The Deep Blue Sea

Well, here we go. This was the first of many a week that will keep us on our toes with a number of different awards announcements, from the critics and other precursors to the narrowing of individual Oscar categories.  We got an interesting batch of awards from the National Board of Review and an equally independent-minded assortment from the New York Film Critics Circle. Put that together with the Academy short list for Best Documentary Feature, and it’s been quite the kick-off. And, as usual, not everyone was happy.

It’s not awards season unless someone is out there shouting “snub!”

Let’s start with the NYFCC and the handful of unexpected choices that they made in their very long, deliberate process. Rachel Weisz came seemingly out of nowhere to win Best Actress, quite the surprise to all but the most imaginative and intelligent pundits. What did this mean? Is there lack of excitement around other, more obvious contenders? Of course, it simply means that a lot of NYC critics saw The Deep Blue Sea and loved Weisz’s performance. Yet that’s not particularly exciting to delve into, especially if you didn’t like the film.

This is a fairly bland example, to be fair. Most everyone seemed to acknowledge that this sudden shift in the perceived Best Actress race added more suspense and intrigue, without crying foul. Best Director went similarly, when Kathryn Bigelow took both the NYFCC and NBR awards. The fact that Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Spielberg weren’t chosen did not end up occupying much space either. However, things get a bit dicier when other categories came up.

I love that a number of critics’ groups have a Best First Feature prize. It’s a great way to highlight the work of younger directors who don’t have the name recognition to compete in the Best Director field against the likes of Spielberg and Bigelow. Yet it always amazes me how a single film can get anointed the generally agreed-upon “best debut.” Last year it was Martha Marcy May Marlene. This year it’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. And so when How to Survive a Plague made history by becoming the first documentary to win the NYFCC’s Best First Film prize, it was seen by many as a conscious disregard of Benh Zeitlin.

It’s such a silly way to look at this particular award. How to Survive a Plague and Beasts of the Southern Wild are excellent in very different ways, a diversity that can be extended to this year’s other debuts. Just look at the Best First Feature nominees for the Independent Spirit Awards. The implication of the word snub is that NYFCC thought about Beasts and chose to go in a rebellious direction just to make a point. Assuming such a process is on the edge of unfairly judging the critical rigor and independence of the members of that organization.

It’s also quite the logical stretch.

The same thing can happen in the Best Foreign Film race, which becomes an even sillier problem. Amour is poised to be the only foreign-language film to win that sort of award this entire season. That’d be a shame, primarily because the world is a large place and there are many, many other extraordinary works of cinema out there. However, it is equally problematic to assume that if any group does give the award to Rust & Bone or No, it was because they really didn’t like Amour.

All of these conversations tend to pale in comparison with the uproar that happens every year when the Best Documentary Feature shortlist is announced. Central Park 5, The Queen of Versailles and West of Memphis are 2012′s big omissions, causing a number of critics to declare great disappointment in the Academy’s new doc branch rules. Yet, as a result, the handful of truly exciting choices on the shortlist got downplayed. It is a big deal that a film as brilliant, miraculous and unorthodox as This Is Not a Film is one step closer to being an Oscar nominee. The whole list is creative and inspiring, in ways that the Academy doesn’t always find appealing. The Imposter, for one, is an unexpected and delightful selection. Focusing on Central Park 5’s exclusion as if the doc branch has it in for Ken Burns is a waste of ink and pixels.

It’s December. The deluge of critics’ awards is beginning, the Golden Globe nominations will be announced in less than a week, and before we know it Oscar night will be staring us in the face. Before that happens, think about a sense of perspective. What are all of these “precursor awards,” and how do they get picked?

For one thing, critics don’t give awards expressly to influence the race. They do it to highlight and recognize the work on its own merit, and often that includes hoping it will win other awards. However, focusing exclusively on the final night cheapens the whole process. It leads to a mindset that allows for snubbing, as if everyone involved is focusing on the horse race more than the films. It misunderstands the entire point of critics’ awards: to celebrate great art.

If the NBR picks 10 top films, and Life of Pi isn’t one of them, it’s not because they decided to punish Ang Lee. If Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t win a the award for Best Supporting Actor, it isn’t because the NYFCC has swung into backlash against The Master.

Critics should have the right to love one film just slightly less than another or to make difficult final decisions. Anyone who’s ever made a Top 10 list should know how that happens. It might be too much to ask, but can we go a week without using the word “snub?”


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