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The continental divide

N.Y.C. and L.A. reviewers agree on cowboys but not much else in 2005

When “Brokeback Mountain” won best picture and its director Ang Lee won best director from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. last month, it was a rare event indeed. Since LAFCA’s first awards in 1975, just 10 best pictures have matched up between the two cities, and only six directors, so perhaps it should be no surprise that back-to-back wins for “Brokeback” in both categories helped catapult the rustic gay romance in many eyes from an Oscar dark horse to the arguable front-runner.

But don’t tell that to the groups themselves. “From our perspective, we play no part in this Oscar derby,” sniffs LAFCA president Henry Sheehan of L.A. PBS affiliate KCET-TV and NPR station KPCC. “Each of us sees many more films by a factor of 10 than the average member of the (Motion Picture) Academy. … I honestly can tell you that we’re complete snobs about the Oscars.”

“If anything, we try not to think about (the Oscars) at all,” agrees NYFCC chairman Gene Seymour of Newsday. “In fact, a lot of us (in the group) just take for granted that whatever we do or say, the Academy’s not going to care either way.”

Well, not so fast. Whenever the two groups have agreed on a top pic, it virtually guarantees the film will receive a corresponding Acad nom, and the same goes for actors, actresses and directors.

“I don’t know that we have, or ever had, that much impact in terms of who wins the Oscars,” says Star magazine critic Marshall Fine, who is also vice-chair of NYFCC. “But I think that we have an impact in terms of calling the Academy voters attention to movies that they might have otherwise not paid attention to.”

USA Today’s Claudia Puig says the crix orgs do have a “cumulative effect. Certain performances or certain films that are noted by several critics groups, they’re going to come to the attention of Academy members,” she says.

As for why the two orgs don’t agree more, Seymour contends that the NYFCC likes “provocation,” and that they pride themselves on a “metropolitan point of view that finds the art in everything, (including) Hollywood product,” hence the NYFCC awarding the final “The Lord of the Rings” pic in 2003 and “Mulholland Dr.” in 2001 when LAFCA went for “American Splendor” and “In the Bedroom” in those years.

“The L.A. film critics do prefer a drama that (is) brought down to an intimate scale,” concurs Sheehan. “We tend to accept a Hollywood film as just another film.” But he cautions against drawing a hard line between the two organizations, positing that “you probably are talking about less than half a dozen swing votes in each group that keep the groups from being absolutely identical.”

Variety‘s Robert Koehler opines that the LAFCA has “become a bit younger. “You might have more members now who attend more film festivals than before,” he says.

“I don’t think it’s possible to generalize in any real way about the distinctions between the two groups,” argues Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor. A member of both groups, LAFCA since a year after its inception and NYFCC since 1999, he bolsters his claim by citing the groups’ actress choices this year: Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line” for New York and Vera Farmiga in “Down to the Bone” for L.A.

“You would have expected if you’re going by stereotypes that Farmiga would’ve been best actress in the New York group this year and that Witherspoon would’ve been the L.A. choice,” Ranier says. “So there isn’t any particular bias that I see between the groups.”

In fact, the biggest tangible difference between the two organizations (beyond geography) is their membership qualifications: LAFCA allows in radio, broadcast and Internet critics; NYFCC does not.

“We have pretty rigorous bylaws,” says Seymour, who became a member in 2000. “I had to wait a year after I started reviewing full time before I was able to join.”

Fine realizes that “the universe of information is exploding around us, but there’s a certain qualification that you need to have to get one of these jobs,” he says of print, “whereas anybody can write a review and post it on the Internet.”

For his part, Time critic Richard Schickel, a longtime Los Angeles resident who only recently joined the L.A. crix group, appreciates the NYFCC’s austerity. “The New York critics, for good or for ill, are really authentic working critics,” he says. “The L.A. critics are just loaded with people that I don’t know who the hell they write for.”

Sheehan responds: “Well, if Dick says he doesn’t know who they write for, then I’ll take him at his word that he doesn’t know. But he could always look into it.”

Ranier does point out that “there was a time when the L.A. group had a rather lax monitoring system for who was actually a working critic,” though he quickly asserts the group has since tightened the regs.

“But the L.A. group from the beginning has accepted (critics) who were not exclusively print,” he says, “and that may be one reason why you may expect the L.A. group’s votes to be more populist or less eccentric than the New York group, when in fact that’s not the case. It’s always sort of a mystery how the L.A. group manages to come up with the interesting choices that they do.”

Like, say, “Little Dorrit” as its best picture for 1988? Then again, the NYFCC did award Cameron Diaz its actress prize in 1998 for “There’s Something About Mary.”

“I wasn’t a member (that year),” says Seymour, “so I don’t know how that happened, but every once and a while, these guys get cranky. I’ll never forget this, (three) years ago, there were a sizable number of people attempting to get “Jackass the Movie” the best nonfiction movie. They were serious, too. They kept submitting ballots with ‘Jackass’s’ name on it. They were going to get that thing in there somehow.” He pauses. “It didn’t make it.”

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