THE APPROACH OF THE HOLIDAYS always presents us with some nasty imperatives. There are too many presents to buy, too many functions to attend and too much food to consume, and just as New York runs out of cabs and limos, Los Angeles runs out of parking spaces.
But if life seems out of control, consider the predicament of the nation’s film critics. I realize no one wants to empathize with critics. They are a contentious and opinionated lot, but their dilemma nonetheless epitomizes the pressures of the moment.
Though some of the Oscar-contending films are still mired in labs or editing rooms, the Los Angeles Film Critics voted last weekend, with the Hollywood Foreign Press and the New York critics right behind them.
To be sure, no one quite knows what movies the critics are seeing and in what form. The National Board of Review had to view a work print of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” but nonetheless thought enough of it to name Anthony Minghella best director. Apparently that group never got to see Oliver Stone’s superb football movie “Any Given Sunday” at all.
The studios and Oscar seers look to the results of these votes as important portents, but if you happen to run into any bleary-eyed critics, their demeanor suggests otherwise. As one Los Angeles critic told me, “Ten days before casting my vote, I realized I still had 50 movies to see, not only new movies, but 20 from earlier in the year.”
This critic, like his colleagues, could not simply shut off his phone and jam through the 60 or so videos that had been sent him. There also were premieres and screenings to attend, some of them involving films with three-hour running times. After sitting through three hours of “Magnolia” or “The Green Mile,” no one protective of his sanity would want to start running videos.
All of which raises this basic question: Why do we put ourselves through this ordeal? Do we really expect people to make rational judgments amid this maelstrom?
Part of the reason for this “rush to judgment” boils down to simple PR. Every group covets recognition as the “first” to signal its slate of winners, and the studios trawl for random raves for their massive holiday campaigns.
IF YOU LOOK AT THE RESULTS of recent years, however, these early warning systems have proven defective insofar as predicting Oscar results. A procession of Golden Globe and critics’ honorees last year failed to win even an Oscar nomination, and that included the likes of Steven Soderbergh (“Out of Sight”), John Boorman (“The General”), Jim Carrey (“The Truman Show”) and Bill Murray (“Rushmore”).
Indeed, many of last year’s “sure bets,” as hailed by critics’ groups, pulled a disappearing act — remember “Waking Ned Devine” and “A Civil Action”?
If last year seemed chancy, 1999 also may defy the odds-makers. It’s hard to remember when there were so many worthy films, yet no clear front-runners. Several movies like “The Green Mile” stirred great early buzz, only to slam into revisionist critiques. Where is this year’s “Shakespeare in Love”? If there’s one out there, it’s being brilliantly concealed from avid onlookers.
Not surprisingly, some filmmakers are put off by the pre-Oscar circus. Why show a work print to grumpy critics? they ask. Isn’t it wiser to pack up your wares and wait for the quietude of February?
In choosing that route, of course, they’d pass up their shot at the great Oscar lottery. Oliver Stone, for one, is willing to take the gamble even though, as he puts it, “I’ve never done that well with the critics groups.” His earlier film, “Born on the Fourth of July,” was finished so late that not one of the critics’ circles saw it. “JFK” also was completed at the 11th hour.
It’s down-to-the-wire time with his latest opus, as Stone and his editors try to sort through 1.5 million feet of film and some 1,000 digitals and opticals. “We haven’t taken a day off for 80 days,” says the director. “My crew calls this movie ‘Every Fucking Sunday.’ ”
Screenings of the work print finally commenced last Thursday, two days before the Los Angeles Critics were scheduled to vote. The exuberant response seemed to justify the effort.
WITH THE CRUSH of last-minute screenings, some worthy filmmakers find themselves scratching and clawing for screens and screening times. Such is the case with Ron Shelton, whose film “Play It to the Bone” will open in one theater for one week to qualify for Academy consideration.
The National Board of Review didn’t see his film either. “There’s just too much stuff out there,” Shelton fretted. “The studio (Disney) has been very supportive, but it’s a dogfight.”
To compound the confusion, one Disney PR functionary told Daily Variety’s critic that he could only schedule one screening a week because Shelton was still in post-production. A nonplused Shelton insisted his film has been finished for many weeks. “It’s all part of the craziness of the season,” he sighed.