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A peek inside critic org votes

The LAFCA has embraced indie and blockbusters alike

As a critics organization in a company town, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. has held a unique position. More than a mere covey of journalists that bestows annual honors on cinema’s finest, LAFCA has spotlighted new talent, honored career achievement and, on occasion, effectively changed the course of events in Hollywood.

The most famous incident involving the group’s political impact occurred in 1985, when it voted Terry Gilliam’s then-unreleased “Brazil” best picture, forcing Universal to release the film that studio chair Sid Sheinberg had held hostage in a creative dispute.

Last year, LAFCA led the charge in honoring Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” bestowing on it four awards, including picture, and helped pave the way for that film’s multiple Oscar nominations. Likewise, in 1992, the critics org was among the first groups to honor Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” which went on to win a host of Oscars.

LAFCA will vote on its 2001 winners Dec. 15.

While it may be young compared with its East Coast counterpart, the New York Film Critics Circle (founded in 1935), LAFCA has nevertheless made a substantial impact since Ruth Batchelor and Charles Champlin formed it in 1975. Its honorees, which frequently differ from those of NYFCC — last year the groups overlapped only in the categories of foreign film, animation and cinematography — represent a diverse slate.

Whereas the New York group has at times seemed bent on rejecting commercial Hollywood cinema, LAFCA’s relationship with Hollywood has been more complicated. Having bestowed best picture awards on 1977’s “Star Wars” and 1982’s “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” the group also has endorsed independent-minded fare like “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994).

Although its honorees frequently have presaged the Oscar nominations, LAFCA also has celebrated performances that would go unrecognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, such as those of Ally Sheedy (“High Art” (1998)) and Christopher Plummer (“The Insider” (1999)), to name a few.

One reason for LAFCA’s frequent differences with NYFCC is its voting method. Held at the home of one of its members, LAFCA’s voting is, by dint of its locale, more informal than the restaurant tradition of NYFCC (which formerly took place at the Algonquin and now occurs at Sardi’s).

In their first round of voting, the New York members vote through secret ballot. If there is no majority winner, the vote then proceeds to a second round in which members list their top three choices. LAFCA members, however, verbally (and often boisterously) offer up candidates in each of 15 categories, then vote aloud with a weighted 3-2-1 ballot. A runoff takes place between the top contenders in each category.

The L.A. Film Critics Assn. is one of the few groups to honor music and production design, along with a flexible new generation award, which has gone to actors like Emily Watson and Mark Ruffalo, as well as to filmmakers like Wes Anderson. (NYFCC, by contrast, has a best first film category.)

LAFCA also bestows an annual career achievement award. Previous winners have included Abraham Polonsky, Joseph H. Lewis and Dede Allen.

(Lael Lowenstein is secretary for the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and is a regular film critic for VarietyxVariety.)

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