Critics weigh in on top performances

Cruz and Hawkins top many year-end lists

As Hollywood inches through yet another Oscar season, various critics groups across the nation have begun the annual tradition of handing out their year-end superlatives in terms of top acting perfs.

Reviewers in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., as well as the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., have already spoken up with lists of nominees and winners, and though not officially a critics org, the New York-based National Board of Review kicked things off with an honor roll on Dec. 4.

But with more and more awards-giving bodies grabbing the collective eye of the industry this time of year, the balance between distinguishing oneself and creating a consensus with other orgs is a tightrope walk worthy of Philippe Petit.

James Rocchi, a member of the L.A.-based crix group, says, “I don’t think anyone in the room was thinking, ‘Boy, I’m really here to move the needle for the Academy.'”

Nevertheless, the LAFCA’s decision to award Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) its top actress prize, as well as acknowledge Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”) as a runner-up, says that smaller films shouldn’t be ignored when it comes to the femme races. For lead actor, the group went with names already being highly bandied about — Sean Penn in “Milk” and Mickey Rourke as runner-up for “The Wrestler.”

Joey Berlin, president of the Broadcast Film Critics group, points out the role of critics groups in shining a light on pics that might otherwise be lost in the shuffle, and the org’s selection of Kate Beckinsale and Vera Farmiga for drama “Nothing but the Truth” is a prime example.

Yari Film Group, which is distributing “Truth,” is working diligently in hopes of finding some kudos attention for the actresses, and the BFCA nods are certainly one way to get the word out and could resonate in terms of awards down the line and box office for the film.

“I don’t think a lot of people had the opportunity to see the film,” Berlin says of some of the other crix orgs. “Yari just began bankruptcy proceedings, but they really reached out to us and said, ‘Please watch the film. We can’t do those big events'” like some of the major studio contenders.

Berlin calls Hawkins’ recognition from the LAFCA and the Gotham crix “a perfect example of how those groups will serve that purpose. It’s a huge boost for her and helps her chances to make the Academy shortlist, but I also think there is a tendency and a desire with the smaller city groups to be unique.”

Entertainment Weekly critic and New York Film Critics Circle chair Lisa Schwarzbaum, whose fellow Gotham voters went with Sean Penn as their lead actor choice, distills it to simpler terms.

“With our own expertise and passion, we feel this is a chance to think about what we thought was great,” she says. “Whether it becomes a forecast of anything is not on anyone’s mind. It’s a chance to love movies. ”

The one performance that seems to be taking the lion’s share of critical kudos so far is Penelope Cruz’s work in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” The actress has managed to come up short with just one of the groups so far, the D.C. critics (who opted for Rosemarie DeWitt in “Rachel Getting Married”).

Rocchi says plainly of Cruz’s impressive tally, “There’s a reason why ‘Vicky’ is the most interesting Woody Allen film in a long time.”

As the season moves forward, critics in cities from Phoenix to Chicago and everywhere in between will continue to seek out a balance between advocacy and what might be considered manipulation. But even if fatigue sets in, many within their ranks recognize an importance in the festivities.

“This isn’t merely honoring those who have too much already,” Berlin says. “Without the existence of this awards season — long though it may be and convoluted and subjective and all of that — far fewer good movies would get made. This system gives quality films and difficult films an opportunity to recoup their investment and reach an audience.”

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