Do Movie Critics Matter?

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Oh, our readers revere us — while calling us heartless when we don't like a film they love, and snobbish when we like a film they wouldn't care to see. Our publishers cherish our expertise, although they'd rather print profiles of stars than reviews of the movies they're in. The big movie studios are crazy about us — although they keep us out of screenings that every other staffer on the newspaper or magazine is invited to.

That's the lot of a film critic 11 months of the year. (And mind you, it's still a great job: seeing movies and writing about them.) But come December we finally have a function that other people can appreciate. Friends ask which of the big Christmas offerings they should spend their money on. Our media outlets find space for lavishly illustrated reviews. Studio flacks plead with us to come to an Early Unveiling of a Very Special Film. From January to November our presence at a screening is thought to be harmful to the play a movie gets in our publications. But in December our reviews, and more important our votes in the critics' groups, are seen as the best kind of free publicity.

For this is the season of critics' prizes. In the past five days, five groups have convened to choose what they think are the best films, filmmakers and performances of the year. Soon our encomiums will be plastered all over the newspapers In today's New York Times you'll find ad for The Queen, the film about the British Royal Family's reaction to Princess Diana's death: "WINNER... Best Actress... Best Screenplay... New York Film Critics Circle." Word of our decisions will lodge in the brains of Academy members. And if they don't, the studios will remind them with daily double-truck ads in Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.

You see, the 6,000 Oscar voters don't have time to catch up with the hundreds of films eligible for nomination. After all, we see movies for a living; they just make them. They need an early line, a cheat sheet, voices of presumed expertise steering them toward certain films and, just as important, away from lots of others. Critics, at award time, are the wheat-chaff separators.

I'm a member of the New York group, which met Monday to choose its best. The job is simple: tear yellow-lined paper into cracker-size bits; write a name or three on one piece; wait while the names are read out and tabulated; vote again and again; finally reach a consensus in this category; and go back to square one. It's about as much fun as filling out an income-tax form, though less fraught with drama. Indeed, the only excitement yesterday came in the Best Film voting, when The Queen and United 93, which reconstructs some of the chaos and heroism of 9/11, were tied after four ballots. A brief debate arose: Should we vote yet again, or proclaim the two films joint winners? After all, said the Village Voice's Jim Hoberman, "they're the same film."

A vote was taken, and United 93 won by a slim margin. Which might be thought to speak to the home-team strain in this year's voting. We New Yorkers chose a movie about events that left a hole in the city that still hasn't been filled. The Boston Society of Film Critics picked Martin Scorsese's The Departed, which was shot in Boston. And the Los Angeles Film Critics Association went for Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, shot in California. But don't make too much of local favorites. The New York Online Film Critics chose The Queen, and the National Board of Review — no one seems to know who the members are, but they vote in New York — selected Iwo Jima. (You can find the full lists of winners on the groups' respective websites.)

This gives Hollywood three films to see and debate, Others may be added: Babel, Dreamgirls, Pedro Almodovar's Volver — maybe the indie hit Little Miss Sunshine. That could be a dark horse like last year's Crash, which all the critics' groups except Chicago's ignored, the better to celebrate Brokeback Mountain. The field's more open this year. In the New York Film Critics' voting, the 12 awards went to 11 different films; only The Queen won two. And though we weren't thinking about it, the 11 films had 10 different distributors; only Warner Bros. had two winners (The Departed and Happy Feet).

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