Critics' prizes can serve as a counterpoint to Oscars

At N.Y. group's big vote, it's ballots, bagels, and boredom

At long last, the Year of the Election is over. But in the movie world, where pundits are poring over the best achievements of the past 12 months, the voting has just begun. The ballots they cast for prizes could influence ticket sales, advertising campaigns, and the all-important Academy Awards race.

If anything about this annual ritual is as clear as a camera lens, it's that show business loves prizes almost as much as it loves the shows competing for them.

An eye-opening article in the trade newspaper Variety reports that the entertainment industry handed out more than 4,000 awards in more than 550 ceremonies during 2000 - that's an average of one prize every two hours. From the Grammys and the Wammys to the Bambis and the Webbys, among many others, there's been a 65 percent increase over 1999, suggesting awards inflation is aggressively on the rise.

Some critics contend that awards are a bad idea, fostering a competitive atmosphere among artists and entertainers, who ought to be focused on their inner voices, not the prize-giver's siren song. But others say awards are a legitimate means of separating the good from the bad.

All that's certain is that awards are here to stay, and that the recent proliferation of prize-givers allows audiences to pick and choose. Ultimately, it's everyday spectators who decide which award races deserve notice, just as they decide which movies to focus on during the year.

Everyone has a hard time avoiding the Oscar sweepstakes, of course, with its gigantic TV audience and international outreach. It's the 500-pound gorilla of movie awards, compelling fans and skeptics alike to acknowledge its influence and appeal.

But another part of the prize-giving spectrum also gets attention from moviegoers who think about the aesthetic and social health of their favorite art form. This is the growing array of awards bestowed by film critics, who are more likely than Oscar voters to value cultural merit over box-office popularity - if only because the Oscars are decided by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who are industry insiders.

Not that critics have a special hold on objectivity, impartiality, and good taste. They have axes to grind, just as Oscar voters do, and they're sometimes overzealous when it comes to honoring overlooked and undervalued offerings of a given year. Still, there's a slightly higher chance that their criteria will be artistry and intelligence rather than popularity and profitability. And that provides a good counterbalance to the academy.

I've been using the word "they" to designate movie critics, but I should really say "we," since I'm a critic myself. I'm also a member of four critics' organizations, three of which figure prominently in the prize-giving parade.

Balloting by the National Society of Film Critics takes place this weekend in New York, with the outcome announced Saturday. Voting by the Online Film Critics Society is under way as I write. And the New York Film Critics Circle - the oldest and most prestigious group of its kind - made its selections about three weeks ago, with results that moviegoers are still digesting and debating.

Did anyone expect the brand-new "Traffic" to score multiple victories for best director Steven Soderbergh, best supporting actor Benicio Del Toro, and best picture of the year? How did "You Can Count on Me" rack up prizes for best actress Laura Linney and best screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan despite its tiny budget and low-key personality? Why did the highly touted Hong Kong adventure "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" lose to the muted Taiwanese drama "Yi Yi" as the best foreign-language release of 2000?

Such questions grow even more interesting when you realize that other critics' organizations came to different conclusions. "Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" did sweep in as best foreign-language movie when the Boston Society of Film Critics tallied its ballots, and leapt higher still when the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named it best picture of the year. Boston gave its best-picture nod to the rock 'n' roll movie "Almost Famous," which earned nothing from the New York critics. The dark comedy "Wonder Boys" shared Boston awards for best screenplay (Steven Kloves) and best supporting actress (Frances MacDormand) and garnered Los Angeles prizes for best actor (Michael Douglas) and supporting actress (MacDormand, also honored for her "Almost Famous" role) even though it too was shut out in the New York vote.

Do such discrepancies mean critics' votes are even more meaningless than the Oscar race, which has the clarity to name a single winner and leave things at that? If the Oscar sweepstakes is a winner-take-all race meant to elevate a single victor above everything else, the gaggle of film-critic votes is an exercise in democracy. The results may seem like a cacophony, but the bottom line reflects an essential truth: There is no "best" or "worst," just a glorious hodgepodge of opinions and perspectives that communicate most richly when they dare to differ.

Moviegoers often ask me questions about film-critic awards, so here are brief answers to the ones I hear most frequently.

Are the annual balloting sessions dramatic and exciting events, with critics passionately persuading their colleagues and promoting their points of view, or are they calm and collected affairs marked by lucid discussion and enlightened debate?

Neither! Members sit around a large table, scribble votes on scraps of yellow paper, squirm in their seats while the totals are tallied, and groan when the chairperson announces that yet another ballot will be needed before a winner emerges. It's a long and largely boring process, and the liveliest table talk usually centers on how long the bagels and cream cheese will hold out.

Do critics' groups develop rivalries with one another?

Such organizations compete informally for prestige and prominence, but they generally treat each other with respect. Grousing mainly arises when some group decides to hold its balloting too early in December, making the others scramble to do likewise so members won't seem behind the curve.

Do some critics' groups lean in commercial directions while others veer toward arty fare?

To some extent, perhaps, but not regularly or consistently. When the Los Angeles association crowns a Hong Kong movie as best picture, you know the critics aren't in Hollywood's pocket. And how art-obsessed could we New York scribes be if we're happy to name Tom Hanks best actor for the commercial blockbuster "Cast Away"?

Can prizes from critics have a determining effect on the Oscar race?

Not in ways that can be pinpointed. But our accolades can influence the overall buzz surrounding a movie, and if there's anything the academy respects, it's buzz.

Do critics really give awards to advance the art of cinema, or are they just academy wannabes who don't want Oscar voters to have all the fun?

Some of both, I suppose. The art of cinema is inseparable from the joy of moviegoing, so I'm happy to participate in any process that encourages it to fulfill its potential.

And hey - why should Oscar voters have all the fun?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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