To Everything There Is A Season
As the editor of this paper's film pages as well as the chief critic, I try to afford as little coverage as possible to the phenomenon known as “awards season,” in large part because it is a season presumed to end with the handing out of the Oscars — a statuette whose golden luster has been so tarnished by the number of thoroughly undeserving films upon which it has been bestowed in recent years (Crash, The Departed, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, American Beauty) that one can scarcely be expected to take it seriously as a barometer of the year's best film achievements. And when you hear the ballyhoo that, in 2007, the likes of Atonement, American Gangster, The Kite Runner and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are seen as serious Academy Award contenders, you know it's going to be business as usual come Oscar night. Yet, the blogosphere and mainstream print media alike continue to pour forth with Oscar soothsayers, whose column inches rival or exceed what these same newspapers and websites devote to legitimate film criticism, implying that how you play the game (which is to say, whether the films in question are any good or not) is considerably less important than whether you win or lose.
From September to February, much of this pseudo-journalistic white noise centers around certain events deemed as key pit stops on the proverbial “road to Oscar,” one of which is the annual awards of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association — a group that includes myself, fellow Weekly critic Ella Taylor and the OC Weekly's Luke Y. Thompson among its members. Earlier today, LAFCA voted on its awards for film achievements in the past year, amidst much scrutiny from the likes of Variety bloggers Anne Thompson and Kristopher Tapley, Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells and the Los Angeles Times' Tom O'Neil. And glancing over their musings, I couldn't help but chuckle.
I'll start with O'Neil, who, 24 hours before the LAFCA voting, rather amusingly posted his predictions of who would win prizes in eight of our 14 categories. His accuracy? Two right (Best Actress for La Vie en Rose star Marion Cotillard and Best Documentary for No End in Sight), six wrong, which is about the same as you might get from putting the names of all the awards-season contenders in a hat and pulling them out at random. In fairness, O'Neil was merely offering his predictions at the prompting of yet another self-appointed Oscar guru, Sacha Stone of AwardsDaily.com, who compiled O'Neil's predictions alongside those of a half-dozen other foggy forecasters, none of whom managed to correctly foretell LAFCA's eventual Best Picture (There Will Be Blood), Director (Paul Thomas Anderson), Supporting Actor (Vlad Ivanov for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) or Screenplay (The Savages) winners. At least Stone's website has the self-effacing good sense to sport the tagline “Nobody knows anything.”
Of course, unpredictable winners spark charges of intentional contrarianism. Hence Thompson, who speculates that the presumed LAFCA front-runner, the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men, failed to carry the day because the film's win earlier in the week from the New York-based National Board of Review “moved the LAFCA to seek another consensus winner, a film that could use their support.” How funny, then, that such fear of overlap didn't prevent LAFCA from awarding its 2006 Best Picture prize to Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima after it too had been honored by the NBR, or L.A. Confidential in 1997, or Pulp Fiction in 1994, or Schindler's List the year before that. In fact, the very suggestion that any decisions made by the NBR — a shadowy, self-proclaimed membership group of “film professionals, educators, students, and historians” whose legitimacy has been questioned many times over the years — would have any bearing on the votes cast by LAFCA members merits discussion only because it's so patently absurd.
If I may, for a moment, part the veil: On a Sunday morning each December, a majority of LAFCA's 50-some-odd members meet at the home of our current group president and spend the next four or five hours hashing out our awards based solely — drum roll please — on the films and performances we consider to be most deserving of those awards. As un-sexy as that may sound compared to some sort of conspiratorial plot or agenda, it is, simply, the way things work. And because this is an organization of critics — that is, people who get paid to watch movies, and who watch a lot of them — it's hardly a “surprise” that our winners would deviate from the supposed Oscar frontrunners (which are nominated by people who get paid to make movies, not to see them). Right now, I'm counting the minutes until one of these awards “experts” writes about how surprising it is that the Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days had such a strong showing in the LAFCA voting (wins for Supporting Actor and Foreign Film, runner-up for Best Actress), despite the fact that the film is arguably the most lauded European movie of the year, having already won the Palme d'Or in Cannes and the Best Picture and Director prizes at the recent European Film Awards in Berlin. Indeed, the movie's embrace by LAFCA should come as a surprise only to those people who measure a film's worth by the number of “for your consideration” ads its producers take out in the pages of the Hollywood trade papers and in the banner spaces of awards-season websites.
Which is to say nothing of the LAFCA-winning films you won't read any mention of in most of the blogs and news reports. I'm talking about the voting of the annual Independent/Experimental Film award to Portuguese director Pedro Costa's monumental Colossal Youth, which screened to a sold-out audience at REDCAT earlier this fall, as part of a complete Los Angeles retrospective of Costa's work. And the awarding of a special citation to the hugely ambitious New Crowned Hope film series, another of the year's most significant achievements in world cinema as well as something of a hometown affair, thanks to the creative involvement of L.A.-based opera director Peter Sellars. Considering that most local media outlets didn't deem either of those events worthy of coverage when they were available to Los Angeles moviegoers, it's only fitting that they should be ignored again now.
As for There Will Be Blood, about which you will be reading much more in the pages of the Weekly over the coming weeks, I will say only this: There are great films (like No Country For Old Men) and then there are films that send shock waves through the very landscape of cinema, that instantly stake a claim on a place in the canon. Often, such vanguard works fail to be fully understood or appreciated at the moment they first appear, as some of the initial reviews that greeted Psycho, 2001 and Bonnie and Clyde attest. There Will Be Blood belongs in their company, and I consider myself fortunate to belong to a group with the foresight to recognize it in its own moment.