If the 76th Golden Globe Awards provided a wakeup call for awards season with major victories for “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Green Book,” then the 2019 New York Film Critics Circle Awards served as an essential reminder that 2018 really was a great year at the movies. Any awards show that begins with Martin Scorsese honoring Paul Schrader (the “Mean Streets” director reminisced on first meeting Schrader and connecting over their love of Yasujirō Ozu, with Schrader’s license plate at the time reading O-Z-U) and ends with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” being named Best Picture is not just a success but a testament to the enduring strength of independent and foreign cinema.
Schrader, whose work scripting “First Reformed” failed to get nominated by the Writers Guild of America earlier in the day, bounced back into the awards conversation with help from his longtime friend and collaborator Scorsese. After discussing how their shared love of John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” made them fast friends, Scorsese championed “First Reformed”: “I was so impressed and moved by the way Paul discusses the nature of faith and how it’s bolstered by Ethan Hawke, who gives such a magnificent performance and goes so deep into his character’s pain, into his long, twisted road to understanding.”
One person who did manage to secure a WGA nomination was “Eighth Grade” writer-director Bo Burnham, who the NYFCC honored with its Best First Film prize. Burnham is a natural onstage given his comedy background and earned some of the event’s biggest laughs while talking about growing up in Boston (“Movies portray New York as a microcosm for all that America is and can be, movies portray Boston as a place where Matt Damon does math.”) But it’s when the first-time director got serious that he showed the room why he was born for the awards circuit.
“It’s embarrassing to admit, but I spent most of my career up until this point desperate to be taken seriously,” Burnham said. “I’m an internet comedian person. It’s not cool to admit that, but it’s true. When our movie was first announced as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, I searched my own name on Twitter and the first thing I saw was a tweet that read, “Bo Burnham made a movie?” And the person attached a Getty image of a man in a business suit with a noose around his neck. I understand people’s hesitancy with this film because the worst thing people could imagine is ‘male internet comedian makes movie about teenage girl.’ I reject that, too, but you all did take me seriously. That’s an incredible honor.”
Elsewhere, major Oscar contenders Richard E. Grant and Regina King earned big applause while accepting the NYFCC prizes for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, respectively. Should either take to the stage on Oscar night, the ceremony will certainly get a jolt of much-needed energy. Grant took the stage and yelled “Fuck!,” completely in awe he is getting major critical attention in America at the age of 61 and after four decades of being a working actor. Grant got serious to champion his “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” director Marielle Heller: “She’s an extraordinary young female director, who directed only one movie before. Despite the #MeToo movement and all the accolades at festivals, she has managed not to get a Best Director nomination in almost everything, which is astonishing. Had she not directed Melissa McCarthy and I, [there’d be no movie].”
King, fresh off a Best Supporting Actress win at the Golden Globes, urged audiences to see Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” as more than just a black film. “Don’t think because it’s an all black cast it’s a black film,” she said. “It’s an American film. It’s a film about the fabric of America. Everyone needs to see it, and I hear so much from exit polls. I heard from one woman that [‘Beale Street’] is the first time she’s ever looked into a black person’s eyes for more than two minutes.”
King spent a good portion of her speech praising fellow NYFCC winner Regina Hall, who was named Best Actress for her acclaimed lead role in Andrew Bujalski’s “Support the Girls.” Hall returned the favor in her speech, looking back on how the two Reginas have often been mixed up for one another throughout their time as working actresses in Hollywood. Hall championed King for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, joking that a win for King would mean she can pass off the victory as her own.
Alfonso Cuarón was the night’s most awarded recipient, winning prizes for Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Picture thanks to “Roma,” but anyone in attendance at New York City’s TAO Downtown knows it was Ethan Hawke who truly won the evening. Hawke, winner of Best Actor for “First Reformed,” is one of the most passionate speakers on the festival circuit, and he followed up his Gotham Awards acceptance speech with another standout turn at the podium.
“My mother gave birth to me when she was 18 and one of the things she hid from her father was her subscription to The New Yorker magazine,” Hawke said. “It’s a weird thing to combine white trash and The New Yorker, but that’s my family. When I was growing up, what she used to do was save The New Yorker and whatever Pauline Kael reviewed was the movie we would go see. After we saw it, we would read Pauline Kael’s review, which we often did disagree with. … Even after ‘Dead Poets Society’ came out I had to go home and sit at the dinner table and read Pauline Kael’s very negative review of that movie. ‘The whole thing is wrapped in a gold bow like a bunch of bullshit. If I have to see another movie that makes me glad I’m alive I’ll have to kill myself,” is what I think she said.”
Hawke’s ability to pivot from humorous anecdote to profound meditation remains unmatched. “In my life, I have witnessed big business absolutely devour an extremely young art form,” he said at the end of his speech. “We live in a culture that hero worships the accumulation of wealth and then acts surprised about who we elect as our officials. Film criticism establishes a different barometer of success and it teaches audiences what to look for, how to watch movies, how to listen to stories, and I’m so grateful to articulate why all these movies you are celebrating tonight matter, because they matter to me.”
Hawke remains a contender for the Best Actor Oscar but not a lock, which is a shame considering what a triumphant performance he gives in “First Reformed” and how vital he makes awards shows. Other NYFCC winners included “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” for Best Animated Feature (presenter Wyatt Cenac praised the film for finally giving him a superhero that represented him on screen) and “Minding the Gap” for Best Documentary, which continues to amaze presenter and documentary icon Steve James since Bing Liu made it in his twenties.