|Criticwatch 2007 – The Vindication of Awards?
|by Erik Childress
As critics and journalists, we’re knee deep in a dead zone of things to write about. We’re at the tail end of the awards season. January and February is full of enough useless trifles to be forgotten about by everyone except the junketeers. If there’s one title in the lot that we’re talking about come next awards season, we’ll feel lucky. But the studios make it clear enough they don’t want our ink on films like Blood and Chocolate, The Messengers and Ghost Rider so what other reason do we have for getting out of bed until St. Patrick’s Day? The public ain’t listening to what we have to say about Night at the Museum and Stomp the Yard. Awards prognosis between the nominations and the Oscar telecast is more tedious than two weeks of media days leading up to the Super Bowl. Quote whores are saying I have “nothing better to do” by exposing their tasteless hyperbole. We’ll certainly get back to them soon enough, but for the moment I have become increasingly disturbed by the horn tooting of so-called professionals when it comes to the Oscars. An entirely different kind of prognostication is being hinted at and the answers are as shady as those casting their ballots.
For years and years, the Golden Globes were the one, true preseason for the Oscars. A warmup for the weeks ahead that once hinted at who was to be nominated (and more importantly, win) before Oscar season was moved up and cut one of their legs off. We still pay attention to them, but more as a novelty distraction. (Does anyone really wait for a drunken onstage moment anymore when we have Paula Abdul setting the bar so high?) Whomever the 80-some members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association may be, a group Kirby Dick could expose next, they throw a nice little party for the networks trumping the National Board of Review’s shindig, an organization notorious for being the first awards announcement of the year and suspicious in putting the cart before the horse. We have a party. Now whom can we invite?
Trying to steal the thunder from all recognized critic groups though has been the Broadcast Film Critics Association, a group consisting in large part to those smiley on-air reviewers you see during your morning shows and the aforementioned junket whores. Having inked a deal to get their own “Critic’s Choice” awards broadcast live, nearly every article or interview with members reminded us that their fast-growing awards presentation were becoming the most accurate predictor of the Oscars. During one telecast, Joel Siegel of Good Morning America paused before presenting his award to tell the audience and all the viewers of an actual statistic to back up this claim. Can you think of a more blatant “fuck you” to all the other nominees? Didn’t they change “and the winner is” to “and the Oscar goes to” to soften the blow in a way that would surely make George Carlin fume? According to Siegel and the BFCA, everyone else may as well just stay home Oscar night. Save the money on the dress and avoid the criticisms from The View castoffs. Watch the show at home with the other billion around the world and be sure not to choose yourself in the Oscar pool with your neighbors.
MOST ACCURATE PREDICTOR?
I wasn’t aware that critic’s groups were supposed to be predicting anything. As a member of two, I was under the deluded assumption that as someone with an individual ballot I was there to present my own opinion when filling it out. What does that mean – “most accurate predictor?” More importantly, what does it imply? I don’t believe that every member of the BFCA is instructed to give it their college try and create a collective “best guess” on who the Motion Picture Academy may be nominating the following month. But how many of them have already sold their soul a hundred times over to garner favor from certain studios? Does The Departed get a bunch of knocked out chads because Warner Bros. invited some of them to a Lady in the Water weekend and does The Good Shepherd suffer because someone didn’t get an exclusive with Matt Damon?
There may not be enough hard evidence to convict, but its something certainly worth questioning isn’t it? When you look at the seemingly endless array of award announcements, some groups announce single winners (occasionally accompanied by a runner-up or two), others release nominations and then their winners from a week to a month later. For what reason would the Broadcast Film Critics Association have for nominating ten motion pictures for the top prize of the year? They don’t do it for any of their other categories. While most nominating critical bodies prefer the traditional five nominees in theirs (going so far to six if there’s a tie), the BFCA doubles up. Do they feel it’s unfair to leave out the 6th-10th place finishers on the final ballot? Or is it the equivalent of stat-padding to guarantee that they will have the five Oscar nominees amongst their ten so a loud “A-HA! TOLD YA!” can be heard from their next press release? Hell, I’ll give you a guarantee like that right here and now. You give me ten guesses on every Best Picture race ‘til the end of my days and I’ll hit the five every time.
While they may care to bypass the nominations altogether and focus on their Oscar winning percentage, any self-respecting Oscar pool boy could match it without ever having to write a movie review in their life (just like many BFCA members.) The winners are almost a foregone conclusion the minute they’re nominated. Almost. It’s the nominations that are forecasted through announcements by New York, Los Angeles and the rest of the gangs. If the BFCA wants bragging rights, they also have to be forthcoming about their nomination stats. Of the 71 “predictions” they made in categories which correspond to the Academy’s list, 41 went on to receive nominations or 57.7% accurate. That’s actually better the Golden Globes who saw 35 of their 68 nominations (51.4%) go on towards a shot at Oscar. The esteemed BAFTAs only mustered up a 48.8 percentage (43/88).
DO WE ALL WANT TO BE DIFFERENT OR THE SAME?
So, Congratulations BFCA! I guess you win this round. But have you won any respect? What if we looked at it from another, more cynical angle? Everyone knows there’s an awards barometer that fluctuates en route to the Oscars. It starts as early as the first great movie for us to champion is released during the year. As more come around, others are forgotten. Usually the expectation factor of the Toronto film festival and high-profile directors clouds things even further. Yes, we really love this movie now but is it really going to have a chance if the Scorsese film is half as good as we hope it is? Add in a stormcloud like the greenlighting of Dreamgirls and some journalists are quick to judge the race over fourteen months in advance. How fickle do critic groups become then when they potentially taint the one weapon in their arsenal guaranteed to attract attention from the studios down to the next group? No one takes the National Board of Review seriously, so we wait to see who New York is going to pick. With one major coast accounted for, does anyone in Los Angeles change their tune to make their own difference on the race? After all, who likes a copycat, right?
A reminder that this is all completely hypothetical in nature. Since 1975, only ten times have the N.Y. and L.A. film critics agreed on the best film of the year (Kramer vs. Kramer, Terms of Endearment, Hannah and Her Sisters, GoodFellas, Schindler’s List, Leaving Las Vegas, L.A. Confidential, Saving Private Ryan, Sideways, Brokeback Mountain) and only three of those went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Only Leaving Las Vegas failed to get a nomination. Bucking the conspiratorial and sometimes dangerous notion of suggestion, that’s 10 times in 32 years that the two most recognized film critic groups have agreed on the best film of the year. That’s a .310 batting average when there’s over 250 major releases per year and maybe a tenth of that (if we’re lucky) worthy of Best Picture consideration. In 2006, there were only 24 titles to either win a Best Film award or be nominated for one and that includes comedic split-categories and the Independent Spirits. 10 out of 32 seems remarkably consistent by good taste standards. Perhaps NY & LA don’t need to make a name for themselves, so they aren’t out to impress anyone. Maybe they just want to see the best of the best honored.
By nature, isn’t that the name of the game? Great art, great entertainment, whatever you want to call it from whatever facet you subscribe to is why we do this job. It’s certainly not about the money. Although you’ll notice that it’s the ones with the higher paying “entertainment” TV gigs that seem to know less about the aesthetics of film quality. Be that as it may, we all want people to agree with us – from our colleagues down and so on. But are we to feel vindicated if the Oscars come around to our way of thinking? Are our choices or any less value because they decided to nominate Chocolat over Almost Famous? We’re supposed to hate the Oscars; a united front of edge and quality over feel-good and campaigning. When they agree with us we’re supposed to nod our heads and say “finally, they got it right.” Not “oh thank god, we agreed with them.”
THE POT AND THE KETTLE
Consider the case of the African-American Film Critics Association. While attending Sundance this year, I received an e-mail from Kam Williams calling attention to my exclusion of their awards in my annual Awards Tally. My reasoning for this is that despite weak evidence to the contrary, the AAFCA appears to tip the scale towards a certain cross-section of cinematic ventures and, thusly, does not accurately reflect a fair-and-balanced view towards the 250-plus films released in 2006. Also not included in the tally were the People’s Choice and awards from the Women Film Critics Circle, GLAAD and Vancouver awards granted specifically to Canadian productions. We can go around and around the circle of actors not being able to be included in the actress category, Kentucky critics kept out of the New York Film Critics Circle, etc...etc... but there's a major difference between location, location, location and titles getting an unfair shake because of imposed or implied limitations.
Celebrating black film is an honorable claim, as are films which positively venerate any specific walk of life or lifestyle from homosexuality to women’s rights. But I can't be the only one to bat an eyebrow when 7 of the AAFCA’s 10 best films of 2006 have some sort of African-American claim to them. Dreamgirls and The Last King of Scotland have been making many lists; Scotland more for Forest Whitaker than the film itself. Akeelah and the Bee and Inside Man are certainly overlooked gems when it comes to many year-end lists (the latter of which was actually #9 on mine and the former in my Top 25) - but Catch a Fire, The Pursuit of Happyness and Idlewild amongst the very best of the year? Idlewild, seriously? If the AAFCA’s mantra was to focus on the accomplishments of black filmmakers, screenwriters and actors then that would certainly be something worth honoring. But with notable quote whores Shawn Edwards and Greg Russell as card-carrying members, that mantra slides into the realm of agenda. And with 250 films to choose from, is Idlewild really better than 240 of them? It’s surprising that Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion didn’t make their list considering Edwards was the sole quote on the ads last year and it graced Mr. Williams’ own Top 10 list.
In a response entitled “Dreamgirls' Lands a Trio of Golden Globes: Black Film Critics Vindicated”, Mr. Williams writes “I can't help but feel a bit vindicated by the overall Golden Globe results, which agreed with 5 of the 6 picks announced by our organization in December.” Then, in a bit of selective journalism that ironically reflects their awards better than the Hollywood Foreign Press, Williams only includes the part of the Awards Tally disclaimer that mentions the exclusion of the AAFCA’s awards when it clearly reads “NOTE: We will not include awards by the African-American Film Critics Association, The Black Reel Awards, The People’s Choice Awards, GLAAD, Canadian Film Awards, The Women Film Critics Circle or the Alliance Of Women Film Journalists because they are exclusionary, inclusive and only represent a portion of the films and critics out there.”
“What's up with that?”, Williams asks. “Can't the same be said about the NY, LA, Boston or Chicago film critics' societies?” Well, no actually, unless those groups chose to give their awards exclusively to The Devil Wears Prada, Bobby, The Departed and The Break-Up. Williams continues using creative editing to his advantage, commenting on Forest Whitaker’s overwhelming humbleness in accepting his award compared to Sacha Baron Cohen’s “well-rehearsed” declaration that he’d “better win a bloody award for this.” This was not the arrogant preening of a ego-driven moviestar, but a humorous aside to doing the scene where his face was pressed firmly into the anus of his hairy male co-star. Williams goes for more vindication by suggesting that the AAFCA was “the only leading association to choose Crash, the eventual Academy Award-winner, as Best Picture.” Assuming nominations from Washington, London, the Online Film Critics Society, the BFCA, the BAFTAs and the Producer’s Guild mean nothing, the Chicago Film Critics Association also chose Crash as the Best Picture of 2005 – something that, as a CFCA member, I don’t feel the need to go on bragging about.
But Williams goes over the line when he implies racism-by-exclusion by taking the snubbing of their awards as an opportunity for me to “ostracize black film critics, ostensibly based solely on the color of our skin, especially when we've proven in the past to be every bit as capable of assessing the quality of movies as whites.” There are all sorts of responses to the idiocracy of this statement such as the implication that film criticism has adopted a Bushwood-esque set of rules for membership or how Elvis Mitchell, Gene Seymour and local colleagues of mine have done just fine in breaking the color line as valued contributors to “what must be a multi-cultural perspective in terms of determining the beauty and quality of cinematic works of art.” But I’ll simply leave it with three words for the AAFCA. Can I join?
“WE’RE THE REAL STORY, NOT THEM.”
The bottom line is that all of us, as individuals or as groups, want to make a difference in maintaining some status quo of quality. But there’s still a line. And until any of us writes a produced screenplay, directs a movie or gets more than a cameo in America’s Sweethearts, we’re still on the other side of it. It’s absolutely disheartening that I probably have to go forward and explain the quote above this section so some half-assed reporter who doesn’t know where it’s from uses it in an attack context. There are already enough asses in this business that we don’t need it increased by half.
It’s amusing to fodder around the outrage of Peter O’Toole never winning an Oscar when Steven Wright has, but who is anyone in our business to mount a campaign against Eddie Murphy NOT to win for Dreamgirls based on reported egotism throughout his career or, God forbid, for the next film he’s about to release? I am not a Dreamgirls supporter by any means and believe that other than some of his dramatic later scenes in the film, Murphy did nothing new to convince me he deserved an Oscar for this role. In the words of George Carlin, “I will repeat that because I believe it sounds vaguely important.” Eddie Murphy did nothing to convince me he deserves an Oscar for this role. THIS role. Just as O’Toole probably shouldn’t get an award for Venus after being denied over and over again for far more superior parts and films, Eddie Murphy was more deserving of a nomination for The Nutty Professor or Bowfinger than for Dreamgirls. Who gives a crap if Norbit sucks? So did Harlem Nights, Beverly Hills Cop III and Holy Man. Who cares if he’s a jerk on set? The same has been said of many actors, but I’d still vote for Val Kilmer in Tombstone and Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. You want to talk voting for a career? Peter O’Toole was in Phantoms for Christ’s sake. But I guess Ben Affleck winning an Oscar dispels the rumor of a Phantoms curse.
Take politics, take agendas, take gift bags and studio influence out of the equation. Who is the best NOW? Not then. Not tomorrow. Give Eddie an Oscar for Dreamgirls in ’06 and a razzie for Norbit in ’07. Two years. Two movies. Two votes. Don’t be a man or a woman or a hyphenated-American. Just critic-up and be one. It may all just be opinion, but we better be able to back it up with more than just quotable hyperbole from Maxim and Rolling Stone. If you want respect in this industry, take a cue from Capt. John H. Miller and earn it. You want a maxim? Quality work first. Party later. That goes back to everyone’s grade school days of homework ground rules.
Years ago, a former member of the Chicago Film Critics Association began writing about the organization’s celebratory awards ceremony which flew in actors and directors alike to collect the trophies they had won. The suggestion in his write-ups that members would vote for the biggest names on the ballots to gain more exposure for the group itself was probably a bit insulting at the time, but perhaps also a necessary one. I know that any evidence of impropriety in the counting or suspicious starfucking in the balloting would see me fleeing the group for which I am now a board member faster than you can say “Beep! Beep!” But I can say without equivocation that as an assistant to the ballot counting, I can rest a bit easier that the majority appear to be voting with their heads and not the hearts that just want to see Brad Pitt in town. As one of the original by-laws state within the organization, the CFCA will never turn the spotlight on themselves by giving one of their own members an award. Of course, how can I be trusted that I’m not just trying to get extra press for Chicago’s critics? That’s the position groups like the BFCA have put us in.
Self-promotion is going to be the death of film criticism. We already have bad film critics. They’ve been around forever and the internet is producing more daily. But some of them will get better. Their tastes more refined and their vocabulary more tutorial. The true whores of the profession though will never learn and the label is expanding to those so desperate to be heard they’ll be willing to fudge facts, mince words and rely on vindication from near-meaningless sources to prove a point that couldn’t be further away from the bullseye if they were aiming for a calf.
In the world of Oscar guessing, statistics are everything. How many did we get right? What’s the prize at the end of the rainbow? Film critics can be Oscar experts just as every bit as sportswriters can partake in fantasy football. Have you ever heard of an ESPN reporter hyping up a pitcher to drive up his cost in a keeper league? Unlikely. That’s why they have shows and reports specific to the fantasy gaming world. They may believe the Bears are a better team, but they pick the Colts because of all the potential factors going into the game. A film critic with a ballot should not compromise their own opinion because they believe their favorite films don’t have a chance. You have to back your horse. It may be the only vote they get, but so what? And it works both ways. Don’t leave Helen Mirren OFF your ballot cause you figure all 99 other members are already going that way. Back your horse to the very end. Don’t worry about who has won, who you think will win or who will get your name in the paper.
What do such Oscar-related statistics mean anyway? The Golden Globes see 51.4% of their picks nominated and the BFCA beats that with 57.7%. So what? The two groups I belong to – the Online Film Critics Society and the Chicago Film Critics Association went 45-for-70 (64.2%) and 39-for-57 (68.4%). But what’s the chicken and what’s the egg? Obviously members of the CFCA will stand by their votes, so hopefully we think the Oscars got a lot right and not that we got a lot right about the Oscars. If critics as a society are truly supposed to be the anti-Oscars, then it’s the International Press Academy’s Satellite Awards who were well off that map with only 46-of-128 (35.9%) potential nominees. But that’s with 13 Best Film nominations over two categories and so on.
Next year all the numbers could be reversed and those who continue to use them as a marketing tool will become nothing more than that. If we continue to treat the awards season as just a game, someone will always be front-and-center to promote themselves as the best; the ones with the biggest hitters despite history telling us that pitching and defense wins the big game. Everyone can try to be the next Barry Bonds, but its teamwork that’s going to earn you the ring. Not the amount of quotes you get or the steroid-inflated egos screaming “We’re #1! We’re #1!” You really want to know who the best were in 2006? It wasn’t us critics. Although hopefully we did our job and got the word out on who we thought were the best. Based on (nearly) all of the recognized critic groups awards, here (in order) are the films which collectively would have received Oscar nominations if based solely on their choices. (BOLD titles = Oscar nominees)
Little Miss Sunshine
Martin Scorsese – The Departed
Paul Greengrass – United 93
Stephen Frears – The Queen
Alfonso Cuaron – Children of Men
Clint Eastwood – Letters from Iwo Jima
Forest Whitaker – The Last King of Scotland
Sacha Baron Cohen – Borat
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Departed
Ryan Gosling – Half Nelson
Peter O’Toole – Venus
Helen Mirren – The Queen
Meryl Streep – The Devil Wears Prada
Judi Dench – Notes on a Scandal
Kate Winslet – Little Children
Penelope Cruz – Volver
Jackie Earle Haley – Little Children
Michael Sheen – The Queen
Jack Nicholson – The Departed
Eddie Murphy – Dreamgirls
Djimon Hounsou – Blood Diamond
Jennifer Hudson – Dreamgirls
Cate Blanchett – Notes on a Scandal
Rinko Kikuchi – Babel
Abigail Breslin – Little Miss Sunshine
Catherine O’Hara – For Your Consideration
Little Miss Sunshine
Thank You For Smoking
Children of Men
Notes on a Scandal
Children of Men
X-Men: The Last Stand
The Painted Veil
Art Direction / Production Design
Children of Men
V for Vendetta
Flags of our Fathers
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
X-Men: The Last Stand
An Inconvenient Truth
Shut Up & Sing
Deliver Us From Evil
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
Letters from Iwo Jima
The Lives of Others
That’s 48-for-76 or 63.1%. But who’s counting?
link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2066
originally posted: 02/06/07 10:27:50
last updated: 02/06/07 10:34:47