Inside the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards vote

senior film critic Justin Chang, secretary of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., offers his insider’s notebook on Sunday’s awards vote.

By Justin Chang

The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.’s decision to give best picture to
Michael Haneke’s “Amour” came as a surprise even to some of us who
attended yesterday’s 5 1/2-hour meeting, following several rounds of
voting that had heavily favored “The Master” and “Beasts of the
Southern Wild.”

DHIndeed, a showdown between those two American indie darlings seemed
imminent from the moment the first three prizes were handed out: supporting
actor to Dwight Henry of “Beasts” (squeaking past “Django
Unchained’s” Christoph Waltz by a single vote), production design to
“The Master” and music to “Beasts,” going head-to-head
with Jonny Greenwood’s “Master” score. In category after category,
fans of Paul Thomas Anderson’s cool-toned psychodrama and Benh Zeitlin’s
exuberant post-Katrina fairy tale seemed to represent the dominant voting
blocs, though with a healthy measure of overlap between the two.

“Amour,” by contrast, seemed to command respectable but not
overwhelming support early on. Haneke’s script barely factored into the race
for screenplay, which went to Chris Terrio for “Argo” (beating out
runner-up “Silver Linings Playbook,” as well as “Lincoln”
and “Compliance”). Even odder, Haneke himself was a distant contender
for director, placing well behind winner Anderson, runner-up Kathryn Bigelow
(“Zero Dark Thirty”), Leos Carax (“Holy Motors”) and
Zeitlin; the Austrian helmer mustered more support in this category three years
ago, when he was named runner-up for “The White Ribbon.”

Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance in “Amour” received a
handful of votes for best actor but didn’t develop much traction in what was
perhaps the org’s single most competitive category. Support was strong for
Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”), John Hawkes (“The Sessions”)
and Jack Black (“Bernie”), as well as for eventual winner Joaquin
Phoenix (“The Master”) and runner-up Denis Lavant (“Holy
Motors”) — a super-tight race between two powerfully eccentric, intensely
physical performances.

Even Emmanuelle Riva’s actress award — the only other prize
“Amour” received — proved hard-won, as the voting resulted in a tie
between Riva and “Silver Linings Playbook’s” Jennifer Lawrence. Even
if we had set out to do so deliberately, we could scarcely have found two more
disparate performances to honor in the same category — not just in terms of
the age difference between the two actresses, but also in the almost comically
stark contrast between vigorous screwball comedy and deathly serious drama.

HolyYet in the end, it may have been our awareness of that contrast — which is
to say, the calm, unshakable power of “Amour” and its
death-comes-for-us-all realization — that made Haneke’s film impossible to
ignore when it mattered most. The best-picture voting saw “Amour”
earn enough of a consensus to vault over “Beasts,” “Zero Dark
Thirty” and “Holy Motors” into a showdown with “The
Master,” which, having just copped a directing prize for Anderson, yielded
graciously to Haneke’s film in the run-off.

In light of the fact that we had just given an import our top honors, yours
truly made the ungenerous if logical suggestion that we suspend our
foreign-language film category this year. . (Point of clarification:
Every year, we vote on foreign-language film after best picture, based on the
possibility that a foreign-language film might well be the best picture.) But the membership was not in a
stingy mood and pressed onward, happily so in the cases of winner “Holy
Motors” and runner-up “Footnote” (to avoid duplicating prizes,
the group passed a simple motion not to submit votes for “Amour” in
this category, although a few members did so anyway).

In the lead-up to Sunday’s meeting, awards watchers had speculated that
LAFCA, having previously honored native son Paul Thomas Anderson for 2007’s
“There Will Be Blood,” would go for “The Master” in a big
way and presumably push it into Oscar contention. They were hardly wrong,
insofar as “The Master” led the pack with four awards and two runner-up
citations. (It lost the cinematography prize to Roger Deakins’ snazzy work on
“Skyfall,” in one of the group’s spread-the-wealth nods.) Similarly,
some had suggested that the L.A. critics would make every effort to avoid honoring
“Zero Dark Thirty” in order to distinguish themselves from the New
York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, the Boston Society of
Film Critics and other awards-giving bodies that had already hailed Kathryn
Bigelow’s thriller.

Were the pundits right on that score? LAFCA’s stubbornly idiosyncratic
streak may be no secret, but I wouldn’t presume to question my colleagues’
motives — or, for that matter, their fabulous taste. Suffice to say that “Zero
Dark Thirty” demonstrated clear support in numerous races: Bigelow was
runner-up to Anderson for director, Jessica Chastain drew the most actress
votes after Lawrence and Riva, and Jason Clarke was an unexpectedly strong
contender for supporting actor. Still, it’s interesting to consider that, had
we not opted to introduce a film editing award this year, “Zero Dark
Thirty” may well have left empty-handed.

What too often gets lost in the predominantly Oscar-centric coverage of a
critics group’s choices — amid the usual accusations of agenda mongering,
industry whoring and contrarian posturing — is the sheer range of individual
tastes and passions represented in the voting. You wouldn’t guess, looking at
the final results, that Ann Dowd (“Compliance”) and Philip Seymour
Hoffman (“The Master”) drew numerous votes in the lead and supporting
races; that “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Anna Karenina” and
“Life of Pi” all had their champions, especially in the technical
categories; or that Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237,” Jafar Panahi’s
“This Is Not a Film” and Kleber Mendonca Filho’s “Neighboring
Sounds” were three of the group’s most passionately defended titles. Well,
they were, Oscar hopes be damned: When it comes to the movies, true amour knows
no bounds.

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