When it comes to awards, the National Society of Film Critics has a reputation for being what, depending on the observer, can be classified as anything from eccentric to perverse. Coming in at the tail end of the season — or after, considering they vote in early January — the NSFC has the opportunity to break from what by then is often a solidly established critical consensus. Most often they — or I should say we, since I am a member, and have attended voting meetings for the last eight years — do not. The choices tend to fall among the usual suspects, especially those already anointed by the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, whose members also make up a good chunk of the NSFC. But every so often, the National Society’s broad makeup, and the quirks of its voting system, produce a noteworthy result.
This year, that result was especially noteworthy: After Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” narrowly failed to win Best Picture on the first ballot, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” surged out of second to take the top prize— its only first-place finish, so far as I know, in any 2014 critics awards or poll. (The Los Angeles Times’ Glenn Whipp has an account of the vote, in which I am quoted, here.) This set off a firestorm of controversy, if by “firestorm” you mean a smattering of petulant tweets from people who make a living predicting the Oscars. Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells labeled them/us “dweebs” — words hurt, man! —suggesting “They were basically saying, ‘This is a very weak year and we’re going to swan-dive into our own navels and do what we want.'” Movie City News’ David Poland called it “as stupid & self-congratulatory a choice NSFC could make,” while the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg went with “snobbish and elitist,” snarking, “Just when you thought the National Society of Film Critics couldn’t make themselves more irrelevant….” Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone ominously suggested that “2014 might indeed mark the moment the Oscar race once again stopped caring about the critics.” (Stone also makes the bizarre argument that the result also proves the NSFC “doesn’t care about critics,” because “Goodbye to Language” has a Metacritic score of 72. Whatevs.)
This particular set of detractors shares the unacknowledged, unchallenged assumption that it’s a critic’s job to be “relevant,” and that said relevance is determined by how closely her or his opinion synchs with the anointed candidates for Hollywood’s annual trophy derby. Choose freely among the handful of designated frontrunners, and you’re on steady ground; deviate, and you’re, as Feinberg put it, “in Botswana.” (Is it warm there this time of year?) This notion is based on a perverse and willful misunderstanding of what criticism is, one that, sadly, critics groups’ tacit collusion in the Oscar race has played a part in furthering.
To put it bluntly, “relevance” in the Oscar race is the last thing that should be on any critic’s mind. (I could put it blunter still, but I’m trying to curb the profanity in 2-ought-15.) In fact, I’d counter that the more closely critics duplicate the Oscars, the less relevant they are. I’ve argued in past that there’s a value to critical consensus when it’s organically achieved: Critics lined up behind “Boyhood” long before it was established as a likely Oscar nominee. But if they’re just a stepping-stone between a premiere at Telluride or Cannes and the stage of the Dolby Theater, they’re not doing anyone any good.
Other, more temperate observers, like Grantland’s Mark Harris, have suggested that “Goodbye to Language’s” win was a “statement” vote, which is likely closer to the truth. Although I haven’t polled every member who voted for Godard, I can confidently state that no one voted for it without thinking it’s a great film, just as I can surmise from past experience that once the field is set by the initial vote, an element of gamesmanship creeps into subsequent rounds. Because a movie has to both receive the most points — 3 for first place, 2 for second, 1 for third — and appear on a majority of ballots, you throw your full support behind the one you want to win and zero out the one you don’t (or at least that’s what I do). The system, and the fact that the proxy ballots submitted by absent members are discarded after the first round, can lead to some startling reversals. Last year “Inside Llewyn Davis” jumped from fifth place to first to win Best Picture, a far more radical shift than “Goodbye to Language” edging up a single notch. But unlike Godard’s, Joel and Ethan Coen’s movie was already part of the “awards conversation,” and the choice thus drew far less opprobrium.
Harris has made the argument that a system in which 18 out of the NSFC’s 59 members (some of whom are inactive and don’t vote at all) can determine the winner fails to represent the group as a whole, which is fair enough. (E-voting has been raised as a possibility in the past, although it has yet to materialize.) But even though I much prefer “Boyhood” to “Goodbye to Language” (and “12 Years a Slave” to “Inside Llewyn Davis”), a system which can name James Franco Best Supporting Actor for “Spring Breakers” or recognize, even with a third-place finish, that Scarlett Johansson gave some of 2014’s finest performances in “Under the Skin” and (yes!) “Lucy” is not one I see much need to tinker with. Earlier today, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Nellie Killian tweeted that the museum had sold out a 700-seat screening of “Goodbye to Language,” and the day after the NSFC vote, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo Instagrammed his own viewing. That, and not who gets to hold a statue in a pretty dress, is the kind of influence critics can be proud of.