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Two Critics Groups Announce, One Stages Stages a Coup

It was a very good day for Bret Easton Ellis in Los Angeles yesterday – although he hates Michael Haneke and Amour almost as much as he thinks Kathryn Bigelow is overrated and praised only because she’s a woman, he got some backing by the LA Film Critics yesterday when they shut out Zero Dark Thirty for the top two prizes.

As the awards watchers hunched over their Tweetdecks, and publicists watched hoping for a win, and contenders waited it out to see who won, the Los Angeles Film Critics, one of the oldest critics groups in the country, waged war against the general consensus. At the same time, the Boston Film Critics Society, formed back in the 1980s, quietly announced their winners without fanfare. The New York Film Critics Online, like LA, were tweeting their reactions to the voting, to the winners, and to those who didn’t win.  This happened in one day, over a span of a few hours, the drama unfolded on Twitter echoing the good, the bad and the ugly of the human nature we’re all stuck with.

The Los Angeles Film Critics tried so hard to come out from among them and be ye separate and it almost worked. They were almost able to pull off the claim that they  just liked these other films better. They would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for a few pesky tweeters who betrayed (some of their) true motivations from behind closed doors. Was it the champagne they were drinking? Is it Twitter’s freeform style that allows us to admit much more than we otherwise would? Or was their desire to strike back stronger than their need for credibility? Does the awards race not matter to them until it suddenly does matter?  It’s hard to say. But when you start reading tweets like “at least it wasn’t Zero Dark Thirty” or “anything but “Daniel Day-Lewis”  the clouds begin to part and the angels sing.  It wasn’t really a vote for anything, was it. It was a vote AGAINST something else.

The LA Film Critics probably isn’t the only voting group that does this. I have always believed that the Academy do this as well. They do just what LA did yesterday: they dig their heels in and they wage an “anything but Zero Dark Thirty” campaign. Actually, that film fared far better than Lincoln, winning the group’s first time award for editing. Somehow that has now become the object d’scorn among film critics. Either they expect a particular film to win the Oscar and they want to run far, far away or they’re hoping to dislodge its chances from winning the Oscar in hopes that something else wins. Anything but Lincoln. Anything but Zero Dark Thirty.  Last year it was anything but The Artist. They shut out the film that would eventually win Best Picture though I don’t recall reading many gleeful tweets about its demise.  Perhaps there were but I’ve since blocked it out. You do this job long enough and sooner or later you remember nothing.

Okay so LA did their thing, they effectively selected themselves out of the awards race they pretend to hate before taking a nice hot bubbly bath in it.  Boston gave a clearer picture of what the general consensus might be, if there is one.  And New York Film Critics Online was somewhere in between. LA appears to be leading the charge, hoping other critics groups do what they did – wage a war, fight the power, announce their presence with the authority. The only problem was – they couldn’t align behind either The Master or Amour completely. If Michael Haneke and Amour had won, or if Paul Thomas Anderson and The Master had won, they would have been a bigger influencer, probably. Split up like this they do what they hoped to do, probably, find their own private island.

That said, they made some great choices. Amour for Best Picture, wow.   Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor, Emmanuelle Riva and Jennifer Lawrence tying for Best Actress, Argo for screenplay, and so on. It would have been far more delightful had those wins not been followed by a chorus of tweets proclaiming victory at having stopped the two presumed frontrunners but you can’t have everything.  I’ll take these wins in the spirit I will imagine they were intended, to celebrate unsung greatness.

Much has changed in the community of film critics in the 14 years I’ve been watching this race. You could count them on one hand when I started.  There was only print back then, no online, and film critics were reliable not because they read the Oscar race and reacted to it but because they were the tastemakers. The critics announced first, then the guilds (only the DGA and WGA back then), then the Academy – and somewhere in there, the public had a say in ticket sales. There was always a healthy love/hate relationship between those worlds. The Academy were industry people – actors nominating actors, composers nominating composers – the critics and the industry saying what they thought was the best of the year. The industry resented the critics for shitting on their product every year while simultaneously appreciating them when they didn’t.  Oscar watching became an industry and critics awards sprouted up from every corner of the universe so that now, not only do Oscar bloggers call themselves critics but they are often in more than just one group. The whole community has consumed itself and is now engorged to the size of an anaconda’s belly after eating a goat. Not a pretty picture.

So where does that leave us? Essentially where we were before. Because they were voting against, rather than for, films and actors it is hard to gauge what, if any, influence the Los Angeles Film critics will have other than to perpetuate a backlash which may or may not take hold.  They seemed to want to shake people out of their Zero Dark Thirty spell and say, look, there were other great movies this year – don’t just glom onto this one.  Will that matter in the long run?  Does anyone care what the Los Angeles Film Critics think? I know Bret Easton Ellis will be one person who does, vindicated at last.

Does Amour get in? I don’t know. David Poland and Kris Tapley have been saying all along that it will, even predicting Michael Haneke to take one of the Best Director slots.  I’d say it is one of the best films I’ve ever seen and absolutely deserves a place. That Oscar voters must choose five Best Picture contenders but their top three likely matter more than their bottom two seems to bode well for passionate choices like Amour. But beyond that?

In two days the SAG and Golden Globe nominations will come out. SAG will matter more, of course.  But that’s pretty much it for Oscar voters to decide when ballots are sent out so early on the 17th. What has all of the buzz right now is likely to do much better on Oscar ballots than it would if a few more weeks of this nonsense played out. Usually the Globes and the Critics Choice nominations represent an early take on the race but this year, that will likely be Oscar’s take, at least that’s how it seems to me right now.

And we wait. We wait.