Unlike a lot of awards programs, critics awards tend to announce the winners in advance. As a result, the tension in the room involves not the identity of the winners but what might transpire as they accept their prizes. That was certainly the case at the 78th annual New York Film Critics Circle Awards, an alternately funny, moving and boisterous evening ably hosted by NYFCC chairman and Time Out NY critic Josh Rothkopf. Along with the 35 members of the Critics Circle, the room at the Crimson Club was packed with Hollywood names like Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day Lewis and Jessica Chastain brushing shoulders with the likes of Katie Couric and Charlie Rose.
At the beginning of the evening, Rothkopf read the names of each NYFCC member and implored editors to ensure their publications made sure to keep employing film critics; at the end of the night, accepting one of two prizes for "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow joined a long list of winners who thanked critics for doing what they do. Here are some of the notable moments that transpired in between.
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal finally acknowledge the torture debate. Since she first did press for "Zero Dark Thirty," Bigelow has dealt a storm of criticisms from the movie unleashed by Washington bureaucrats and media pundits either convinced the movie endorses torture or that it claims said torture directly led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Accepting her award for Best Director — her second from the Circle in four years following her win for "The Hurt Locker" — Bigelow finally spoke up. "Thank you for understanding that depiction is not endorsement," she said, adding that she appreciated critics willingness to interpret her work. "I apologize for not spelling it out all the time." Moments later, she was joined onstage by screenwriter Mark Boal, also a "Zero Dark Thirty" producer, accepting the prize for Best Film. Boal tackles the torture debate more directly, but not before having some fun with it. "Apparently, the French government will be investigating the accuracy of 'Les Mis,'" he cracked, before noting that he and Bigelow had been eager to comment on the situation. "Some of you may have wondered if we would have liked to comment on that coverage," he added. "The answer is yes." His position? "If anybody's asking, we stand by the film."
Megan Ellison is a serious film nut. Much of the industry may not have taken Bigelow seriously prior to her triumph with "The Hurt Locker" a few years back, but the mark of a truly savvy viewer is the one whose appreciation for her work stretches back to her earlier years as a genre director. Megan Ellison, the young Annapurna Pictures founder who financed "Zero Dark Thirty," proved her cred while accepting the Best Film award for the movie by noting that her Bigelow fandom began with director's 1987 vampire noir "Near Dark" — which, Ellison noted, "came out when I was one."
Daniel Day Lewis passed on "Lincoln" twice, but he wrote Steven Spielberg some really nice notes about it. There was a lot of standing up and sitting down at the "Lincoln" table, since the film won three awards: Tony Kushner for Best Screenplay, Sally Field for Best Actress and Daniel Day Lewis for Best Actor. They were joined by presenters Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the "Team of Rivals" book that inspired the movie, and Spielberg, presenting Day Lewis with his prize. Spielberg's speech was surprisingly candid. The director recalled how he initially sent a script for "Lincoln" to Day Lewis in 2003, when it was primarily a Civil War movie (and not written by Kushner). The actor passed, but sent Spielberg an expressive note detailing his reasons, and still left the door open with one line: "I can't be sure this won't change." A second attempt to attract Lewis a year later yielded another pass, but finally the director got his way. "Well, if you didn't know what a fucking idiot I was then, now you do," Day Lewis said in his acceptance speech. "I do say yes from time to time." When Kushner accepted his prize, he told Day Lewis, "Good job, kiddo. Mazel tov."
More than one "Lincoln" player felt a little uneasy around critics. Kushner slyly acknowledged his awareness that not every critic loved the movie. "I'm grateful for those who voted to give me this award," he said. "Those who didn't, I'm still grateful, just slightly less so." Field made a similar claim, thanking the NYFCC "even though I don't read your reviews."
Steven Soderbergh has some stories about Matthew McConaughey that you might not believe. The "Magic Mike" director introduced his star, honored for his lively performances in both that film and Richard Linklater's "Bernie." As usual, Soderbergh was disarmingly witty, but his final anecdote left the audience vaguely stunned, as he recalled that an extra on the "Magic Mike" set pulling the g-string off a half-clothed McConaughey as his stripper character and "trying to stick a finger up his butt." At the podium moments later, McConaughey said, "I'm not sure it was my butt, but she was trying to stick it somewhere."
McConaughey has plenty of stories of his own. Maybe too many. The actor's rambling acceptance speech, in which he drew a parallel between his characters in "Magic Mike" and "Bernie" before relishing praise on both films' directors, long overstayed its due. Still, he landed plenty of good lines. "The two characters I got to play were really obsessed men," he said. "I was able to get feverishly drunk on their ambitions."
Emmanuelle Riva is nimble and funny. The octogenarian accepted the prize for Best Foreign Language Film, which went to "Amour," even while pointing out that director Michael Haneke was in Los Angeles accepting an acting prize on her behalf. Though helped to the stage by Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, Riva looked incredibly spry. "We gave a great deal to this film," she said.
Milestone Films got to soak up the spotlight. The company's Dennis Doros and Amy Heller took the stage to accept a special prize from the NYFCC for "The Shirley Project," their ongoing efforts to restore the films of the late Shirley Clarke ("The Connection" and "Ornette: Made In America" were re-released this year; more will follow in 2013). Doros reminded the roomful of industry heavyweights that archivists have one of the most important jobs in the lasting power of film history. "Apathy is our biggest enemy," he said.
Armond White…at it again. As a presenter, Michael Moore tends to come across the same way he does in his movies: aggressively chatty and eager for attention. Setting the stage for David France's "How to Survive a Plague," which won Best First Feature, Moore spent a long while rambling about the importance of ACT UP and TAG to raise AIDS awareness. Then a voice cropped up from across the room that briefly diverted attention away from the speaker. It hard to tell from my table, but it sounded a lot like "Fuck you!" Moore didn't hesitate. "Oops, I've offended the Catholics," he said, before talking a little bit longer. White confirmed to me after the event that he was the heckler. "He wasn't the winner," White said. Fortunately, the brief, awkward interruption didn't entirely derail the proceedings or hang over the rest of the evening, unlike White's infamous spat with NYFCC winner Darren Aronofsky in 2011.
The absent star of the night was Andrew Sarris. The legendary critic, who died this past summer, received a special tribute from critic J. Hoberman, Sarris' former colleague at the Village Voice. Hoberman, who also acknowledged the passing of critic Judith Crist, brought his original, frayed copy of Sarris' "The American Cinema" to the podium. Raising it up and on the brink of tears, he elevated the volume to religious standards. "We called this The Book," he said, and kissed it. Bigelow, a classmate of Hoberman's at Columbia some 35 years ago when both studied under Sarris, also acknowledged the critic's passing, calling him "a mentor."