Pushing the Envelope, Please

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Movie critics are like Santa's elves. We're ignored 11 months of the year, then are called upon in December to deliver presents to naughty and nice films.

Well, that's how the Hollywood studios see us. In real life, as anyone who had endured an awards meeting of a critic's group can tell you, we're more like the assistant accountants at Scrooge & Marley. We sit hunched at a long table, scribbling names and film titles on ragged slips of paper, listening to the chairman to call out the nominees and waiting for other poor drudges to tabulate the outcome. It couldn't be more droning or less dramatic. Our meeting site today was the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, but no ghost of Alexander Woollcott or Dorothy Parker rose to entertain us. Indeed, since the retirement of our curmudgeon emeritus John Simon, we have lost even the explosions of his expletive expectorations. (I hear you, I hear you: people paid to see movies shouldn't kvetch.)

Here are the winners the 28 of us chose, followed (in parentheses) by runners-up:

Best Film: Brokeback Mountain (A History of Violence; Good Night, and Good Luck)

Best Foreign Language Film: 2046 (Hidden / Cache; Look at Me / Comme une image)

Best Non-Fiction Films: Grizzly Man and The White Diamond (The March of the Penguins; The Aristocrats)

Best Animated Feature: Howl's Moving Castle (Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit; Tim Burton's Corpse Bride)

Best First Film: Capote (Me and You and Everyone We Know; Junebug)

Best Actor: Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence)

Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line (Emmanuelle Devos, Kings and Queen; Zhang Ziyi, 2046, Memoirs of a Geisha)

Best Supporting Actor: William Hurt, A History of Violence (Mathieu Amalric, Munich; Terrence Howard, several films)

Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence (Catherine Keener, many films; Diane Keaton, The Family Stone)

Best Director: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain (David Cronenberg, A History of Violence; Steven Spielberg, Munich)

Best Cinematography: Christopher Doyle, et al., 2046 (Robert Elswit, Good Night, and Good Luck; Emmanuel Lubezki, The New World)

Best Screenplay: Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Brokeback Mountain; Tony Kushner, Munich)


The New York Film Critics Circle voted today, following Saturday's balloting by the Los Angeles Film Critics. There was plenty off overlap, for those of you keeping score. Both groups chose Brokeback as best film and director, with A History of Violence in second place. Heath Ledger edged out Philip Seymour Hoffman for best actor in New York; Hoffman beat Ledger in L.A. For foreign-language film, 2046 was first in New York, second in L.A., while Hidden (Cache) was just the reverse. In Gotham, the screenplay award went to Noel Baumbach's love-it-or-hate-it family tragicomedy The Squid and the Whale, which tied with Capote for that prize in Tinseltown.

The voting represented a rebuke of sorts to the Hollywood studios' tendency to backload their film schedule, putting their prestige items out just before Christmas and appealing to the presumed short attention span of critics. This year not one of the New York winners was a flat-out December release. A bunch of U.S. critics saw A History of Violence when it played the Cannes Film Festival in May, and Brokeback Mountain at the Toronto Fest in September. Wong Kar-wai's 2046, which took the foreign-film and cinematography prizes, was at Cannes last year, in 2004. Of the last-minute big-ticketers, Munich placed third in the film and director categories; The New World's Terrence Malick finished fourth in the director's race. But for the first time in a while, no film we honored got an award before it hit the theaters.

This was also one of the closest ballotings in years. The change of film titles on a single ballot could have deprived Brokeback of all its awards and tipped them to Violence for best film, Cronenberg for director and Hoffman—playing another gay guy in a soulful relationship with a down-home dude—for best actor. Same for the two Violence citations. Hurt beat Amalric in a photo finish for supporting actor; and Bello, the supporting actress winner, edged out Keener, who this year seemingly appeared in every film but the Cronenberg.

These are just the first awards in a season that stretches from early December to the Academy Awards on March 5. Today a third bunch of prizes emerged from the National Board of Review, an organization that, so far as I know, exists only to give out these awards (and have a dinner; we all have dinners).

Another outfit, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, announced not their prizes but their nominations. Befitting their chimerical status among reviewers (in the immortal job description of ABC's Joel Siegel, "I'm not paid to write, I'm paid to read"), they named a lavish 10 finalists for Best Film, plus six in the best actor and actress slots. They dreamed up a few other categories to keep everybody happy: Best Acting Ensemble, Best Young Actor (stuff the ballot box for Squid's Owen Kline) and Actress (paging The New World's Q'orianka Kilcher), Best Comedy, Best Family Film—Live Action, Best Picture Made for Television and three, count 'em, different music categories. I smell another awards show coming to cable.


So have we elves done our work well? I for one was pleased with—or, as critics say in that trademarked grudging tone, can live with—all the New York awards. I was relieved that Judi Dench, aka the Duchess of Drab, who was cited by L.A. and the National Board for her phoned-in work in the perfunctorily ingratiating Mrs Henderson Presents, didn't finish in the top five in our group. And I was thrilled that The White Diamond, Werner Herzog's scrupulous, rapturous meditation on mankind's dreams of soaring (in a hot-air balloon), shared the best documentary prize with his more widely released Grizzly Man. Now maybe The White Diamond will be booked in theaters outside New York.

The truth, though, is that critics don't matter much more in December than we did in May. The ones who count are the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the keepers and bestowers of the Golden Globes. In the old days, many were only part-time scribes, earning their main paychecks as hairdressers and florists; I hear they're more professional now. What they do is host a show that would win anyone's prize for best party, best awards show and hottest guest list.

The New York Film Critics' time in the sun lasts exactly one day. Tomorrow, the Golden Globes nominations will be announced. That will set the morning line—and, I suspect, establish Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck as front runners along with the gay caballeros and that killer hero with a history of violence. The fifth slot for Best Picture? Well, that's for you to guess, dear reader.