No one came to blows, suffered a heart attack or stormed out of the room: In other words, it was an unusually mellow year at the National Society of Film Critics’ annual voting meeting, where the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” rebounded from its WGA and PGA snubs to win four prizes including best film and director(s). You could chalk up the calm tenor, I suppose, to the fact that 2013 was such a good year for movies, or to the Herculean storm that kept some of the group’s more contentious members stranded out of town (or merely at home in front of the fire). Or maybe it’s just that film criticism has become something of a more gentlemanly pursuit (recent events at the New York Film Critics Circle dinner notwithstanding) ever since it became an even less viable profession than folk singing. To quote the Coens, “I don’t see a lot of money here,” indeed.
The National Society is 48 years old this year, and long gone are the days when Andrew Sarris and founding member Pauline Kael used the group as the frontline in their ideological turf war, back when film criticism itself still seemed so malleable and alive with possibilities, and when movies accounted for a much larger slice of the cultural pie. Back then, it is said, even the specific location where NSFC members situated themselves in the room was charged with meaning. Nowadays, the “Wolf of Wall Street” partisans may butt digital quills with the “American Hustle” faithful, but ask any NSFC member who’s been in the group long enough and they’ll tell you that can’t hold a candle to the epic 1977 dust-up between “Taxi Driver” and “All the President’s Men” (the eventual best-film winner). That, so goes NSFC lore, was our Gettysburg.
Things have generally been more civil since I joined the group a decade ago, having just missed out on a shoving match between two august members that broke out at the previous year’s vote. Still, I feel fortunate to have been around for one memorable intifada, between supporters and detractors of David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” in 2005. Round after round, Cronenberg’s movie kept getting enough votes to win as best film, but falling short of the requisite number of ballots (more than half of the members present for the vote). Finally, “Capote” pulled ahead and carried the day — at which point one outraged member exclaimed that she would henceforth sever her ties to the group. And really, if you’ve seen both films, who could blame her?
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It is frequently pointed out, mostly by that special breed of journalist who has turned Oscar forecasting into a year-round parlor game, that the NSFC and the Academy rarely see eye-to-eye on the year’s best film— only five times in a half-century, to be exact. More often, the NSFC winners are but distant blips on Oscar’s radar. For the first decade of its existence, the group only gave two American films the top prize, and both of those were directed by Robert Altman (“MASH” and “Nashville”). More recently, best-film winners have included “Melancholia,” “Waltz With Bashir,” “American Splendor,” “Mulholland Dr.” and “Yi yi.” In 1999, when “Saving Private Ryan” and “Shakespeare in Love” were duking it out on Oscar night and elsewhere, what was the NSFC’s choice for the year’s top pic? None other than Steven Soderbergh’s splendid Elmore Leonard adaptation, “Out of Sight.”
The same holds true for actors, especially comedians: Eddie Murphy won here for “The Nutty Professor” in 1996 (a decade before his overdue Oscar nomination for “Dreamgirls”); Michael Keaton was given a double citation in 1988 for “Beetlejuice” and “Clean and Sober”; Steve Martin has won twice (for “All of Me” and “Roxanne”); and in 1999, Reese Witherspoon was named best actress for “Election” — collectively, performances that failed to earn even a single Oscar nomination. In the eyes of some, this makes the NSFC a bad “indicator,” at a time when that seems to be the only cultural value of any award not handed out before the last weekend in February.
Then again, the NSFC has never cared much about such things. We vote weeks after the other critics’ groups have had their say. We don’t live-tweet our results. And there’s no black-tie dinner where the awards are handed out — rather, they’re sent by mail. In other words, if we’re trying to be a bellwether, we’re certainly going about it the wrong way. No, the National Society is really there to honor the movies — the best of the past 12 months as determined by people whose job it is to actually see the stuff. That’s an important distinction that sometimes gets lost in the awards-season hubbub, but one worth emphasizing. Simply put, the working members of the film industry who make up the Academy and the guilds can’t reasonably expected to see nearly as many of the 600-plus titles that now open commercially in the U.S. every year as most critics do, and so it’s unsurprising that those other awards tend to favor the relatively small crop of films released during the last few weeks of the year and officially anointed “the contenders.”
None of the fantastical daydreams of Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty are nearly as outlandish as the notion that the movie containing them should be taken seriously as something deserving of year-end accolades; but because it arrived at Christmas, with a studio-backed Oscar campaign behind it, more than a few in the media machine have jumped on the bandwagon. Meanwhile, a critics group may be singled out as “perverse” if it gives an acting prize to an unknown performer from a small foreign-language or American independent film, as if it were impossible that the membership actually deemed this to be the year’s best performance.
At the same time, it’s true that the release schedule has become ever more backloaded with quality films for grown-ups, an oversaturation strategy that effectively casts a number of first-rate movies to the box-office wolves. Could audiences — even discerning arthouse ones — really be expected to discover Ralph Fiennes’ superb “The Invisible Woman” when it was one of nearly a dozen limited or wide releases opening over Christmas weekend? (“The Invisible Movie” is more like it.) And while Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” won’t open wide until later this month, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this visceral, unsparing portrait of men in war might have fared better in a less competitive season.
If one of the central themes of “Inside Llewyn Davis” is that life moves in circles, where does that leave us? Back at the NSFC voting meeting, I reckon, which unfolded over a few brisk hours on Saturday morning into Saturday afternoon, in a meeting room at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, no single category going past a second round of voting (possibly a record, helped by the relatively low voter turnout — a mere 17 of the group’s 56 members). Among the day’s most pleasing outcomes was the tie for nonfiction film between the controversial “The Act of Killing” and “At Berkeley,” a triumph by observational documentary legend Frederick Wiseman set during a tumultuous year on the UC Berkeley campus, as the idealism of students and faculty clashes with ugly budgetary realities. It is, in effect, a study in the eternal struggle between art and commerce, which makes one all the more hopeful that Wiseman will someday get around to making a movie about Hollywood.