Head of critics group decries year end horse race

When the New York Film Critics Circle voted its best film prize to “The Hurt Locker,” it was the result of a year’s worth of critical thinking — not some supermarket sweep of prize-gathering, not a race. As professionals who use language to describe film culture and make specific pronouncements, we critics cringe at the way language coarsens during awards season. For us, prizes are not a race or even a competition, as gossips and Internetters say, but an assessment of the past year through consensus (more or less). We critics despair at the rush to judgment forced upon all of us in the winter months, leaving no time to reflect on the movies we’ve seen — or not seen. Every year, fascinating movies, like Francois Ozon’s “Ricky,” open just after the awards vote, seen by few and with no chance at recognition. Instead, we’re thrust in the middle of hardware wars by rival groups who do not practice criticism but simply toss trinkets and throw parties.

This unnecessary pressure has squashed the meaning of movies — that’s what real critics and real movie lovers care about : the cultural and emotional significance that makes “On the Waterfront” or “The Bridge on the River Kwai” or “Saving Private Ryan” memorable. Critical thinking challenges this year’s award season perhaps more than ever because in the past few years, various aspects of the industry’s hype machinery — from ad campaigns to media coverage — have overwhelmed the complicatedness of criticism.

Look what happened when “District 9,” a problematic mishmash of sci-fi, action flick and jumbled apartheid history, opened and the Internet unleashed a flood of anti-critical hatred (mostly aimed at me but stampeding over a few colleagues as well, even causing poor Roger Ebert to bow down to Internet coercion) . Not since the lynch-mob hysteria over “The Dark Knight” in 2008 has there been such sheer fanatical zeal. Still, the need for critical thinking never has been more urgent. This problem carries over to year’s end when zeal runs high.

A horrible new fallacy has arisen that late-year releases are more serious or award worthy, which totally devalues the moviegoing experience of the previous nine months. Without critical recall and discernment, awards no longer reflect how movies shape the popular mood or influence popular attitudes . It was the NYFCC that crowned Cameron Diaz for “There’s Something About Mary”; several members even voted for sci-fi landmark “The Matrix” in its year; and this time around, the Michael Jackson documentary “This Is It” received strong support. These anti-hype choices reveal the way movies feel in the actual experience of moviegoers. There’s something bogus about the recent Oscar selection of year-end, heavily hyped best picture contenders when those films have never penetrated the public’s consciousness — or had sufficient time to prove worthy of popular celebration. Award season trumps itself if it becomes the folly of gossip columnists, publicists and advertisers and not the occasion for passion, reflection and judgment.

Those three virtues — passion, reflection, judgment — are what most define good criticism. 2009 has seen those qualities undermined by the profusion of aggregate Internet sites that reduce nuance and diversity of response to the domination of herd-mentality percentages and superficial consensus. Ironically, this mass hysteria has hijacked award season and weakened its significance as verification of what moves us as individuals or defines us as a culture. It diminishes all kinds of experts and professionals into fanboys. When this happens, critical thinking shrinks and strong personal feelings are leeched out of the evaluation process.

Movie culture gets coerced by marketplace fears — that’s the cowardice behind this year’s Oscar race and the proliferation of competitive film-award groups. They’re intimidated by the childish, vicious free-for-all typified by websites and so-called journalists that disregard critical thinking. The fact that award handicapping has become an occupation — taking up column inches and air time — is as ridiculous (and dangerous) as film critics losing status in journalism and the mob mentality determining cultural value. Only a critic has the independence and distance to clearly see and express alarm at the Academy’s opening up its best picture nominations to 10 (why not limit it to three and hope for greater discernment?). This intimidation results from the breakdown of critical standards and ignorance of our own film culture heritage. That’s why critical thinking matters.

Armond White of New York Press is chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle and was recently elected to chair an additional year.

TIP SHEET

What: New York Film Critics Circle Awards

When: 7 Monday night

Where: Crimson, New York

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