Like any critic, I have an ego: it comes with the territory, or I couldn’t express my opinion with confidence. Imagine what it’s like, then, to sit in a room with forty other critics—each one certain and confident—and try to reach a consensus, as I do with my colleagues in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association every December. We meet in person and vote out loud, using a point system to determine the most popular candidates in every category; then we have a runoff show of hands between the two top vote-getters to determine who wins. (If you’d like to see all of this year’s winners, or learn more about our group and its members,—
As a longtime member and past president of the group, I’ve been asked why we don’t have a secret ballot, or simply vote by e-mail. The answer is that we actually enjoy the process of debating our choices and throwing ideas into the mix that might not occur to us on our own. Every year, without fail, someone will mention a performance, a score, a screenplay that I failed to make proper note of while preparing for our big day.
Another oddity is that even in a year that doesn’t seem terribly impressive—like this one—there always seem to be a surfeit of worthy candidates in every category.
I thought Colin Firth was magnificent in The King’s Speech, and worthy of our citation. So was Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, and Edgar Ramirez in Carlos, and Robert Duvall in Get Low. James Franco held the screen incredibly well in 127 Hours, and Ryan Gosling gives a performance that cuts close to the bone in Blue Valentine. But the day before our meeting I realized I’d forgotten how riveting Vincent Cassel was in the two-part French gangster saga Mesrine. I’d stack his work against anyone’s this year, but Mesrine didn’t make a big impression in the U.S., and my fellow critics weren’t eager to jump on that bandwagon.
Similarly, in the supporting category, I thought Bill Murray was wonderful in Get Low, where he effortlessly created a man of many layers: sardonic and self-deprecating, but not as hardened or heartless as he would have you believe at first. Josh Brolin has had another outstanding year, donning completely different personas in each of his films (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger, and True Grit; we won’t discuss Jonah Hex). I thought he might get a nibble for playing the ruthless tycoon in Wall Street, but no go. The list goes on: John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone, Jeremy Renner in The Town, Sam Rockwell in Conviction, Christian Bale in The Fighter, Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right (which the New York critics recognized). At LAFCA we honored Niels Arestrup, who is frighteningly potent as a prison ganglord in A Prophet—another great piece of work.
Among the women who haven’t been singled out, as yet, I think of Naomi Watts, who like Josh Brolin has gone from one great performance to another, in the little-seen Mother and Child, You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger, and Fair Game. (Annette Bening was cited by the New York critics for The Kids Are All Right, but she’s just as good in Mother and Child, along with Watts and Kerry Washington.) And how many actresses could pull off the feat of becoming a believable punk biker-girl as well as newcomer Noomi Rapace in Steig Larsson’s Swedish thrillers The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest? I was hoping Catherine Keener would be acknowledged for her latest film with writer-director Nicole Holofcener, Please Give, along with Dianne Wiest in Rabbit Hole and Anne-Marie Duff, the British stage actress who is heartbreaking as John Lennon’s mother in Nowhere Boy, one of those films that didn’t deserve to vanish so quickly off U.S. screens.
So it goes, from Cinematography to Screenplay and right on down the line. I wouldn’t think it would be so hard to narrow down my list to three selections for our LAFCA vote, and then decide on one final winner. Just within the Documentary category there are so many different kinds of films—apples and oranges and cantaloupes that don’t seem to belong in the same cubbyhole. How can you compare Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym to the impudent and contemporary Catfish, or stack Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work against Inside Job? Yet they’re all fine non-fiction films.
And what are we to do with Banksy’s tour de force Exit Through the Gift Shop, which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has put on its documentary short-list, in spite of the fact that said film’s validity is in question?
The answer lies in the realization that—as we’ve heard actors and filmmakers say so often—awards are somewhat silly, and absolutely arbitrary. It isn’t fitting to pit one performance or screenplay against another when they aren’t truly comparable. Yet we live in a competitive society where people crave contests—and winners.
What matters more, it seems to me, is that good work is celebrated. The best part of these awards is that they call attention to films that haven’t had the benefit of multimillion dollar ad campaigns. Perhaps a critic’s award or Academy nomination will inspire someone to seek out the film in a theater or on DVD. That is the real reward for good work: that it be seen and appreciated.