British film's biggest night: The complete guide to the Baftas 2011

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On the eve of British film's biggest night, Nicola Christie investigates how the Baftas are chosen, and whether voters actually see the movies, Alice Jones looks at the leading contenders, and Oscar-winning director James Marsh laments the lack of a documentary category

The Social Network. The King's Speech. Black Swan. True Grit. A handful of days to go, now, until we finally find out who leaves with what from the 2011 Baftas. A handful of weeks until we find out that the same titles land the Oscars.

Either the total number of US and UK voters – around 13,000 – all have the same taste in film or the total number of films made around the world during a single year is dramatically smaller than one would imagine.

It's not. Two hundred and seven films appeared on the first list that Bafta members were asked to select from, representative of a steadily increasing number of films that is reminiscent of the golden days of Hollywood in its activity and productivity. The problem is that voters hadn't heard of a giant chunk of the films on that list and haven't watched a further half of those.

"To get your movie selected you need high visibility", says Liz Miller, a UK-based American publicist who is hired to make sure that Bafta and Oscar voters give films like The Social Network and The King's Speech – let's just call it Speech from this point, it's going to be mentioned that much – their "attention". For that she has to put on screenings, wheel in the talent to deliver Q&As – thus ensuring voters attend – arrange DVD "screener" copies of each of these films to be couriered to the thousands of voters, in case they can't make the cinema viewing – and generally ensure that the films and accompanying talent are plastered on every surface a voter might encounter during awards season (October to February). She will probably be working on titles that have cunningly planned their theatrical release for this key season – Speech and Black Swan, for instance – thus doubly ensuring that every passing bus, newspaper and online site is also sufficiently plastered. For The Social Network alone, Miller estimates Sony's spend is "the equivalent of the gross national product of Guatemala".

"As Marlon Brando once said, these are beauty contests" explains Miller, "so he refused to take part in them! I have other talent who refuse to take part and I have nothing but respect for them, but, to get your film noticed, it needs to be paraded and talked about."

It means that films starring lesser-known actors and distributed by companies with less money to spend get left out in the cold. So every foreign film going is left to compete for a single category, Film Not in the English Language) and all of the low-budget British films are offered a consolatory Outstanding British Film category by Bafta, in recognition that they won't get a real shot at the Best Film category (although, ironically, this year Speech could get into trouble, with votes being divided between Best Film and Outstanding British). Neither group has the money to send thousands of DVDs around the world, and their films didn't get a large enough theatrical release for voters to see them first time around.

"The tragedy is that there are probably dozens and dozens of wonderful films, made throughout the year, from all over the world, that do not get traction, do not become part of the final 20 or 30 movies that everyone is talking about" reflects Variety's Executive Editor, Steven Gaydos, "It is the Darwininian side to a season that is, otherwise, the saviour of cinema. What sort of films do you think would be made without the awards season? Blockbusters and franchises that a studio will know will be profitable. It is Oscar night that forces them to take risks on challenging fare that might not make money. Because they need their studio and name to be up there on that stage. Films like The Kids are All Right, Never Let Me Go (curiously omitted from the awards lists), and Blue Valentine. But what about London River (incredible performance by Brenda Blethyn) or The Headless Woman (exceptional film-making). Have you heard of either of these? And if you haven't, why do you think that voters will have?

"This is the real flaw in the system" offers Gaydos, "The role of the film critic in the awards season. In the US, they are so frightened of their positions that they are forming posses early in the season and they're over-praising certain films and they're running from films they actually like – because they want to be important and they want to be part of the process, they want to keep their job. They're up against editors who don't want to hear about something that they're passionate about if it doesn't really sell magazines or resonate with people. There's only a tiny number of select critics who are empowered to actually talk about the real standards of real quality film-making – and they're almost like a secret pack of monks living in a monastery on a mountain and they're not part of this award season discussion.

"If these films don't get talked about from the outset, how do you expect them to suddenly get watched by voters?" It's a good question, but isn't that the job of Bafta or Oscar? To force a voter to sit down and genuinely rate a wide and diverse range of fare – ie the full selection? Neither body checks that a voter has actually seen the films on offer.

In the case of Bafta, voters make their selections online, following cursory requests that a person abstains from a certain category if they feel they have not seen sufficient films. It is not uncommon to hear one voter asking another what they thought of so and so, and does he/she deserve a vote? Is the new screenplay from such and such really that good?

There's also voting for friends and there is also anti-voting to prevent the serious frontrunner from eclipsing a film that has the voter's own interest.

Bafta members – there are 6,330 in total – range from retired film-makers (the vast majority) to young producers and distributors (Bafta did a big call-out, a few years ago, to shake up their voting body and bring in new talent). At screenings, and in the bars, I spend some time trying to gauge who is actually seeing what. Not surprisingly, the older generation, with time on their hands, were, for the most part, watching as many films as they could – averaging four or five a week in the final countdown – and had methodically worked their way through as many as they could; most of the twenty- and thirty-somethings were making a point of seeing the biggies but had missed out on a number of the smaller titles; would they abstain from a category that they hadn't seen the full selection? Probably not, came the response – if they had seen a film they wanted to voted for in that category, they would go with that. The average number of films voters had seen was 37. Not bad, on the surface – people had seen the biggies – but out of a total of 207, not that impressive.

"It is simply not practical to watch every film that has been released in a year", argues UK producer Nik Powell, the man behind most of Neil Jordan's films – Mona Lisa and The Crying Game – as well as movies like Little Voice and The Crying Game; he's also on the Bafta board.

"It's not possible. I can assure you that almost all of the Bafta members will have watched the final set of nominated films in each category." That said, this is an independent producer who has gone out of his way to create new contests – principally the European Film Awards – for films that he recognises simply fall through the cracks.

Amanda Berry, Chief Executive of Bafta, says that all she can do is make sure that the cracks are as small as possible. "We do all we can to make product available. We give distributors email addresses of all our members, we put on screenings, we advise on campaigns and we have relationships with cinema chains like Odeon and Vue allowing complimentary tickets for Bafta voters year-round. This year we are even putting the Best Foreign Film contenders online for viewers to log in and watch, to encourage members to see them." It is a desperate measure to get voters to give attention to genuine contenders that are getting lost in the race.

"Are you telling me that the best films of the past ten years have all been in the English language?" asks an independent distributor who prefers to remain anonymous. "Because if you look at the Oscar and Bafta winners of the past ten years that is what it would seem. In the UK we are just aping the Oscars. What, really, is the point of that?"

The question will become more pertinent in 2012, when the Oscars will almost certainly move to an early January slot, thus stealing the thunder from every single award contest that currently leads into them, including the Baftas. If the Oscars move, the Baftas either have to do the same – Berry has already said that they will – or they have to entirely redefine themselves.

It is a prospect that is both frightening and enticing at the same time: a show that is no longer defined by the presence of Angelina or Leonardo but has to rely on its own star power to pull in a crowd. Whether that is possible depends on the quality of the films we make, and whether we have the critics and infrastructure – in the form of financing, exhibition and distribution – to genuinely find them an audience. Only then can a show about them make proper sense.

'Gosh! I didn't expect this!': Our tips for triumph

OUTSTANDING BRITISH FILM

127 Hours

Another Year

Four Lions

The King's Speech

Made In Dagenham

A category set up to honour home-grown hits in an awards season too often dominated by Hollywood, this year the prize seems a little unnecessary with the British buzz sounding louder than ever. It's hard to predict whether the jury will reward the box-office domination of 'The King's Speech', the directorial daring of Danny Boyle's one-man mutilation epic '127 Hours' or elder statesman Mike Leigh's quieter, bittersweet approach in 'Another Year'. Perhaps they'll surprise us all and give it to Chris Morris's terrorist farce 'Four Lions' (below), if only to prove that even Bafta judges have a sense of humour sometimes.

LEADING ACTOR

Javier Bardem (Biutiful)

Jeff Bridges (True Grit)

Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)

Colin Firth (The King's Speech)

James Franco (127 Hours)

The film industry loves a monarch, and juries love an affliction, so Firth's touching turn as the stuttering George VI in 'The King's Speech' is as close to a shoo-in as it's possible to get in awards season. That said, Firth (above, with Helena Bonham Carter) did win the Bafta last year (for 'A Single Man') over Bridges' turn in 'Crazy Heart'. Perhaps they'll throw a curve-ball and turn the tables this year, rewarding Bridges for 'True Grit'. Eisenberg, on the other hand, would be a trend-setting choice.

LEADING ACTRESS

Annette Bening, Julian Moore (The Kids Are All Right)

Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)

Portman has attracted much of the attention so far this year, not least for her pregnancy style on the red carper. While her turn as a hysterical ballerina has many of the ingredients – dramatic weight-loss, gruelling training programme, method madness – which typically woo judges (she has already won the Golden Globe), the Bafta race is still fairly open. Last year, fresh-faced talent was rewarded in the shape of Carey Mulligan. This year, newcomers Rapace and Steinfeld have less chance. Bening's mature, intelligent performance as the brittle, Joni Mitchell-singing Nic in 'The Kids are All Right' (left, with Moore in blue) might just clinch it.

BEST DIRECTOR

Danny Boyle (127 Hours)

Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)

Christopher Nolan (Inception)

Tom Hooper (The Kings Speech)

David Fincher (The Social Network)

With Kathryn Bigelow's triumph a distant memory, it's back to a battle of the boys this year. 'Inception', the story of the summer, has largely been snubbed by the awards panels and is the big-budget interloper in a familiar field. Though the chimeric blockbuster wasn't universally liked, an award to Nolan would recognise the director's towering ambition and vision. Otherwise, with Boyle and Hooper given another stab in the Outstanding British Film category (see main feature), the battle is likely to be between Aronofsky and Fincher (above). We say give it to Fincher, to put next to his Golden Globe.

What about the real world?

James Marsh, Oscar-winning director of Man on Wire, says Bafta is mad to ignore documentaries...

There is no category for documentaries at the Bafta film awards. This is strange. There are awards handed out at the ceremony to feature films, actors, editors, cameramen, costume designers, make-up designers and a wealth of other technical crafts but there isn't the time or motivation to acknowledge documentary film-makers.

There are a lot of equivalent technical crafts involved in documentary film-making as well – but its practitioners merely want the films themselves to be recognised, as they are by almost every other serious film award in the world. In overlooking non-fiction films, Bafta aligns itself only with the Golden Globes, which is curious company to keep.

For the film-makers, it's a question of respect for their contribution to the culture and practice of film-making in the 21st century. While their films are occasionally acknowledged in the Best Newcomer category and more rarely in Best British Film (never in the Best Film category), documentary film-makers are typically excluded from the Baftas. I am one of the lucky film-makers who has won a Bafta award for a documentary – Man on Wire, 2009, Best British Film – but I'm the exception that proves a generally unhappy rule.

This seems self-defeating for the only British award ceremony with a global profile – because the UK is one of the recognised powerhouses in the global culture of documentaries. At this year's Sundance Film Festival (a festival notable for the parity it gives to documentary and feature films), half the films in the World Documentary section had a strong British component and all the main prize-winners were drawn from that British pool. Our pre-eminent position in the world of documentaries would mean that a Bafta shortlist of documentary films would be taken very seriously. But this is only the parochial part of the argument.

In any year, documentary films are more likely to reflect the world we live in and harness the power to change it. And, if that sounds preachy, good documentaries can be the equal of a feature in their narrative surprises, their humour, their entertainment value, and cinematic qualities. I can't think of many feature films that explore family life and family secrets with the complexity of Capturing the Friedmans. One Day in September strikes me as a far more gripping and truthful film than Spielberg's Munich. Waltz with Bashir is one of the best movies ever made about the conduct of war – and it's an animated documentary. Senna (recently at Sundance and hopefully coming your way) is as exciting and thrilling a film about car racing as any Hollywood feature.

These films were made in the last decade. The rise and importance of documentaries in global film culture is one of the big film stories of the 21st century. It's coincided with an urgent need to understand a rapidly changing world and a series of unexpected wars and conflicts. Documentary films have been revelatory, giving us important stories about America's foreign policy and its human consequences in the Middle East. Iraq in Fragments, Taxi to the Dark Side, No End in Sight, Restrepo – these films add a vital dimension to our understanding of the post-9/11 world, expressed through powerful narratives and memorable cinematic imagery.

There's an allegation that there aren't enough feature documentaries of sufficient quality released in the UK to justify a separate category. That argument might also pertain to the Best British Film category, and yet we manage to find five British features worthy of nomination. The argument is also an unintended insult to the quality of documentaries offered in the last decade.

We've had documentary blockbusters (the films of Michael Moore, March of the Penguins), and more original films that have changed our perception of the documentary form. Waltz with Bashir, My Winnipeg, Darwin's Nightmare and the films of Errol Morris and Adam Curtis are not only highly entertaining and exquisitely well made – they are works of cinema that expand its very language.

Even confining ourselves to this year, and to films with a significant British input, this year's non-existent Bafta shortlist might include the following: Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Arbor, Restrepo, Enemies of the People and Wasteland. And what an intriguing and revealing bunch of films they are – look at where they take you and the worlds they reveal.

Restrepo sets you down in an isolated military outpost in Afghanistan and pretty much keeps you there, under attack, for its duration. In its own way, The Arbor does the same for a working-class neighbourhood of Bradford – but with startling formal innovation. The Banksy film is a scalding satire on the practice and consumption of art; Wasteland dares to be sincere about the same subject. Enemies of the People is a beautifully told, patient story about the nature of evil and the nature of forgiveness.

So this leads us to the only special plea that documentary film-makers need to make to Bafta. All of these films – and many others over the last decade – deserve and could find a bigger audience in the cinema. A dedicated category for documentary film-makers, acknowledging the excellence and vitality of the genre, would bring attention and potential viewers to some of the most exciting and worthwhile films of the year.

The criteria for a qualifying documentary would be very simple. A film would have to have been theatrically released in a cinema somewhere in the UK for at least a week. So come on, Bafta. We'll be spoilt for choice.

The Baftas take place on Sunday at the Royal Opera House, London. The Oscars take place on Sunday 27 February at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles

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