Have you ever met a child who says, ‘I want to grow up to be a film critic?'” director Joel Schumacher asks in “Heckler,” a documentary about those who — either professionally or for sport — levy criticism at creatives. But such young people do exist, and as a newly minted member of a legitimate critics group, I can attest: December pretty much ranks as our raison d’etre. Though snarky comments may ease the doldrums of January and August, the end of the year permits us the opportunity to champion the year’s most exceptional work.
So imagine my delight as I approached my first-ever voting session of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. After years of speculation on the inner workings of such meetings, I imagined something like “Twelve Angry Men,” filled with impassioned debates and opportunities to sway my peers with my own personal picks (such as long-shot supporting actress Kate Winslet in “Romance & Cigarettes”). It’s an honorable fantasy, to be sure, but simply not the way it works.
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In LAFCA’s case, roughly three dozen independent-minded critics arrive with their ballots more or less decided, going around the room announcing their preferences in an open vote (three points to the top choice, two for the next, and one point for the third). The two top-scoring films advance in each category, and a straightforward show of hands determines the winner.
Not every critics group works this way. In fact, some groups (such as the National Board of Review) aren’t made up of critics at all, while others (like the Alliance of Women Film Journalists or the African American Film Critics Assn.) consciously correct for the dominant crusty-old-white-guy factor. And the vital lesson learned in my virgin voting session? It would be easier to get a bunch of broken clocks to agree on the time than to find consensus among film critics.
So when you learn that the actors who received the critics’ stamp of approval were Daniel Day-Lewis (Los Angeles, New York, AWFJ), George Clooney (NBR, San Francisco, D.C.) and Frank Langella (Boston), rest assured, those results are not a response to other organizations, as some blogosphere pundits may speculate, but a reliable indicator of the one name a majority of each group could agree on. The AAFCA’s pick of Don Cheadle is a different story, offering a black face in the race — a valuable reminder for Academy members who may have missed “Talk to Me” earlier this year.
And then there’s the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., which named six candidates in each of the lead categories — which should help maintain a certain degree of suspense until the group’s Critics’ Choice Awards (and, considering that it averages out the eccentricities of a walloping 199 critics, may actually be a better predictor of each category’s Oscar contenders).
In the remaining categories, crix groups seemed split between Julie Christie (NBR, New York, San Francisco, D.C., AWFJ) and Marion Cotillard (Los Angeles, Boston, AAFCA) for best actress. Amy Ryan, who plays the unfit mother in Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone,” earned nearly every org’s supporting actress prize. Supporting actor winners were more varied, with love for Javier Bardem (New York, D.C., Boston) Casey Affleck (NBR, San Francisco), Tom Wilkinson (AWFJ), Chiwetel Ejiofor (AAFCA) and Vlad Ivanov — the latter an unexpected choice who impressed the Los Angeles critics as the abortionist in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”
How does a performance from a relatively obscure Romanian film earn such a prize? Because critics see everything and they reward quality. So while each individual critic has his personal preferences (did I mention Kate Winslet?), the winners are as close to consensus as you’re going to get from this crowd.