The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. has seen more than a few tie victories in recent years: The very first time I voted, in 2006, there was a lead-actor split between Forest Whitaker and Sacha Baron Cohen. In 2010, we awarded best director to David Fincher and Olivier Assayas, and just last year, Jennifer Lawrence and Emmanuelle Riva shared the actress prize. Whenever this happens — usually as the result of a deadlock between a near-certain Oscar contender and a gonzo left-field choice — something like a general cheer goes up from the membership for having arrived at such a happy but unexpected compromise.
Still, in my eight years as a LAFCA member, I’ve never seen us share the wealth quite so lavishly as we did during yesterday’s spirited and sometimes contentious five-and-a-half-hour voting meeting, which resulted in no fewer than three ties in major categories: James Franco and Jared Leto for supporting actor; Cate Blanchett and Adele Exarchopoulos for actress; and, most startlingly of all, “Gravity” and “Her” for best picture. Terrific and deserving as every one of these films and performances is, I was hardly alone among my colleagues in wishing we’d reached a cleaner, more decisive outcome.
There is, admittedly, a pleasing synchronicity between “Gravity” and “Her,” two very different visionary achievements, both intimate, beautifully acted studies of human loneliness enabled by astounding leaps in technology. Both, too, are gently mind-bending but entirely accessible auteur films released by a major studio (in this case, Warner Bros.), and given LAFCA’s historical fondness for sci-fi and blockbusters (our past winners include “Star Wars,” “E.T.” and “Wall-E”), neither choice feels particularly out of place.
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I hasten to add that none of this sort of rationalizing logic enters into the voting process, during which we are completely at the mercy of tallies, hand counts and our own individual, sometimes fickle preferences (ask us tomorrow and we’d produce a different set of winners), as well as a two-tiered public-voting system that — unlike the weighted ballots used by other groups — does not allow for tiebreakers.
The fact that both “Her” and “Gravity” prevailed also feels symptomatic of a massively unpredictable year in which there have been plenty of critically beloved pictures but no dominant favorite, as evidenced by the New York Film Critics Circle’s choice of “American Hustle,” the National Board of Review’s choice of “Her,” and the Boston Society of Film Critics’ choice of “12 Years a Slave.” As it happens, there was plenty of love for both “Hustle” and “Slave” in yesterday’s voting, especially for Steve McQueen’s film, which won the supporting actress award for Lupita Nyong’o, drew a runner-up mention for actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and ultimately received a special citation at the behest of its most ardent supporters in the group.
That may smack, inevitably, of a consolation prize — a way of honoring a film whose undisputed cultural, cinematic and historical significance still wasn’t enough to push it to the front of the pack. But it also sheds some insight on the curious reluctance on the part of major voting bodies, the Boston critics excepted, to honor McQueen’s achievement outright. (At least one report on the New York critics’ voting suggest that “12 Years a Slave” was on track to win best picture before it was ultimately overtaken by “American Hustle.”)
What is it about “12 Years a Slave,” accomplished as it is, that resists an immediate, unanimous embrace? I would suggest the film’s excellence is inseparable from its difficulty, not merely in terms of its rightly disturbing imagery, but in the way it sets out to be at once a harrowing survival story and a definitive summation of a historical trauma. This is a film that left me unbearably moved at times and oddly distanced at others, which I would argue is McQueen’s desired effect. It’s no knock on “12 Years a Slave” to state that it is a tough film to love, because it holds us, rather deliberately, in a sort of emotional and intellectual limbo. Its difficulty is essential to its point and its effect.
In the end, “12 Years a Slave” was one of four almost equally popular candidates — the others behing “Her,” “Gravity” and “Nebraska” — that found themselves running neck-and-neck in the single closest best-picture vote I’ve ever participated in. The fact that “Nebraska” didn’t prevail may have ended director Alexander Payne’s long-running LAFCA winning streak (he won picture prizes for “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “The Descendants”), but I’d say the collective appreciation for his work continues to glow undimmed, given how competitive the film proved in the races for director, screenplay (where it finished third), cinematography (ditto) and especially actor. That category was another extremely tight one, with “Nebraska’s” Bruce Dern barely squeaking past “Slave’s” Chiwetel Ejiofor, “All Is Lost’s” Robert Redford and “Dallas Buyers Club’s” Matthew McConaughey, with no more than two votes separating any of them in the first round of voting.
One of the pleasures of voting in any critics’ group comes from seeing the wide range of individual picks and preferences represented — few of which make it, of course, into the final consensus. You wouldn’t guess, based on the results, that Brie Larson (“Short Term 12”) finished third in the actress voting, with Julie Delpy (“Before Midnight”) and Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”) running not far behind. Or that in supporting actress, Sally Hawkins came in third for “Blue Jasmine,” followed by Jennifer Lawrence for “American Hustle” and Lea Seydoux for “Blue Is the Warmest Color”; Michael Fassbender (“12 Years a Slave”) was the closest finisher behind Leto and Franco for supporting actor, followed by Daniel Bruehl (“Rush”) and Jonah Hill (“The Wolf of Wall Street”).
Despite its win for music and its runner-up citations for cinematography and production design, the roundly admired “Inside Llewyn Davis” always seemed to finish fifth or sixth in the major races. (It’s not the first time a Coen brothers film has failed to go over big with LAFCA; the cool-toned mastery of their filmmaking seems to bring out a similar coolness in the membership, which tellingly has never given the directors a best-picture prize.) There was arguably just as much passion in the room for Paolo Sorrentino’s intoxicating Roman romp “The Great Beauty,” which drew multiple votes for picture, director and cinematography before finally contenting itself with a runner-up citation for foreign-language film, behind “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”
And, true to its sometimes contrarian reputation, LAFCA was good for at least a couple of surprises: It’s scarcely a shock that studio toons were shut out of the animation race, but few expected Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” to come in second behind “Ernest & Celestine,” a French-language toon directed by Benjamin Renner and “A Town Called Panic” helmers Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar. And there was one award — for screenplay, which went to the otherwise unrepresented “Before Midnight” — where the group happily put the designated frontrunners aside and threw their weight behind what was, in my rarely humble opinion, the only appropriate choice.
In that spirit of disclosure, here’s a peek at my personal ballot, listing my top three votes in each of the major categories:
2. “Before Midnight”
3. “Blue Is the Warmest Color”
1. Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
2. Richard Linklater, “Before Midnight”
3. Wong Kar-wai, “The Grandmaster”
1. Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
2. Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”
3. Toni Servillo, “The Great Beauty”
1. Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
2. Adele Exarchopoulos, “Blue Is the Warmest Color”
3. Zhang Ziyi, “The Grandmaster”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
1. James Gandolfini, “Enough Said”
2. Elyes Aguis, “The Past”
3. John Gallagher Jr., “Short Term 12”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
1. Lea Seydoux, “Blue Is the Warmest Color”
2. Scarlett Johansson, “Don Jon”
3. Julianne Moore, “What Maisie Knew”
1. Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, “Before Midnight”
2. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, “The World’s End”
3. Spike Jonze, “Her”
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM
1. “Blue Is the Warmest Color”
2. “The Great Beauty”
3. “The Grandmaster”