Exclusive critics' group revels in its feisty but high-minded spirit of independence

It speaks volumes about the National Society of Film Critics that its chairman, Peter Rainer, deems the group’s finest moment to be its selection of “Babe” as 1995’s best picture.

The choice proved that there’s nothing more unpredictable than a bunch of critics, especially a group that had been unfairly labeled for too long as elitist.

“The vote wasn’t so much, ‘See, we’ll show you,’ ” Rainer notes, “as much as a declaration of independence in a pretty bad year for movies.”

Given the breadth of the society’s membership — the first U.S. film critics organization based on national rather than city borders — that independence, which runs hand in hand with a provocative and iconoclastic streak, has characterized the group since its founding in 1966.

Bucking trends

In some ways, the society can be defined by what it’s not. It’s not an org that stages an award show (that was dropped when the incorporated and nonprofit NSFC severed ties with its original funder, the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation). It’s not the first set of critics to dole out prizes every year (in fact, it’s the last, announcing two to three weeks after other major critics groups vote).

It’s not widely open to new members, but quite selective and operates on the basis of merit rather than, as one member terms it, being a group that includes every major paper’s critic just because they happen to be on a major paper.

It’s also, Rainer reminds, not to be confused with the National Board of Review, that semimysterious group of academics, industry folks and writers who hand out the first plaques of the awards season.

To an excessive degree in the current awards-obsessed environment, groups like the society tend to be defined by their end-of-year selections.

At first, brilliant and inventive works of world cinema usually took the top prize: Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up”; Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” “Shame” and “Scenes From a Marriage”; Costa-Gavras’ “Z”; Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee”; Luis Bunuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie.”

By the mid-’70s, American choices dominated: Robert Altman’s “Nashville”; Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men”; Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”; and Peter Yates’ “Breaking Away,” one of several cases where the society thought outside the popular box. In recent years, the group has notably leaned toward English-language films, with only three foreign works winning pic in the past two decades, and only one of those (Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi,” also the pick of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., which has some membership overlap with NSFC) since 1985.

Essaying films as art

Under the surface of the awards is a richer reason for the group’s existence. Wall Street Journal film critic and founding member Joe Morgenstern recalls that, in the mid-’60s, “the New York Times, care of their suffocating middlebrow chief critic Bosley Crowther, had a stranglehold on the New York Film Critics Circle, which was strictly a newspaper group. The magazine critics had nowhere to go — I was one of them, at Newsweek.”

Although the original 11 members (which include still-active critics Morgenstern, Time’s Richard Schickel and New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris) were mainly based in New York, the society marked a break from the stodgy past. “If there was a founding ideology,” says Morgenstern, “it was film culture, and placing the work of the group’s members in book form.”

The society’s annual anthologies of reviews and essays about each year’s major film achievements — which ceased in 1974, but are planned to resume if a publisher can be found — helped give the group its distinctive and colorful identity as feisty but serious-minded. Several thematic books — ranging from actors and genres to controversial films — have regularly appeared since, and whose sales provide much of the group’s finances.

A 1974 cash prize given by the society to Cuban filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea prompted a faceoff with the U.S. State Dept., which had denied Alea a visa. (The award and plaque were finally given to Alea some years later at a Museum of Modern Art retrospective.) The burgeoning membership — from 11 to the current 55 — also has spurred additional awards and committees, including ones for documentary and experimental films, which has allowed the group to acknowledge such important but easily ignored filmmakers as Guy Madden and Robert Beavers.

Factions allied with Sarris (Auteurists) and Pauline Kael (Paulettes) once regularly sparred with each other, while various personalities tended, in Morgenstern’s words, to “behave badly.” Personal attacks on members’ appearances weren’t uncommon, and one insulting verbal attack on Manny Farber by John Simon is still recalled to this day by members as one of the group’s darkest hours.

Others, like Rainer, have long felt that the characterization of the society as a bunch of factions was overstated. Newsweek critic David Ansen ponders, rhetorically: “Are you part of a faction because you vote for a certain film over another one? Then everyone’s part of a faction at some point.”

Kinder, gentler org

Returning to the group after an absence of several years, Morgenstern found “that the absence of stridency was striking, and nobody was at someone else’s throat.” Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is one of several critics west of the Hudson who enjoys attending the meetings for “the sheer social gathering aspect. While the bad blood is missing, so are genuine debates on the cinema, which is something the group should engage in.”

Morgenstern also misses “the drop in stirring passion in the early years, when movies were a religion to many critics and that was after all the basis for the group’s founding — the belief that we could do something important.”

“The problem with the awards voting,” notes Rosenbaum, “beyond the fact that it gets wrapped up in the cheesy Oscar race, is that it can become so arbitrary. Some of us wanted to give an award to (Jean-Luc) Godard’s ‘Nouvelle vague,’ and it was clear that most members hadn’t even seen it. Pauline (Kael) was sweet to say to me, ‘Well, if you think it deserves an award, then fine,’ but it also showed how uninformed some of the voting can be. That can be a common problem when you have national membership, and films are viewable in some cities like New York and Los Angeles and not in others.”

The society’s recent book success, the bestselling “The A List,” 100 films deemed essential viewing by the critics, is a reminder, says Rainer, “that this is a critical organization with a serious intent, to leave behind a body of work and deliver an ongoing discussion about movies.”

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