review was the first and only major U.S. awards group to give its top prize to the small film about runners with big dreams of breaking into the Olympics before it went the distance in the Oscars derby. Now the little movie about a ghetto boy who wins India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has emerged as a top dog in this year's Oscars race.
This is the second year in a row that National Board of Review issued its top 10 list of best films separately from the winner of best picture. This year's entries: "Burn After Reading," "Changeling," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Dark Knight," "Defiance," "Frost/Nixon," "Gran Torino," "Milk," "Wall-E," "The Wrestler." Notable snubs: "Doubt," "Revolutionary Road," "The Reader," "Australia" and — considering the awards love it received in other NBR categories — "Frozen River."
All major movies were seen by National Board of Review members this year with one exception: United Artists did not screen "Valkyrie" before voting but will show it to members before it's released to theaters this month. In past years, NBR's awards came out so early in December that its voters missed seeing such Oscar best picture winners as "Gone with the Wind" (1939), "Rain Man" (1988), "A Beautiful Mind" (2001) and "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" (2003).
Other winners of 2008 NBR Awards:
Best director: David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Best actor: Clint Eastwood, "Gran Torino"
Best actress: Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"
Best supporting actor: Josh Brolin, "Milk"
Best supporting actress: Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Best foreign-language filim: "Mongol"
Best documentary: "Man on Wire"
Best animated feature: "Wall-E"
Best ensemble cast: "Doubt"
Best breakthrough actor: Dev Patel, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Best breakthrough actress: Viola Davis, "Doubt"
Best directorial debut: Courtney Hunt, "Frozen River"
Best original screenplay: Nick Schenk, "Gran Torino"
Best adapted screenplay (tie): Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionaire"; Eric Roth, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Spotlight Award: Melissa Leo, "Frozen River"; Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"
Freedom of Expression: "Trumbo"
William K. Everson Film History Award: Molly Haskell, Andrew Sarris
Top five best foreign-language films, listed alphabetically: "Edge of Heaven," "Let the Right One In," "Roman de Guerre," "A Secret," "Waltz with Bashir"
Top five documentary films, listed alphabetically: "American Teen," "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)," "Dear Zachary," "Encounters at the End of the World," "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired"
Of the 100 films nominated for best picture at the Oscars over the last two decades, the NBR named 72 of them on their annual lists. The comparison is a bit skewed since National Board of Review picks 10 or 11 films per year instead of five, but it's still worthy of note. Three times in those 20 years all five Oscar nominees made the NBR top list and the winners agreed: 1989 ("Driving Miss Daisy"), 1994 ("Forrest Gump") and 2002 ("Chicago"). The two awards also chose the same best pictures five other times in those two decades: 1990 ("Dances With Wolves"), 1991 ("Silence of the Lambs"), 1993 ("Schindler's List"), 1999 ("American Beauty") and 2007 ("No Country for Old Men").
Comparisons between the awards are most apt only when stacking up results over the past several years since there was a huge changeover in members of the exceptional photoplay committee after a power coup at National Board of Review. Consider how these top NBR awards compare with Oscar results over the past three years:
X = Oscar champ
X - Best picture: "No Country for Old Men"
Best actor: George Clooney, "Michael Clayton"
Best actress: Julie Christie, "Away from Her"
Best picture: "Letters From Iwo Jima"
X - Best actor: Forest Whitaker, "Last King of Scotland"
X - Best actress: Helen Mirren, "The Queen"
Best picture: "Good Night, and Good Luck"
X - Best actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Capote"
Best actress: Felicity Huffman, "Transamerica"
The National Board of Review is the New Hampshire primary of kudos season because the group is hellbent to be the first major award of the derby. Its influence has been considerable through the years, dating as far as 1934 when it probably nudged the Oscars to notice its eventual best-picture choice, "It Happened One Night," which came close to being dismissed as a quickly lensed screwball comedy.
In 1955, low-budget, black-and-white indie "Marty" got attention at the Cannes Film Festival, but the board was the first to hail it stateside before it snagged the top Oscar.
Its impact can probably be measured best by three of its best-picture choices: "Patton" (1970), "The Sting" (1973) and "Chariots of Fire" (1981). All were subsequently snubbed by the film critics' groups and the Golden Globes, then resurfaced later at the tail end of the derby.
The National Board of Review was founded in New York in 1909 by a coalition of forces determined to stop the city government from censoring movies. The coalition consisted of movie-makers plus community and family organizations and, in effect, it took over the censoring job themselves. NBR gave its seal of approval to films it liked and assigned viewing-age recommendations: "M" for mature audiences (18 and older), "F" for families (12 and up) and "J" for juvenile (under 12). From the 1920s to the 1940s, many U.S. cities forbid the public showing of films unless they displayed the legend "Passed by the National Board of Review" in their credits.
Over time the Motion Picture Association of America took over the role of officially approving film content and NBR evolved into a film appreciation society. The New York-based group got into the awards game by issuing lists of the year's best films just months after the first Oscar ceremony was held out on America's other coast in 1929.
NBR is not a journalists' group, as commonly believed. It comprises sophisticated New Yorkers, a few of whom are journalists, but others are scholars, lawyers, doctors, students, etc. Of its 122 members, 41 are either film students or people who can be classified as young filmmakers. Last year NBR bestowed 29 student scholarships ranging in sums from $500 to $5,000, totaling $75,000.
Anyone can join NBR, but there's a waiting list to get in. Regular members pay $600 per year; student rate is $100. Membership entitles you to attend the 330 special screenings annually and check out DVDs from NBR's library. All members get to cast ballots on awards, but their votes may have only a proportionate weight. NBR officials will not say if the old voting process is still in place that assigns greater weight to votes cast by the 13 members of its politburo, the exceptional photoplay committee. The identities of those members are kept secret, probably for good reason. See more about NBR at its website.
Journalists love to bash the National Board of Review Awards and are constantly on the hunt to find out who's on the exceptional photoplay committee so they can be singled out for ridicule. Why? Doesn't a film-appreciation society have the right to issue its own prizes? There are probably two reasons for such ire. First, the name of the organization — the National Board of Review — sounds like a film-critics society, which drives the critics crazy. Secondly, NBR has the nerve to jump ahead of the critics. This year NBR unveiled its winners five days before the voting powwow of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. (Dec. 9) and six days before the New York Film Critics Circle(Dec. 10).
Photos: Fox Searchlight, Warner Bros.