The race’s new faces

Critics orgs mixing unique choices with expected players

At the start of last year’s award season, no prognosticator worth his salt was suggesting “The Pianist” would end up with director and actor Oscars.

But that was before Roman Polanski’s comeback won back-to-back trifectas, taking the picture, director and actor (for star Adrien Brody) prizes in the Boston Society of Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics award derbies. After that, suddenly enlarged was the profile of a film that had been dwarfed by all the buzz surrounding “Gangs of New York,” “The Hours” and a certain musical extravaganza.

Now that several groups have unveiled their best-of lists, films and thesps that might have gone under the radar are getting talked up.

Coming in at No. 3 on the National Board of Review’s top 10 films of the year was Miramax’s “The Station Agent,” and Patricia Clarkson was recognized for her supporting work in the same film as well as in “Pieces of April.”

The New York Film Critics Circle offered a suprise choice in the actress category as well: Hope Davis for “American Splendor” and “The Secret Lives of Dentists.” And then the San Francisco crix chose Charlize Theron (“Monster”) to really throw the actress race into a tizzy.

So while the orgs indisputably play a significant role in the year-end recognition of quality films and performances, what exactly is that role and how influential is it?

Those on the distribution end of the business tend to take a practical view.

“You’ve got (Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) members who have to see a countless number of films and who are very busy in their professions,” notes Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker. “And when critics groups award films, it registers in the Academy members’ minds. I firmly believe that when Pedro Almodovar won the best director prize (last year for ‘Talk to Her’) from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., a lot of Academy members who wouldn’t necessarily have seen that film then went out of their way to see it.”

The film went on to earn Oscar nominations for director and original screenplay, winning the latter.

But Barker admits that while critic prizes may get Oscar voters to look at certain films, the kudos alone are no guarantee of subsequent nominations.

For every “The Pianist,” there is a “Mulholland Drive,” — which despite winning best picture kudos in 2001 from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the National Society and the New York Film Critics Circle — earned no Academy nominations.

“In spite of all the publicity and advertising that’s done, by and large the Academy members are pretty independent-minded,” concurs Samuel Goldwyn Films chair-CEO Sam Goldwyn Jr., a producer on

most part, are acting as if they’re king makers in the Oscar race,” says New York magazine critic and NSFC chair Peter Rainer, who’s also a member of the L.A. and Gotham critic orgs. “Basically, we’re saying this is stuff that we really cared about this year, and it’s always nice if a couple of the winners are films that have been neglected by the public or by the distributors.”

“You want to take the average moviegoer and expand their horizons a bit,” adds Slate.com critic and NSFC member David Edelstein. “Every film critic making a 10-best list does the same thing, but I think, living in a democracy, we tend to value consensus more than we value individual opinions.”

Noble intentions notwithstanding, critics have seen their awards become ever-more-integral components of the studios’ multimillion-dollar award season publicity campaigns. There has even been a proliferation of critic groups, with nascent orgs in such faraway places as Seattle; Kansas City, Mo.; and Florida vying to make a mark.

“It’s almost hard to find a movie that isn’t going to get some nomination or award from some critics group somewhere, at least if you’re talking about the top 30 or so contenders,” notes Rainer. “That does sort of devalue what this all means.”

Others have even harsher words to offer. “Critics really need to examine the uses and abuses of their awards,” says the Los Angeles Times’ Manohla Dargis, a member of both LAFCA and NSFC. “At this point, I’m thinking about dropping out of all the critics groups if the biggest issue is going to be our end-of-the-year votes. I just feel that those awards have been hijacked by the studio publicity machine, and I think that’s something that should give pause to every independent-minded critic out there.”

In the meantime, something else has emerged to give critics pause in 2003: the Motion Picture Assn. of America-supported screener ban, which has prompted the LAFCA and the Chicago Film Critics Assn. to forgo their awards this season (the Chi group officially says its kudos are postponed).

A momentary interruption or a sign of things to come?

As Edelstein sees it, “I think ranking is a horrible thing to do to works of art, but at the same time I know that we are, like it or not, cogs in the marketing of these movies, and we do want to steer viewers toward films that they might have missed. I just wish people who love movies would learn to pay more attention to individual critical voices rather than waiting for some kind of consensus winner to emerge.

“I happen to believe that your relationship with a work of art should be one on one and that it doesn’t matter what anybody else says about it.”