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Awards and Advocacy. How Should We Choose "The Best"?

As the critics awards and precursors have piled up this past month, I've begun to realize that I'm having one of my off-consensus years. Some of the frontrunners I'm very fond of (Tommy Lee Jones & Daniel Day-Lewis are both brilliant in Lincoln; I'm not going to pretend otherwise for the sake of shaking up the status quo) but I doubt my final five-wide shortlists in my own Film Bitch Awards will line up with Oscar ...or the general consensus.

The closest my own tastes will align with the masses will surely be within Best Actor. It's one of those years, like 2003, in which nearly all the men with any kind of Oscar buzz deserve to have it. That's such a rarity! Otherwise consensus just isn't happening. I can't see much likelihood of even 60% agreement in any other category. Some of that is due to my stubborn views on Category Fraud but a lot of it is just a matter of taste and refusing to be hemmed in by what is acceptably prestigious; Magic Mike is a way better movie than Argo !

A week ago when I charted the latest development in the critics prizes, I heard the usual round of complaints about my complaint which is, simply put, this: critics groups are just rubber stamping Oscar frontrunners rather than advocating for the unbuzzy but brilliant.

Shouldn't they vote on what they think is best even if that's already obviously what's going to win the gold?

...goes the question from readers. It's a valid one.

[More including my Supporting Actress Longlist after the jump]

My answer is yes if they must but why? And also my answer is no. The truth of it, as I said in the comments, is that though I deeply love both film criticism and awardage I actually don't think them compatible bedfellows. Naming someone "best" does not really say much about their work other than that you like it. So when critics groups line up one right after another to declare Daniel Day-Lewis the greatest living actor again... what service are they performing?

I know this: it is not film criticism. 

How does this help us reconsider the movies or understand the magic pieces that build these moving puzzles? And that's why I think film critics NEED to step away from Oscar buzz and think a little harder about advocacy when they choose collective winners. If you hand Denis Lavant (no prizes), Matthias Schoenarts (no prizes), Jean Louis Trintignant (no prizes), or Bradley Cooper (1 prize) a "Best Actor" prize for Holy Motors, Rust & BoneAmour or Silver Linings Playbook respectively aren't you actually making people think a little harder about their moviegoing and what Great Acting is than if you go "biopic +  oscar frontrunner = we agree, he's awesome!"?

(For the record, yes, Daniel Day-Lewis is awesome.)

I thought I'd illustrated this with the Supporting Actress category. 

I chose this one because I've clearly been advocating for Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy. Some people say they want "unbiased" coverage of awards and entertainment but I think that's absolutely the worst kind. What are we without our point of view? I'll tell you what: press release regurgitators. Hence, advocacy. I've prepared an animated gif to break down how I think voting usually goes (after the jump) and that it usually stops at "step 3"... which is only really half the battle for the conscientious voter.

This is how we do it... 

I don't even want to think about how long the final step takes me! I'm crazy.

(Are you just as crazy? I'm dying to know what you think of every moment in this gif so chatter at me!)

Maybe it's uncharitable of me to assume that others don't think this hard over who they name as "Best". But I'm not the only one who worries about this kneejerk Oscar Buzz = Best trend in film critics organization prizes. I hear the complaint from friends in the business and strangers online, too, that a portion of the critics in these organizations seem to arrive at their awards day with Oscar tip sheets as ballots. 

People should not be choosing "Bests" based on the very limited pool of "who might be nominated for an Oscar". It's a shame really because shouldn't film critics, professional or otherwise, pass out their own prizes based on careful consideration of what they thought was best and not the already carefully winnowed field that comes from months and months of conversation by tastemakers and pundits.

Tastemakers and Pundits...

These two groups are, I'm afraid, merging into one. That will sound odd coming from me since I think of myself as both a film critic and an Oscar pundit but they are EXTREMELY different jobs and should remain so. I just happen to like doing both.

It's a great pity that "tastemakers" (aka media voices whether that means critics or journalists or bloogers) no longer seem to value influencing taste above the "guessing" at the taste of others. If a performer has ZERO hope of an Oscar nomination and gives the sort of performance that others might judge you harshly for thinking kind of miraculous (usually because it is not housed within the safely acceptable genres of Social Message Movie, History, Biopic, Drama or Serious-Minded Comedy) shouldn't they still be very much in the running for our own prizes?

Consider: Eva Green in Dark Shadows

Two perfect example of this for me this year would be Michael Fassbender in Prometheus and Eva Green in Dark Shadows. Critics loved Fassbender's Prometheus work when the film arrived but abandoned him at the first sign of disabilities, true stories, and accents Green meanwhile never once had any kind of buzz for anything prize-like but isn't that star turn thrice as funny, imaginative, and interesting as half of the women who were talked up for prizes all throughout 2012? Yes, the movie is either okay/disposable or a piece of crap (depending on your generosity) but who cares? When we hand out prizes for "Best" we're supposed to be judging the actor's gift rather than the wrapping it comes in. 

I realize I may sound Superior from my Soapbox but this is also a rebuke to myself. I'm preparing my "Best of" Lists and I'm realizing that I have barely talked about some movies that I really loved this year. Shouldn't I be advocating for them rather than posting the 10th thing about [Insert Future Oscar Nominated Film Here]?

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Reader Comments (36)

I dig your longlist Nathaniel, just one question: who are those two women in the second row that aren't Carmen Ejogo, Judi Dench, or Jennifer Ehle?

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSean D

the only candidates i'm really sad to see absent from your list are Anne Hathaway for Dark Knight Rises and Sarah Silverman for Take This Waltz. Matter of personal taste I suppose.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSean D

Sean -- that'd be Lorraine Toussaint from Middle of Nowhere and Emily Blunt from Looper. And yes those are my top 20 though they're not in any specific order right now.

December 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Sean -- i still am trying to squeeze movies in . Take this Waltz is on the stack. Not sure how many of them I'll get through.

December 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I would have put Gina Gershon (Killer Joe) in the mix, along with Edith Scob (Holy Motors) and Isla Fisher (Bachelorette). But I don't think I read all the rules...

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKurtis O

Ewwww Cody Horn. Just to bring a counterpoint to your MM observation, I think there's a healthy amount of people who don't hold the film's content against it, but still don't think it's really good cinema. I just think of that scene where Horn goes to the club for the first time and there are several minutes of her giving a reaction shot to a dance where her expression never changes.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDean

Kurt -- i haven't seen Killer Joe yet. Hopefully tonight!

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

As far as actress is concerned, I think Jacki Weaver should have anything and everything she wants any time she appears in a movie so between her and Anne Hathaway I'm having a schizophrenic year. Second I don't believe DDL is the be all and end all of everything and that gets you in trouble with absolutely everyone.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Oh man, I had no idea Lorraine Toussaint was in MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (I'd recognise her face anywhere). Now I'm even more sad that that film will never get released here.

And you're so right, of course. Alas...

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

How come Nicole Kidman is legitimately supporting in her film but Helen Hunt isn't in hers? Doesn't Kidman more or less drive most of the plot?

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWalter L. Hollmann

I would love to see Emma Watson or Diane Kruger make it, but that's a pipe dream on my part. Still, seeing their faces pop up in your line up goy my hopes up. I'm just happy Nicole Kidman is being pushed closer. Other than that, supporting actress underwhelms.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBia

In your top 20, who is the one pictured in the left bottom corner?? Is she the one praised for Anna Karenina? If it's her it would be great!!

Very sad watching Smith making your longlist with such an average performance and no Samantha Morton, Sarah Gadon, Salma Hayek, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson, Julia Roberts, Isabelle Hupert...

But very happy if not surprised to see Kidman, Kruger, Munn and Hathaway. And happily surprised to see Blunt, Stewart, Horn, Watson and Bae.

I didn't know you had seen On the Road! Did you like it? I didn't love it, but thought it had amazing performances by Stewart and specially Hedlund.

Very intrigued about what you think about Adams in The Master because of the way it appears, disappears and reappears in your gif. I think I'm going to love her!

I'm pretty obsessed with cathegory fraud, and I think Helen Hunt could be rightly considered either as leading or supporting (I think she's actually supporting). But I think that her case is the same as Judi Dench in Skyfall.
Can't wait for 2012 Film Bitch Awards!!

P.S. Sorry for my English...

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeivith Coast

First of all, thank you for including Emma Watson, who was so perfect for that part it made me cry.

Secondly, I just saw Anna Karenina (have you ever seen such beautiful fucking costumes on an entire cast EVER?!?!) and PLEASE tell me that is Alicia Vikander in the final stage.

That gif is FANTASTIC, Nathaniel. And not just because I agree with nearly all of the people in the final stage of your process. I do so wish critics (and everyone, really, but especially critics, whose JOB it is to be critical) would really look at EVERY performance in a given year when it comes time for year-end awards, and not just those who have "buzz" or are in "prestige" projects. (And, why yes, I DO happen to be thinking of Olivia Munn in Magic Mike, Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect, and Charlize Theron in Snow White & the Huntsman)

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Cody Horn was better during her short stint at the Office.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLalaland

By "one of those years, like 2003, in which nearly all the men with any kind of Oscar buzz deserve to have it," I assume -- hope -- the implied exception is Sean Penn in Mystic River. God, that performance was nowhere near as special and award-worthy as Bill Murray, Johnny Depp, Ben Kingsley or Jude Law (in that order), so of course it won...sigh.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

If I were voting on Lead Actor 07, I'd go hard to the hoop for Simon Pegg, as I've mentioned.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Like all lifelong Oscar obsessives, I've often wondered how the "contenders" magically emerge at the end of the year -- often before most anyone has seen any of the films being discussed and rewarded by "critics" all over the country.

It feels like a form of censorship -- like a few "tastemakers" are telling the rest of us that only these five (or six or seven, just to keep it interesting) performances are worth discussing.

I'm sure Anne Hathaway acts the hell out of her moment in Les Mis but really, is it possible that she's the only supporting actress worth rewarding?

The strange thing is that it gets worse the more critics groups there are. More critics groups should equal more names in the mix, but somehow a nationwide spell seems to get cast.

Nathaniel, I know you're not an investigative reporter but I'd love to see this thoughtful post turned into something bigger -- an examination of HOW this happens.

PS: Thanks for throwing Doona Bae in your grid. I know you hate the movie but I loved it and she in particular was unforgettable.
PPS: Speaking of Cloud Atlas, why isn't Ben Whishaw in the discussion???

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

@Nathaniel: Loved that you included Toussaint in your shortlist. She's absolutely terrific in "Middle of Nowhere." Also, try to watch the French-movie "Elles" starring Juliette Binoche. Anais Demoustier is a VERY worthy contender.

Good luck reducing that longlist to five!! It sound both fun and painful.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

Have seen about 30 new films so far this year. Here (alphabetically) are the 11 supporting actress performances that delighted me the most.
ANNE BENOIT "Farewell My Queen"
as a sort of royal fashion consultant to Marie Antoinette
one of the local commentators - the one that's like a serving and a half of Paula Deen
NEALLA GORDON "The Paperboy"
Scott Glenn's girl friend, who's needled by every move Macy Gray makes
JOVAN HATHAWAY "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
luminous mother-figure on the girlie boat
ViIRGINIE LEDOYEN "Farewell, My Queen"
the one Marie Antoinette obsesses over. Wow on every level.
incredibly sensitive in the death-bed scene with her "uncle:,Denis Lavant
NOEMIE LVOVSKY "Farewell, My Queen"
furtively vigilant brilliance all around the edges of this picture
EVA MENDES "Holy Motors"
One of Leos Carax's great triumphs, getting this out of her, of all people. Ekberg in "La Dolce Vita" and then some
Best thing in the picture - and I was even more floored when I found out she's yet another Brit who can do a flawless American accent
EDITH SCOB "Holy Motors"
Effortlessly mesmerizing as Monsieur Oscar's almost unflappable driver
RUTH WILSON "Anna Karenina"
As usual with Keira vehicles, this one's full of actresses who are better than the star.
Wilson is delicious. playing Princess Betsy like a cat guarding her big bowl of cream.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKen

"Shouldn't they vote on what they think is best even if that's already obviously what's going to win the gold?"

I agree with you, Nathaniel. It feels a little condescending to say, but the question above assumes that critics are actually thinking about what's best and not what's going to win the Oscar. I'm left questioning that every year during awards season.

But I also wonder what role pundits play in this phenomenon. If Oscar sites kept lists of what they thought *should* win all year rather than what they thought the stodgy Academy voters would go for, would voters see (and fall in love with) films they otherwise wouldn't have been encouraged to watch?

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Eva Green was so hammy and irritating in Dark Shadows, I don't understand the appeal.

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrodie

I liked Eva Green in PERFECT SENSE more. Her and McGregor were fantastic in that little-seen film. Though I don't think it's eligible for the Oscars anyways. Does it matter? Isn't that the point of your post? Sigh.

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Berenice Marlohe (Skyfall)
Corinne Masiero (Rust and Bone)

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I also thought very little of Eva Green in Dark Shadows. I remember an early scene where her character is vaguely informed of something going on along the highway (i.e., what the audience knows is Johnny Depp's re-emergence after her burying him there centuries earlier). Instead of letting it sink in and watching her make the mental connections, she just responds instantly, I think perhaps before the word "highway" completely came out of her co-actor's mouth: "WHERE along the highway?" Just one of many, many eye-rolling parts of the movie.

But the interesting thing I found about this essay is where you hypothesize whether the realms of criticism and tastemaking are being taken over by punditry. It shouldn't really be surprising that that's the case, because the exact same thing has infected our political system over the last 25 years or so. Think about it: every election cycle, we hear the same thing—that the media focus more on the horse-race aspect of the election than on the issues and the relative policy positions of the campaigns. Who's up, who's down, what do all the polls say? Who's the primary-season frontrunner, who's surging, whose campaign is on life support?

Ron Paul's treatment this past campaign is a perfect example. In the 2011 Ames, Iowa straw poll, he finished a close second behind Michele Bachmann—but all the attention went to Bachmann alone. And then every political pundit did logical gymnastics to include every other candidate as still in contention—except Ron Paul. Paul came in second in the New Hampshire primary this year, but all the attention then went to Jon Huntsman—who finished third. (This Daily Show segment says it all. The best part is the CNN anchor who explicitly says they'd throw any Ron Paul coverage out the window if non-candidate Sarah Palin so much as stepped in front of a camera.)

The reason? The near-universal opinion among pundits: "Ron Paul can't possibly win the Republican nomination, so why bother even talking about him?" The basic journalistic tenet of reporting the facts and letting the voters make up their own minds never entered their minds. ("We report, you decide" may be the discredited slogan of Fox News, but stripped of its context it's a quintessential distillation of the concept of journalistic objectivity.) Sure, the media's writing off nominees who "can't possibly win" has been going on for years, but never before had it been so blatant.

It's what you're complaining about here: the professional opinion crowd writing off people who "can't possibly win." Except instead of political journalists and candidates, it's film critics and actors. As you said,

People should not be choosing "Bests" based on the very limited pool of "who might be nominated for an Oscar"... If a performer has ZERO hope of an Oscar nomination and gives the sort of performance that others might judge you harshly for thinking kind of miraculous...shouldn't they still be very much in the running for our own prizes?

(Of course, you might have added something just as important: Isn't it by virtue of these critics prizes that a performer who may be chosen in spite of having zero Oscar hopes actually ends up getting a bit of a chance at a nomination as a result? But let's not digress from my larger point right now.)

Whole books have been written about why the political media forgoes issue analysis for horse-race coverage, and I'm not going to regurgitate them here. But the fact that the same thing may be going on in cinema and its award processes indicates that the problem may be inherent in the punditry department—and maybe not really punditry so much as American culture or even human nature as a whole. That ultimately, people like following the horse-race aspect more. Critically dissecting movies, its performers, and its component parts may be akin to analyzing political issues like Social Security or health-care reform: a little boring, a little too much intellectual rigor. But who's-up-and-who's-down, who's-in-and-who's-out, is a lot more fun and requires a lot less mental taxation.

One is eating your vegetables, the other junk food. Given the choice, which would you prefer to indulge in?

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJ.P.

You're right! At this point, I suggest going back to basics. Take one sheet of paper, write down an extensive list, cross down a few names, then a few more, forget about the internet and choose the ones you really love. If you are a film critic and you love Cotillard and Riva just enough to put them on your list, make sure you make room for Schoenaerts and Trintignant too. Those performances don't exist one without the other. Most important, please remember it's not a mortal sin not to vote for Streep or Day Lewis every time they appear on a film.

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Confession: I don't typically end up with 20 performances I love in any category. If I have 10 I honestly love, it's a good year for the category. I see somewhere between 50 and 100 new films a year, and admittedly Oscar films get a leg up because I tend to track them down.

I like your points on advocacy. I think the important thing is honesty. Still, I'll admit if I had a vote with the Academy and was making a choice between a film on the cusp or one that was solidly in OR expected to be out, I might help out the film that needed it. (I often have "on the cusp" films at my #1 slot anyway - the last three years would be Inception, The Tree of Life and right now Beasts of the Southern Wild.)

If there's something I love above all else though? Look, right now Emily Blunt in Looper is my #1 Supporting Actress pick. I would absolutely owe her my vote. Next up is Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises, same thing goes. I'm totally fine with switching my vote to Hathaway in Les Mis if she blows everything out of the water, but if I didn't give Blunt or Hathaway Pt. 2 my vote when they're my top choices, I'd always wonder if they were close. So, here's the moral of the story for me: Advocate hardcore for your favorites, and if they happen to line up with the Academy, then good on them. Going with frontrunners all the time, as well as always going "outside the box," just makes people realize they're hearing your agenda and not your favorites. I'd much rather hear about favorites.

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Thanks for this great piece and all of the other work you've done over the last year. By all means, you should express your opinion on the race. You write it well, with flair, with a great sense of humor. If only there were more who wrote as well as you do...

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermikey67

For Your Consideration: Susan Sarandon in Arbitrage

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

The only award Cody Horn should be eligible for is an Razzie! Her awful, dreadful, painful, performance in Magic Mike is
THE worst performance of the year!

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

Ulrich -- haha. i knew that would be the most controversial pic. I've gone back and forth on it myself and decided it was a really naturalistic performance of an unlikeable character. but anyway she already got bumped off the field i'm considering by my two screenings last night :)

December 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I love Cody Horn and her perennial pissed off face.

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Outside of Soderbergh and Cody Horn's mom and dad, I'm kinda glad that at least two people (Nathaniel and Peggy Sue) like Cody Horn - because it's a cold world (at least it is here in Copenhagen.) So I'm glad somebody likes her. Because I haven't met anybody who hasn't trashed her silly. And the reviews have been vicious as well. And that's gotta hurt, even though your dad is a Hollywood big shot who can get you all the acting gigs you want...
And to be fair, she fared a little better in End Of Watch.

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

My Best Supporting Actress ballot:
ANNE HATHAWAY for Les Misérables
NICOLE KIDMAN for The Paperboy
EMMA WATSON for The Perks of Being a Wallflower

December 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEd

Ulrich -- LOL. Rachel Weisz also loves her! http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/12/13/rachel-weisz-cody-horn-magic-mike/

December 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I do feel a bit bad that you, a very individual thinking film critic, is a part of the critics group that may have the least inspired and most oscar-predicting awardings. At least for this season. :/ Shame you can't influence your fellow members to be more free thinking.

December 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMena


the only one I see in your ballot is Emma Watson .... possibly, Hathaway.

December 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick

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