Diverse choices can make Oscar decisions difficult

East Coast or West Coast?

As the Oscar season gets moving, 23 major critics groups around the globe weigh in on their choices for the year’s best. The odds that there will be a general consensus are about as likely as a buddy cop pic co-starring Eminem and Haley Joel Osment.

In a perennial horse race to look for a clear-cut front-runner, Oscar pundits look to critics groups for signs.

With the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.’s recent reinstatement of its kudosfest after first canceling it over the screener ban, it’s interesting to note that the org often selects independent films and/or performers rather than big studio fare. Last year, it tapped Julianne Moore (“Far From Heaven”) for actress and Pedro Almodovar for director (“Talk to Her”).

Manohla Dargis, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, and a nine-year member of LAFCA, is quick to affirm that that the critics group is not too deep in the pocket of Hollywood.

“Given that we’re right here in the shadow of the industry, I think it’s very surprising and kind of cool that we tend to vote for a lot of independents,” she says. “We don’t go for the obvious choices but I honestly don’t think we have that much impact on the Oscars. I think we occasionally act as helpful guidance.”

Back east is the New York Film Critics Circle, which dates back to 1935 and comprises only 34 print journalists as opposed to the much larger L.A. org that admits TV and radio reviewers.

NYFCC is usually in sync with the Oscars about 50% of the time, often opting for dark comedies (“The Player,” Steve Buscemi in “Ghost World”) over dramatic heavyweights.

NYFCC still meets at the Manhattan restaurant Sardi’s in mid-December to do its voting, but with pressing deadlines and an ever-expanding movie output, its not the film salon it once was.

“Back in the old days, they were screaming across the table with Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael,” says Lisa Schwarzbaum, a seven-year member of the group and film critic for Entertainment Weekly. “But now, by the time we vote, there hasn’t been much discussion. It’s more when you get into the voting, sometimes things take on a life of their own. You see that a certain film is coming to the forefront and you either want it or block it. All kinds of chess moves go on like that.”

Interestingly, the New York Times doesn’t allow its critics to participate in the NYFCC’s voting. Similarly in 1966, a group of magazine writers who had been barred from the NYFCC started the National Society of Film Critics, a highbrow org that has only agreed with the Academy Awards three times in 37 years (“Annie Hall,” “Unforgiven,” “Schindler’s List”). Nearly a third of the time, they bestow their picture award on foreign-language films, such as “Yi Yi,” an under-the-radar Taiwanese pic that won in 2000.

“I sometimes feel that, at its worst, there’s a let’s be contrary to be contrary attitude,” says Mike Clark, an NSFC member and film critic for USA Today. (Both Schwarzbaum and Dargis are also NSFC members.) “I mean when Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ came out in 1984, I really liked it but I don’t think I would’ve called it the best movie of the year. But they’ve always seemed more sophisticated and less knee-jerk (than other groups) so I always embrace their choices even when I don’t agree with them.”

Adds Clark, whose top-10 list this year will include at least two documentaries and an animated film, “I’ve always felt that the Oscars didn’t have anything to do with any one group.”

Ultimately, critics groups are as diverse in their decision-making as the members among them. When it comes to predicting which way they’ll sway based on previous years’ voting, all bets are off.

“I think as a film critic, you are very isolated,” says Dargis. “You are a lot of times sitting by yourself in the dark and then you go home and sit in front of the computer screen. It’s one of the things that I liked about the screener ban actually. It got a lot of us shooting emails back and forth, discussing our responses and feelings toward the industry.

“I really enjoyed the exchange. It was a very interesting excuse for some very heated arguments. We’re critics for God’s sake. Of course we have strong opinions. Everyone is hotheaded and dogmatic. It’s marvelous.”

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