‘Tis the season when Hollywood does what it does best: honoring itself. Leading up to the 73rd Academy Awards, a dizzying array of guild and association members crowd screening rooms and rummage through stacks of videos to pick their choices for the finest films of the year. The question is how do all these kudos affect one another and do they cumulatively pave a yellow brick road to that elusive Oscar?
“I think the critics awards definitely have an influence in that they are an indication to the public and to the Academy about films to look out for,” says Owen Gleiberman, New York Film Critics Circle member and Entertainment Weekly film critic.
For 65 years, the NYFCC has always prided itself on being an intelligent counterbalance to industry awards. Last year was no exception when the 31 print critics — the NYFCC does not admit TV or radio reviewers — voted for Mike Leigh’s “Topsy-Turvy” as best picture, a film that didn’t even get an Academy nomination in that category.
“Different years have different flavors,” says Gleiberman. “Some years are just like that, when there is no consensus or no one movie that dominates either the culture or the imagination of critics. And I think this is one of those years. Critically, it’s very interesting and I think things are going to be all over the map.”
As for the NYFCC’s actual voting process, Gleiberman thinks there’s a lot of misinformation on how the ballots are cast. When the critics gather in December at the regal Algonquin Hotel, they’ve decided ahead of time whom they’re voting for.
“There’s an image that I suppose will be with us until the end of time,” Gleiberman says, “that critics’ organizations vote by sitting around trying to convince each other that you should vote for this performer or that movie
“Everybody already knows what he or she thinks and votes for what they want. Critics are opinionated people. And we walk into these meetings with a year’s worth of them.”
Other critics beg to differ. Jean Oppenheimer, a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and reviewer for the weekly New Times, feels it’s important to draw her fellow member’s attention to smaller films they may have overlooked.
“One of the films that I just think is extraordinary is a Kurdish film called ‘A Time for Drunken Horses.’ I’d like to see it get an Oscar nomination for best (foreign-language) film,” she says. “We haven’t done a lot of emailing or calling people in the past but I think we absolutely can. Sometimes it’s very hard to see everything, especially if there’s only one screening and the film’s playing a limited engagement.”
Sometimes critics groups can create an overwhelming ground swell for a film or performance, case in point: Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Last year, the 26-year-old actress, whose previous work consisted of a “Karate Kid” sequel and some “Beverly Hills, 90210” episodes, was hailed for her performance by the NYFCC, LAFCA, the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., the Golden Globes and, eventually, the Oscars.
“It was the support of the critics that brought that movie to the Academy voters,” says Dan Kimmel, a member of the BSFC and writer for the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette.
Kimmel describes the BSFC as “quirkily going our own way” in terms of selection but notes that five years ago they shifted their voting from January to December.
“Clearly, the motivation for that was, ‘Let’s vote when the other major critics groups do so that the Boston vote will have a similar impact,'” says Kimmel. “There’s a window of time from when the critics do the 10 best lists and the Oscar nominations come out, when the ads will put in ‘Winner: Boston Society of Film Critics’ and not just in Boston papers but in papers in other cities. That makes a difference.”
If critics groups sometimes look for the hidden nuggets among the year’s films, the Golden Globes’ tastes are unabashedly happy to praise bigger and more high-profile pics. Every January, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. puts on a splashy gala that offers up twice as many best picture noms compared with Oscar. However, the Globes’ best picture — either in the comedy/musical or drama categories — often coincides with Oscar’s most coveted statuette: 41 times in the last 57 years.
Another barometer that practically acknowledges a helmer as a virtual Oscar winner is the Directors Guild of America awards. In the past 48 of the past 52 years, the Academy and the DGA have chosen to honor the same director. (The last upset was in 1995, when Mel Gibson won the Oscar for “Braveheart” while the DGA went with Ron Howard for “Apollo 13.”)
Not all the guilds have Oscar on the brain. The Writers Guild of America honors often don’t match with what the Academy salutes. Last year, for example, the little-seen black comedy “Election” won for adapted screenplay; the Acad selected John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules.”
“I’m usually very pleased with what happens at the writers guild,” says George Kargo, a past president of the WGA and a member for 46 years. “They’re more serious and not star-driven. What writers really do is vote their appreciation. Every writer says in effect when they pick a winner, ‘I wish I had written that.’ That’s the ultimate respect.”