Do Film Critics Know Anything?

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Richard Foreman / Miramax

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men

I sprinted down the corridors of TIME this afternoon, eager to spread the news of the New York Film Critics Circle voting for the year's best films. The winner, in the film, director, screenplay and supporting actor categories? The Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, which three different people told me they'd been meaning to see. The runner-up, with wins for best actor and cinematographer? There Will Be Blood, an audience-punishing epic that doesn't open for another two weeks. Best actress? Julie Christie, in Away From Her, which earned less than $5 million in its North American release.

I didn't even tell them that the very popular, and very good, Pixar cartoon Ratatouille lost out to a French movie about the troubles in Iran. (Though Persepolis, take my word for it, is funny.) By the time I'd got back to my office I had realized that we critics may give these awards to the winners, but we give them for ourselves. In fact, we're essentially passing notes to one another, admiring our connoisseurship at the risk of ignoring the vast audience that sees movies and the smaller one that reads us.

In the past five days, five groups — the National Board of Review, the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Washington. D.C. Film Critics Association and my crowd, the New Yorkers — have convened to choose the most notable movies and moviemakers. No Country was named best picture in four of the groups, There Will Be Blood in L.A. George Clooney won two best actor awards for playing a lawyer at crisis point in Michael Clayton; Daniel Day-Lewis a pair for his oil mogul in There Will Be Blood; and, in Boston, Frank Langella won the prize for playing an aged novelist in Starting Out in the Evening. Three groups selected Julie Christie as best actress — she's an Alzheimer's patient in the Canadian film Away From Her — and two liked Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en rose.

You will be forgiven if, like my friends at TIME, you are scratching your head and feigning interest, hoping I'll get quickly to the sexy stuff, like best non-fiction feature (the Iraq docs No End in Sight and Body of War and Michael Moore's Sicko) and distinguished achievement in production design (Jack Fisk, There Will Be Blood, L.A.) . Gee, you're wondering, did The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the French story of a man totally immobilized by a stroke, beat out the German spy drama The Lives of Others? (Three out of five critics groups say yes.) If you're getting restless, movie lovers, too bad. You'll be hearing the same obscure names at the Golden Globes and on Oscar night.

In animation, Ratatouille won the award outright in Washington and from the National Board of Review. Boston gave the Pixar film a screenplay award, which rarely goes to a cartoon. But in L.A. it shared the L.A. prize with Persepolis, the biographic cartoon from the Iranian exile Marjane Satrapi. And the New York critics rebuffed Ratatouille — and The Simpsons Movie and Bee Movie and Beowulfand other ani-movies people have actually seen — with a first-ballot vote for Persepolis. An art-house film beat out movies that have already grossed nearly $1.5 billion dollars (or about 47 euros) worldwide.

That's the deal with critics' awards. They give prizes to whom they damn well please. No problem with that; it's their gig, and obviously they should pick their favorites. (The choices are fine with me: No Country, Persepolis and No End in Sight are all on my 10 best.) But these laurels factor into publicity campaigns for the Oscars and Golden Globes; often they are the campaigns. It's the way we critics contribute to the art-industrial complex. Our prizes certainly help determine which films get nominated, setting in motion the next round of ballyhoo before the final prizes are handed out. So almost all the nominees will be from worthy obscurities that can't draw much of an audience in the theater or, when the awards shows are aired, on TV.

You might think the highest-rated Oscar telecasts are in years when there's a close contest in the major categories, as with Crash and Brokeback Mountain two years. Nuh-uh. It's the runaway years, when billion-dollar blockbusters like Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King get what are essentially People's Choice awards, and its makers wear a path in the rug from their seats to the stage. Moviegoers who are TV viewers don't want horse races; they want coronations — validations that somebody in Hollywood is ready to honor the movies they love.

That won't happen this year. If the Oscars follow the critics' prizes, there won't be a hit film among them — not even the hits that reviewers loved. Disney's megahit comedy Enchanted has the highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics' polling site, but I barely heard the film mentioned at the New York voting today. Dozens of scribes raved about the smash comedies Knocked Up and Superbad, but neither film has won a critics' prize. The comedy they love now is Juno, which came out last week.

Actually, it's hard to tell which if any of the critical faves will be popular, because most of the big winners (Diving Bell, No Country, Persepolis, Starting Out in the Evening, Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood) are November or December releases. Half of them haven't hit the commercial theaters yet. Maybe the critical establishment has A.D.D.

But the Golden Globes and the Oscars, if they follow the critics' lead, will have V.D.D. — viewer deficit disorder. Large numbers of people won't watch shows paying tribute to movies they haven't seen. In the old Golden Age days, most contenders for the top Oscars were popular movies that had a little art. Now they're art films that have a little, very little, popularity. The serious movies Hollywood gives awards to in January and February are precisely the kind it avoids making for most of the year. The Oscars are largely an affirmative action program, where the industry scratches its niche. The show is a conscience soother, but not a crowd pleaser.

And it all starts here, with critics fighting over which hardly seen movie they want to call the best of the year.