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Criticwire Survey: Should Critics Give Out Awards?

Should Critics Give Out Awards?

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: In the wake of the controversy at last week’s New York Film Critics Circle dinner, the New York Times critic A.O. Scott opined on Twitter that “critics groups should not be in the business of giving out awards.” (His employer, in fact, bars critics from belonging to such groups.) What do you think: Should critics’ groups reward their favorite films at the end of the year, or does the process corrupt them?

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

I respect the arguments that staying away from the awards game entirely is a way to maintain more integrity about criticism as something separate from the marketing component of chasing statuettes. And the inevitable dilution of idiosyncratic individual choices into winners that reflect stuff that didn’t manage to offend *anyone* is a legitimate concern, as well. But I also happen to belong to a regional critics group in Utah that has, over the years, done things no other such group has done: recognizing a director of animation as Best Director; honoring motion-capture and voice-only performances; giving credit to great genre films that too often are disrespected. Those winners have sparked intriguing conversations, and that’s a crucial part of what criticism is supposed to do. Any given individual who belongs to a voting body is going to find something to grumble about when the votes are tallied and the winners decided; it’s worth it, though, if you’ve gotten people talking about what it means to be a director of animation, or how a performance where you don’t see the actor’s face can still be great, or how science-fiction can make us think just as deeply as a historical drama.

Michael Sicinski, Nashville Scene, Cinema Scope

This is a tough question. Critics’ groups have historically served a vital function, highlighting films, performances, and other aspects of the year in cinema that were decidedly not ratified by commercial success or industry imperatives. However, now there is an entire wing of “movie journalism” (and I use those scarequotes with every bit of irony they can drip) devoted to handicapping the Oscars. This means that critics’ awards have been subsumed — in some cases quite willingly — under the umbrella of year-end studio promotional efforts, geared towards Oscar nominations and bigger box office. Is there a way for critics’ groups to divest themselves from this industry-driven machine? This is a tough question, but it leads to several other questions. First, the chicken/egg or cart/horse problem. Does “consensus” just magically form around a certain set of obviously superior films? Or are critics’ groups dominated by a majority of lazy twits who only bother to even watch what the studio publicists tell them are the important films “for [their] consideration”? I’m sure there are a number of people who have just really developed a particular taste, such that they will somehow think that August: Osage County is a worthier film than, say, Mud. But isn’t it just as likely that a lot of them are relying on an apparatus to tell them what is “important”? Second, what are film critics for, ultimately? This whole question emerged from a discussion around an event sponsored by the New York Film Critics’ Circle. But here’s a thought. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gives a yearly award for Best Experimental Film. This, from L.A., which (pace David James) is not exactly the center of the filmic avant-garde in North America. Why doesn’t the NYFCC have such an award? Isn’t that a slightly better question that what Armond White may or may not have said to Steve McQueen (the former experimental filmmaker)?

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, To Be (Cont’d)

Awards itself are not the interest of criticism, though they can serve a purpose. An ancillary part of criticism is a form of advocacy, to compel readers to seek out specific works. When the NYFCC voted Terrence Malick best director for The Thin Red Line in 1998, this probably meant a lot more people saw the film than otherwise did have. Of course, when there are 500 critics circles and all of them give awards to the same five movies, this doesn’t do anyone good. The problem of advocacy is that its subjective: there are people out there who haven’t heard of 12 Years A Slave, and then there are those who haven’t heard of Claire Denis’s Bastards, and then there are those who haven’t heard of The Unspeakable Act or something that didn’t even get a release, not to mention advocacy for the entire history of cinema (the best year of films list I read every year always comes from David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, who just made their best films of 1923 list). As I said before, advocacy is nice – I can name a number of people this year who saw Sokurov’s Faust on my recommendation – but it’s not my primary interest, nor should it be anyone who really wants to be a critic. Our job is not interest in what is good or bad, but how it is good or bad (and even the good and bad part can be taken out). I’d rather read a dozen pieces on films I don’t like when the articulation and argumentation is coherent and audacious than one piece on a film I like when the writing is lazy and typical.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, criticsagogo.com

Yes, because I think the awards serve not only to promote more challenging films themselves but also provide a a nudge or a guidepost for the Oscar selections, giving otherwise overlooked films a chance for recognition. Some recent examples of films that I doubt would have made much of an impression on the Academy had they not previously received awards from critics groups include The Hurt Locker and The Artist (2011). Despite the drawbacks and complications, the critics award bring attention to otherwise overlooked, worthy (usually) films, which I think is one of the purposes of our profession. (You might put this to the test by comparing the critics groups choices with the upcoming Oscar nominations).

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

“Should” is a strong word here, but critics are fine to give out awards in the form of collectively, democratically naming the best of the year as a group. What they shouldn’t do is have a ceremony where they’re in the same room as the talent handing them a trophy, whether they’re directly hobnobbing or not. Awards in this sort of sense should be more for the public than the individual winners, much as our reviews are.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder

I’m torn on this one. One thing is critical organizations voting for films in different categories to arrive at some sort of critical consensus. This I support because it can help promote movies that might go unnoticed otherwise, and it starts establishing a critical canon for future generations. But the same organization, holding an actual ceremony where they get to rub elbows with the artists who they awarded is more problematic. Can anyone truly stay objective after meeting a famous actor or filmmaker? I’m sure there are those who can. But I’m also sure they are in the minority. I have trouble doing so even after an interview, much less a friendly celebration with dinner involved.

Farran Smith Nehme, Self-Styled Siren,The New York Post

Are critics supposed to be so adversarial, sequestered like jurors from anybody involved in the film business? We’re not pronouncing sentence on the prisoner in the dock. The simple act of reading a critic’s work gives a pretty good idea of who’s writing in good faith.

I am amused by the idea that the enticement of being in a vast ballroom with a star I admire would skew my judgment. In that case, we should conduct all interviews with celebrities by Skype, lest having a cappuccino with a sex symbol induce us to say nice things we don’t mean. Me, I got a much better look at Julia Roberts when I was shopping in the 3rd Avenue Kiehl’s store than any star at the New York Film Critics Circle dinner. Except Harry Belafonte, and him I deliberately waylaid so I could shake his hand and thank him for his commitment to social justice. Perhaps to maintain my objectivity, I should have made sure he knew I didn’t much like “Hava Nagila.”

I see little, if any, difference between a best-of list compiled from selections submitted by individual critics — for example, Sight and Sound or Indiewire — and a set of awards given by a particular group. There’s the same creation of a middle ground that smooths out the far reaches of individual taste. Looking at the list of honors given so far to, say, Inside Llewyn Davis is no substitute for reading intelligent critiques. This is not something a critic need explain to anyone who cares enough to be reading in the first place.

Certainly the awards mean something to artists. Read filmmakers’ autobiographies, and you are quite likely to find them proudly mentioning what they won. I don’t think that is a bad thing, for critics to lay down their arms once a year and show some group appreciation for the people who create. All of us — including the artists — know that a great critic’s writing about a film will outlive any number of plaques and statuettes, just as a bad critic’s work will be forgotten much more quickly than any movie.

Miriam Bale, Fandor, New York Times
I have never been a member of a critics’ association (and won’t be as long as I write for the New York Times). But this description of how a voting meeting at one of these groups essentially ended Renata Adler’s career as a film critic has always haunted me.

Peter Howell, The Toronto Star:

It’s perfectly OK for critics to give out their own awards; I happily participate in the process. But it’s important that we don’t fall for our own bullshit. We should bestow prizes based on honest assessment, not in a futile effort to impress other critics. And we should never, ever, assume that the actors and directors who party  with us one night of the year are our dear personal friends. That way leads to madness, and compromise.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer and others

I’m agnostic about critics’ groups. I am a past member of the NYFCC and a current member of the National Society of Film Critics. On the plus side, the critics’ groups can recognize small movies that might otherwise go neglected. On the negative side, the groups that bestow awards on actors or filmmakers look like a mutual backscratching society. But having attended many of those dinners, I believe the host does not make fun of the guests.

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

The question here to me is who are the awards benefiting–those who give the awards, or those who receive them, or both parties? There is always value in recognizing distinguished achievements, whether it is acknowledged by a committee or an individual, but it’s the self-serving quality of awards that I find meretricious.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

It isn’t the mere solitude of writing that protects the critic from groupthink. Independence of thought isn’t a given but an ideal to aspire to; meanwhile, a group of like-minded people, making a collective statement that stands out from the collective statements of other groups, can express (in distilled and symbolic form) ideas that exert a salutary influence in a chosen realm. That’s called a party, as in politics. There’s something inherently political about the practice of criticism; it’s no coincidence that the most important idea in the history of film criticism is the politique des auteurs, and its proponents were no disinterested theorists but future filmmakers who conceived the cinema — its past and present — with themselves as its future, and whose polemical thrust forced the industry’s doors open in order to make it so. Awards don’t matter–except for those who win them and those who don’t. A few weeks ago, Martin Scorsese said of his Oscar for The Departed, “It certainly helped me get financing for a couple of pictures,” and at least three glorious, original, deeply personal, uninhibitedly inspired movies are the result. Those are the moments — when the camera is rolling, and when we’re watching the movie — when the exalted spirit of pure creation transcends practical cares. And critical writing is at its best when critics try to give voice to that spirit. But there’s a reason why great art is often called powerful; that pure creation opens its own place in the world. Art is a way of making things happen, and, as such, it, too, is inherently political in a way that has nothing to do with opining on issues of the day. Making movies is one form of action, writing criticism is another; but so are organizations’ awards, repertory programming, festival curation, the founding of a cinematheque, the editing of a magazine or a website…

Kevin Lee, Fandor, Sight & Sound

At times like this it may be useful to take a step back and observe how the digital information age has liquidated much of what we once called “critical insight” into a series of numbers (ratings, as well as top whatever lists and gawking at industry figures) and objects: not just awards but blurbs, tweets, tweets that turn into blurbs, and even editorial soundbite generators like this survey ;-). It’s no coincidence that critics’ awards and critic rating aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes have boomed during this period of informational excess. They proliferate because they help to facilitate a quantifiable, data-driven assessment of quality — how many awards? how many stars? — that thrives in a reality where we are perpetually bombarded with an overwhelming amount of qualitative data to process. 

There might have been a time, way, way back, when the NYFCC awards carried a certain air of distinction, back when informed critical opinions were harder to come by, and opinions themselves held more sway over the things that stood for them. Now, in an era where awards, ratings and opinions alike are passed around like cheap booze at a frat party, that mythical moment has passed. Looking at this kind of landscape, it’s no wonder a pre-Data Age critic like Armond White acts out; it’s kind of a wonder more critics don’t.

I must express skepticism towards the implied distinction made in this week’s poll question between a press-and-industry circle jerk like the Golden Globes and “legitimate critics’ associations” such as the New York Film Critics Circle, especially given that the seemingly sole purpose of either is to dole out awards once a year. What might truly separate the two is precisely something like Armond White’s outburst, or at least a more thoughtful and classier version of it, one that turns the occasion into something that showcases what critics are truly good at doing: challenging others with thoughtfully expressed opinions. Imagine a smart, articulate critic standing up to deliver a Harry Belafonte-caliber oratory on everything that’s wrong with 12 Years a Slave — in Steve McQueen’s face nonetheless! Now that would be something you don’t see at any old awards show, something that shows that today’s critic isn’t just another cog in the publicity machine. And it’s what would turn another rote entry in the industrial award-hoarding cycle into an event that’s truly critical, in every sense.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema

I see no reason why critics can’t give out awards. I do think the awards season has become (or has always been) absolutely ridiculous in how studios campaign for their films and the people involved. However, I can’t agree that, simply by the act of awarding a film or actor or director, critics lose their integrity. There are, of course, plenty of ways in which a critic can lose his or her integrity during the awards season–such as, say, attending wine-and-dine-style meet-ups with studios before voting–but giving an award doesn’t need to be associated with a lack of ethical fortitude. It all depends on each voter for an awards-giving body being willing to say no to this or that studio-funded gift or party or what-have-you.

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

Admittedly, before I was asked this question, I had always taken critics awards in stride, accepting them as simply a natural part of the critical landscape. Now that I’ve been asked, however, I am starting to wonder just how useful they actually are. Theoretically, of course, they offer opportunities for critics to stand apart from awards-season hype by virtue of unconventional choices… but how often does that really happen? Among the slew of critics-group awards in December, I was seeing most of the usual suspects being cited: 12 Years a Slave, Her, Gravity, etc. Usually, critics awards end up being merely an extension of consensus and hype, despite the extra weight one might assume from such honors coming from a critics group. Usually you’ll get more genuinely fascinating against-the-grain choices from individual ballots within a critics’ circle than in the awards themselves.

In the end, I wouldn’t get rid of critics awards entirely, but perhaps they should be taken with a similar grain of salt as one would (I hope) apply to the Golden Globes and the Oscars.

Cameron Williams, The Popcorn Junkie

Politics should be reported on away from the halls of power. A political journalist once told me that and I think it applies to film criticism as well. Critics should give out awards, but it’s the meddling of publicists in the process that ruins it for everyone. A good critic should be removed from the advertorial side of a film in order to remain an independent voice with integrity. Awards should be the free expression of a group of critics, not the opinion of a group who all got to have lunch with Martin Scorsese as part of the award lobbying business. I always cringe when I see great film critics doing set visits, junkets or being lured by the offer of award season parties. These are events designed to transform a critic’s credibility into a form of advertising. Nothing constructive or useful ever comes out of any form of well orchestrated publicity; it’s geared to favor the film being promoted and satisfy hacks who get off on meeting celebrities. It’s understandable that with limited budgets for film editorial, critics now need to be a “jack-of-all-trades,” and there is no avoiding these pitfalls for writers to stay employed. Those critics need to be transparent with their readership in order to explain their opinion when it comes to the critical analysis of a film. How can you trust a reaction to a film when the critic went on a tank ride with Arnold Schwarzenegger? (This actually happened with a group of writers before the release of The Last Stand). Last year a group of critics from America were flown to London for a pub crawl with filmmaker Edgar Wright ahead of the world premiere of The World’s End. Sure, it’s a neat story to write about and good work if you can get it, but leave your opinion of the movie at the bottom of a pint glass, please. 

The process of a critic is pretty simple: see the film, let it simmer, and then write about it. Somewhere along the way this activity has been muddled by the publicity machine and it’s quite sad. Critics have every right to hand out awards and discuss the merits of which films deserved to be honored. Just beware of the ones with full stomachs and bulky autograph books.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

Critics groups have been giving out awards for longer than most of us have been alive. Back in 1935, for instance, a group of New York City based movie critics got together (apparently in a circle) and doled out kudos. Now, everybody and their mother and brother gives out awards and offers up prestigious top ten lists. Each has his or her own agenda in doing so.

I’m not a huge fan of the whole award thing. It pains me, for instance, that in this year of so many strong male performances, for example, some amazing work may dip way under the public radar (like Christian Bale, American Hustle) because it has been muscled out by equally impressive actors who, for various reasons, were awarded by various critics groups. And the whole circuit, where sweet talk and photo ops are exchanged over a drink or dinner, is as sad as it is admittedly kind of entertaining. But a critic can often face some ethically tricky territory way before the year end/best of rush. How many of us have been assigned to not just review a film, but also to interview some of the people who made it? It’s a slippery slope to try and talk respectfully about the work with filmmakers whose finished product, you feel, is a dud. But, often times, that’s the job.

I laughed out loud when one professional tweeter recently deemed a new awards program a “fake”. As opposed to what: an awards program so not fake it was written as the 11th Commandment, Thou Shalt Award Awards for Moviemaking, good, bad or offering Best Kiss? Like it or not, there are more awards being tossed around than ever and the trend is not going to recede for a long time. Whether a critic participates in it or not, I feel it is essential to try every day to maintain a true sense of objectivity, in reviewing, in interviewing, in voting. If not, we’re acting as publicists. And they get paid a whole lot more.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com/Movies By Bowes

The best thing to do, if critics want to make a list of superlatives for the year in film, is for each individual so desiring to create their own list, rather than try to merge them into a conglomeration. As much as it sucks to fight over movies we feel huge passions about with people who hold different passions of equal hugeness, those are always the most interesting movies. The ones everyone agrees about are the ones no one cares enough about to drop the gloves. I’d suggest a film crit version of Thunderdome to settle these questions, except I would win all the time and we’d be stuck with a canon consisting of, like, The Maltese Falcon, Sholay, Robocop, a half dozen Shahrukh Khan movies, and Space Jail, which wouldn’t be fair for huge numbers of the rest of you.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

I don’t want to completely write off the Awards Season system because I love the weeks-in-advance screenings and catching up with films via screeners. The wealth of access that studios provide at the end of the year is extremely helpful. But I think critics’ association awards themselves are as problematic as any annual film industry award. All viewers should feel confident in their tastes, and trophies suggest that certain choices are superior to others just because a certain group collectively thinks so. People like what they like, and as long as they can articulate why they like what they like, that’s OK…even if that something is Grown Ups 2.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

Yes, I think critics should definitely give out awards because, as Siskel and Ebert used to say in their “If We Picked the Winners” episodes, critics see everything. For that reason, we’re able to single out worthy films and performances that may need singling out. Giving awards — or even nominations — helps shine the spotlight on them a little more, so that hopefully more people will see them. And really, what greater purpose does this job have? To me, it’s the whole point of being a film critic. The awards process is admittedly flawed, but as long as we are celebrating great work, it still has enough benefit to be worthwhile. 

Sean Chavel, Flick Minute

Critics invest more time seeing all the films of the year that need to be seen, and that makes us more credible than the Oscars. Most Oscar voters don’t really do their duty to see the range of films necessary, the ones that count for something. Therefore, critics will never stop being invaluable.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

As a member of a number of critics’ organisations, the final one having balloted just this last few days, I have to admit to feeling a bit of awards fatigue for the first time this season. While a part of me enjoys the circus of silly season, thanks to the bizarre spectacle that it brings with it, the ‘serious’ part of me sees it as little more than a peripheral element of criticism. That said, a part of me does believe that critics’ circle awards do play a legitimate role in the overall picture of The Year In Film. If AMPAS, BAFTA, and the dreaded HFPA were the only ones giving out the awards then we might find ourselves in a worrying position regarding the projected legacy of the industry, and the films most keenly remembered by the wider populace.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I personally am a fan of critics giving out awards, not solely because I myself enjoy participating. Mainly, I find a value in the critical community coming together on something, like when critics awards helped to get The Hurt Locker an Oscar win for Best Picture. Now, they don’t always have much to do with the Academy Awards, but they’re an essential part of the precursor season to me and I find value in the awards as a sort of early tastemaker. It does amplify the critical “voice” beyond the individual and I like that…unless I disagree with them, and then, well…

Jeff Berg, ABQ Arts, Las Cruces Bulletin

Absolutely not, since we are all so biased in our opinions in what we like and what we look for, as witnessed by the wide range of likes and dislikes during the ‘best of’ posts. Sometimes I can’t believe what others like and feel are great films and I am sure that it is a mutual observation.(Upstream Color? Puh-lease!)

John Keefer, 51 Deep

Louis B. Mayer started the Academy Awards to quell public opinion about Hollywood and its non-existent morals. Awards class up a joint and if critics want to get in on the action that’s fine by me. As long as the awards themselves are those “Worst Golfer” trophies that have that little golfer guy with a nine-iron wrapped around his head. Is that what they hand out at the NYFCC ceremony? Are my views on the type of trophy to be given the reason I am not a member of that organization? If so then the awards ceremony and the organization should be abolished! Abolished I say! But award ceremonies are a nice way to say, “Hey, we appreciate you and your work dude,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. But you also do that in reviews. Hey waitaminute! You just have this nifty little awards ceremony to make you guys feel better about your standing in the world! It’s an inverse narcissism! You’re trying to convince us you matter as a collective when you only really matter as individual perspectives on the state of the medium and its latest offerings! And even then you don’t matter because Americans don’t read! Oh My God life really IS meaningless! Thanks a lot Louis B. Mayer.

Alan Zilberman, Tiny Mix Tapes and The Atlantic

There are pluses and minuses to critics awards. On one hand, they quell individual voices and the awards do not necessarily represent the views of everyone involved. On the other hand, critics awards are an early opportunity to steer the end-of-year conversation about the year’s best films, which in turn begin the conversation about Academy Award nominees and winners. I’m a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Assocation (WAFCA), and my organization is one of the earliest regional bodies to announce the year’s best films. I’ve voted for three years now, and I’ve found the process frustrating and rewarding in equal measure.

For WAFCA members, anyway, here’s how the process works. In early December we’re given a short window to submit our weighted top five picks for the awards (e.g. Best Film, Best Actor etc), which are then scored. The top five scored picks are the nominees, and then we submit our ballot online. My initial ballot rarely reflects my honest-to-God opinion — I doubt my favorite film of 2013, Beyond the Hills, was on many other ballots — so I use the weighted nomination process to push dark horses toward the top. A good example is Best Supporting Actor: instead of nominated Jared Leto, who was fantastic, I put James Franco for Spring Breakers at the top just because I want to see him on the final ballot. I’m not sure other critics vote with such a strategy, but my approach speaks to the flaws/virtues of the system.

Sometimes I’m thrilled with WAFCA choices. We chose Zero Dark Thirty as the best film of 2012, and even though it didn’t win any major awards, I was proud to be among its early defenders. The year before that WAFCA chose The Artist, which I didn’t even think deserved to be on the ballot. In other words, critic awards are great whenever I’m part of the majority. Otherwise they’re frustrating as hell.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, New York Movie Klub

Of course critics should give out awards! Virtually every critic on the Internet feels obligated to deliver some sort of year-end top 10 list, and what is that, if not an award of sorts? Moreover, I think it is a good thing overall to deliver those awards, thus separating the very best films of the year from the films which are well-reviewed but not the best of the best (like Captain Phillips this year, for me).

Maybe the real question is, “Should critics’ awards be televised?” Because once the TV money starts pouring in a danger exists of the awards show turning into something like the Golden Globes. Where money is involved, the award validates not just the film, but the people giving it, in a way that can be corrupting.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: Her

Other movies receiving multiple votes: Inside Llewyn DavisThe Wolf of Wall StreetAmerican HustleNebraska

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