On behalf of all movie critics, I say: You now have our permission indeed, the sacred obligation to see Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, Doubt, Gran Torino and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and to catch up with Rachel Getting Married and Happy-Go-Lucky.
It's movie awards season, that early-December period when the elves and gnomes of the critics groups assemble weeks before some of the pictures they're honoring are released to stuff stockings with their favorite films and performances. The past week has seen winners named by four critics' groups: the National Board of Review, plus reviewers' guilds in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. This morning the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a rather different species of bird, announced its nominations for the Golden Globes, the televised gala it will host on Jan. 11. (Last year's bash was canceled because of the writers' strike.)
What's in it for you, the moviegoer? First, of course, an informed early line on the Academy Award nominations, due out Jan. 22, and hints of who might win on Oscar Night, Feb. 22. And, second, a handy guide on what movies you should see or at least, the films you should feel guilty about missing in these recession days when you used to do your Christmas shopping. Virtually all the films named or nominated have either just opened or will do so later this month. (See TIME's Top 10 Movies of 2008)
Movie critics by nature are solitary, mulish creatures, addicted to individuality, holding to their own recalcitrant opinions. The awards they give en masse are an annual attempt at consensus. Audiences thus have the rare opportunity to be guided by the collective will of the "experts," not by the blurbs in a movie ad. Heed the wisdom of the majority!
For best film, Slumdog was the choice of the NBR and the D.C. crowd, Milk in New York and, in L.A., Pixar's summer hit WALL-E (which won for Animated film in the other groups). Best directors were David Fincher for Benjamin Button (NBR), Danny Boyle for Slumdog (D.C. and L.A.) and Mike Leigh for Happy-Go-Lucky (New York). Screenplay prizes were allotted to Slumdog, Benjamin Button, Happy-Go-Lucky, Rachel Getting Married and Gran Torino. Art-house habituées may wish to know that Man on Wire was judged best documentary by all four groups (the only clean sweep), and that the best foreign-language films were Mongol (NBR), the Swedish vampire drama Let the Right One In (D.C.), the Chinese Still Life (L.A.) and the Romanian abortion movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (New York).
As best actor, New York and L.A. named Sean Penn for Milk; the NBR cited Clint Eastwood for Gran Torino, and D.C. pinned Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler. Best actress: Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky (New York and L.A.), Meryl Streep in Doubt and Anne Hathaway in Rachel. Supporting actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (L.A. and D.C.) and Josh Brolin, Milk (New York and NBR). Supporting actress: Penelope Cruz as the passionate painter in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (NBR, New York, L.A.) and Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel in Rachel (D.C.).
As in any political process, the voting often rewards not the films that appealed to the most people, but the ones that managed to annoy the fewest. At the New York gathering, for example, the tug of wills on early ballots for best film was between Slumdog and Rachel; each had strong adherents and, it turned out, strong detractors. By the fourth ballot, a winner had emerged: Milk, which, for many members, was the least objectionable film in the bunch. Who could cavil at the choice of a quality bio-pic about a slain gay activist?
The HFPA could. The Globers pulled a Prop. 8 on Milk, ignoring it for best picture and supporting actor; only Penn was cited. The Globes list did include all the actors the critics groups honored, except for DeWitt. As for the more specialized prizes of Best Documentary, First Feature and Cinematography, the Foreign Pressers couldn't be bothered. That's just part of what separates them from the other critics confabs.