The Long Shot: The critics' award conundrum

Posted by · 7:20 pm · December 4th, 2013

Following the awards race for a living can have depressingly season-warping effects: Christmas shoppers line the streets of London, my local grocer is flogging fir trees on the pavement, and yet it only really felt like December to me when people started arguing about the New York Film Critics’ Circle awards on Twitter. The arguments varied — some were over the worthiness of the Circle’s actual selections, others over their impact on the Oscar race going forward, still others about the apparent racial implications of voting for Jennifer Lawrence. (I wish I was making that last one up.) Ah yes, ’tis the season. Isn’t it lovely?

In one respect, of course, it is. These are the fresh, early days of the awards marathon, when almost everything feels possible and pliable. Early projections that “12 Years a Slave” might oppressively sweep the precursors in the manner of “The Social Network” three years ago haven’t been borne out by the New York Critics’ or National Board of Review’s picks — which matched only in the documentary, animated and first film categories — nor by the recent Gotham Awards.

This feels right: a conversation about one’s favorite films of the year should be a lively back-and-forth, not an endless echo of agreement. And a conversation about one’s favorite films of the year is essentially what any critics’ award worth its salt should be; there are enough Oscar pundits on the block already that voting critics needn’t feel obliged to join their ranks. So far, the choices that have been made smack on genuine, idiosyncratic enthusiasm: nobody votes for “Her” as Best Picture, for example, because they suspect that’s what the majority will do. And the New Yorkers’ left-turn yesterday in favor of David O. Russell’s jazzy, lively character caper didn’t seem motivated by consequence or obligation — it’s not a film you’d jot down on a ballot for any reason other than that you had a blast with it.

So far, so good. But awards-watchers are scarcely less impatient to complain about results than they are to hear the results in the first place. (I know — I’m an awards-watcher.) And so, for everyone who welcomes the diversity and unpredictability of this nascent season, there’s another who wishes it was following the script that was effectively drafted for it at Toronto, if not before.

Digressing from that script is cause for active suspicion in some quarters. We were less than halfway into yesterday’s NYFCC vote (remember the pre-Twitter days when the winners were announced in one job lot?) when one reader cried foul: after “12 Years a Slave” lost Best Cinematography and Best Screenplay, he suggested that the critics had seemingly resolved to avoid Steve McQueen’s tough-minded slavery drama. He retracted his statement with good humor when McQueen duly won Best Director, but far less innocent accusations were being made elsewhere. “White power,” tweeted Sasha Stone when Jennifer Lawrence beat Lupita Nyong’o to Best Supporting Actress (by a single point, as it turns out). If it was a joke, it wasn’t exactly a light-hearted one: whether she meant to accuse the NYFCC of racially motivated voting or not, even making light of that scenario implies that voting for a (terrific) white actress over a (terrific) black one constitutes a political misstep, regardless of which performance you prefer. 

This is heady stuff for so early in the season, but I use it only as an example of the many ways in which critics’ awards can be over-interpreted at a stage when they’re the only ones in the game. The widely unexpected crowning of “American Hustle” yesterday provoked two widespread responses in the Twitterverse: that it was the Best Picture frontrunner (not something anyone said about “Mulholland Drive” when the NYFCC tapped it in 2001, but they weren’t first out of the gate then), and that it was “overrated” — a particularly rash term for a film that was still under a formal review embargo. (At least let us critics rate things before we overrate them.) Then again, “Hustle” failed to show up anywhere in the NBR vote today — is it underrated now?

It may sound excessively simplistic, but critics’ awards — valuable ones, at any rate — reflect little more than what a sizable (or sufficiently sizable) faction within that group either liked most, or liked more than the other options available to them. (It’s as misleading to speak of any critics’ group as a “they” as it is the Academy; chances are no two voters’ ballots look exactly the same.) That’s not to diminish their significance; rather that’s what makes them meaningful, to the recipients and their admirers, if not to the future of the Oscar race.

Conspiracy theories may be fun, but they have the effect of crediting critics with too much guile: we’re proud people, often excessively so, and place far too much stock in our own artistic judgment to let anything else guide us when voting for the year’s best films. If “12 Years a Slave” hasn’t won any Best Picture awards yet, it’s because every group that has voted so far has a majority of individual members whose favorite film of the year is something else. That won’t hold forever, or probably even for another few days — in a month’s time, when the Left-Handed Critics Association of Northeast Wisconsin announces its winners, and the freshness of this week’s early results seems a hazy memory, we may well be wishing for another “American Hustle”-style blindsider, or crafting new conspiracy theories about films that have started following the script too obediently.

Critics have kind of brought this on themselves, of course, with their mushrooming awards and hungry promotion thereof. (It’s not as if they have to live-tweet their results). But let’s at least play nice as everyone plays favorites, and appreciate just how many of those there currently appear to be.  

Check out my updated predictions here.

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