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Inside the New York Film Critics Circle Awards Fete

Inside the New York Film Critics Circle Awards Fete

 The critics groups always take it on the chin during awards season, partly because they’re compelled to play in a sandbox not their own: They are writers, not performers, or public speakers or — intentionally, at least — stand-up comedians. So when they start handing out prizes at the various bauble-o-thons conducted during the pre-Oscar period, the perils of wind-baggery abound.
That said, Monday night’s New York Film Critics Circle show (if that’s the word) was a model of elegance and brevity, orchestrated and conducted by Star magazine’s Marshall Fine, chairman of the group (of which this writer is a member) and who — despite having to sidestep the occasional bus boy running across the stage at Tao Downtown — pulled it off with aplomb. No painful jokes, no awkward silences, no faux pas (save for a derisive reference to the upcoming “Ride Along 2,” a joke that seemed to evoke its own snort of derision from Samuel L. Jackson, who was on hand to help accept a special award to composer Ennio Morricone, of “The Hateful Eight” and 1,000 other films). No, the weirdness was all on the part of the presenters and/or awardees.
   
With documentarian Frederick Wiseman unable/unwilling to leave Paris for a 15-degree Manhattan, actress/activist Susan Sarandon was recruited to present his award, which made some sense — Wiseman’s “In Jackson Heights,” for all its lack of narration or subtitles, is a loud, bold statement about real American values (democracy, equality, opportunity), issues Sarandon has always been about. In addition, she spent part of her childhood living in the Queens neighborhood portrayed in the film — something we heard far more about than the issues Wiseman pursues in the film, which Sarandon may or may not have actually seen, but certainly hadn’t digested, because the best doc winner was the last thing she wanted to talk about, or was able to focus on.
   
This had its upside — especially when the following presenter, Kevin Kline, took the stage to present the cinematography award to “Carol’s” esteemed Ed Lachman, and promised not to talk about himself (“like Susan”) although he then proceeded to talk about himself in a digression-riddled address that included actorly quotations in Latin (which he then promised not to continue “ad nauseam”), all to considerable comic effect, and much of it at Sarandon’s expense.
     
The evening was something of a “Carol” love fest — Todd Haynes is not only America’s best filmmaker but New York’s, and there was a distinct sense of honoring one’s own, as the podium was visited by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, Lachman and the best picture winner’s three producers — Christine Vachon, who was great; Elizabeth Karlsen, who seemed to forget she was in a room full of people who probably knew as much about her movie as she did; and Stephen Woolley, who said he wasn’t going to make a speech and then did. Haynes himself delivered the most moving words of the evening, many of them directed at Vachon, with whom he has worked for most of his career.
Kristen Stewart? Oh yes, she was there, and depending on how you receive her slightly disorganized persona, seemed to this listener to be among the more sincere honorees of the evening, offering up praise for her “Clouds of Sils Maria” director, Olivier Assayas, and acknowledging the incongruity of her presence at a group so (allegedly) elevated as the NYFCC. The best supporting actress honoree was self-effacing in the best possible way, and awkwardly charming.
 
Less awkward but just as charming was Saoirse Ronan, honored as best actress for “Brooklyn,” who parlayed her birthplace (The Bronx, a.k.a. the undeclared 33rd county of Ireland) into a coming home of sorts; Liam Neeson, who presented to Ronan, drew a parallel between the young actress and the recently deceased Maureen O’Hara, another Irish import and portrayer of strong women. And even if O’Hara was never the actress Ronan is, Neeson had done his homework.
Nathan Lane not so much. When you address a room full of 1) film critics 2) their long-suffering spouses/partners/guests 3) industry professionals and 4) the people IN the movies, you can safely assume your audience has a certain level of awareness about the films and people to whom you are giving out awards. Lane is not a performing monkey — he doesn’t have to be funny on command. But he might have done more than read what seemed to be “Carol’s” entry on Wikipedia. “The Wikipedia entry is shorter,” someone muttered, following Lane’s passion-free presentation.
     
All in all, though, people were appropriately adoring, appreciative and/or grateful — best actor Michael Keaton, for example, who emphasized several times how grateful he was, while also being quite frank about how pleased he was with himself (he was funny about it, not crowing like a birdman). Paul Haggis put an appropriately political-flavored introduction on the foreign film award to “Timbuktu,” the lovely, powerful anti-fascist drama by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, who was not on hand. Neither was best supporting actor Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) whose Broadway colleague David Hyde Pierce gave a stirring appreciation of one of America’s finest actors — a fact well-known to theater-goers, less so to movie-goers (although now that Steven Spielberg has him, that’ll change). One of the sweeter moments was Criterion chief Peter Becker’s acceptance of a special award to his father, William, and Janus Films, two subjects about which no one needed an explanation. Not in this room.

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