By William Wolf


Critics, winners and presenters mingled at the prestigious 78th Annual New York Film Critics Circle Awards event, a dinner held at Crimson on Monday, January 7, 2012. Joshua Rothkopf, 2012 chairman of the group, included a key point in his introductory remarks. He noted the decline in posts for critics and asserted that publications without film critics should be told that they were lacking in serving the public. Rothkopf ran a smooth event that included a number of highlights, with presenters and winners alike getting the opportunity to face those who write about their work.

At the outset freelancer J. Hoberman paid tribute to two critics who died during the past year—Judith Crist and Andrew Sarris. In the 1960s and 70s Crist achieved major stature as a popular critic, and Hoberman recalled that when she was let go by TV Guide, complaints from readers became so vast that she was rehired and given a raise. She taught at Columbia University for 50 years. Sarris was well known as a unique voice in criticism and important in bringing the French auteur theory to the American scene. Hoberman said that when he joined the Village Voice, where the renowned Sarris was writing, it took a while before he could call him Andy. As one who knew both Crist and Andy as colleagues (see my tributes to each in Special Reports), I was particularly glad that they received special attention at the meeting of the organization in which they were distinguished members for so many years.

One highlight of the evening was Steven Spielberg’s presentation of the Best Actor award to Daniel Day-Lewis for his performance in “Lincoln.” The film’s director took the unusual step of reading a private letter he had received from Day-Lewis turning down a request to play the part. Spielberg noted with amusement how while rejecting the offer, Day-Lewis had left the door slightly open. Later, after receiving the screenplay that Tony Kushner had written (Kushner won for Best Screenplay), Day-Lewis came aboard. Day-Lewis gave an acceptance speech marked by humility.

When Michael Moore is on a platform you usually can expect some fireworks. In presenting the award for Best First Film to David France’s “How to Survive a Plague,” Moore passionately recalled the days when people at first turned a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic with which the film deals. He included the Catholic hierarchy among those he charged were complicit in the death toll for not taking action. When a heckler called out an obscenity, Moore countered, “I am speaking as a former seminarian,” and he topped that with a prayer chant in Latin.

Much attention was paid to “Zero Dark Thirty,” which won for Best Picture, with Kathryn Bigelow winning for Best Director. The awards came against the background of controversy stirred about the torture sequences and to what extent torture figured in the hunt for bin Laden. Bigelow and the producers have stood firmly by their film. Attractive star Jessica Chastain also participated, and after the ceremony, when I exchanged greetings with her, she indicated how firmly she stood by what was in the film. Greig Fraser was honored for the film’s Best Cinematography.

Given the prestige of the New York Critics Circle, winners always want to be there when possible. Others who participated were Rachel Weisz, winning as Best Actress for her performance in “The Deep Blue Sea;” Sally Field, winning as Best Supporting Actress for her work in “Lincoln;” Matthew McConaughey, winner as Best Supporting Actor for both “Bernie” and “Magic Mike;’ Tony Kushner for Best Screenplay for “Lincoln;” Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, producers of the Best Non-Fiction Film, “The Central Park Five,” and Emmanuelle Riva, co-star of the Best Foreign-Language Film winner “Amour.” Another award went to “Frankenweenie” as Best Animated Film, and a Special Award was given to Milestone Films: “Project Shirley,” for releasing two films by the pioneering independent director Shirley Clarke.

After the ceremony I got to speak to Emmanuelle Riva, who planted a kiss on my cheek, the personal highlight of the evening for me, since I keep showing to my undergraduate film classes “Hiroshima mon amour,” in which she starred in 1959. She still has a glow all these years later after having triumphed as an elderly woman approaching death in the deeply moving “Amour.” Told of how students today respond to her earlier film, she said with obvious satisfaction that many young people in France were going to see “Amour.”

The New York Film critics Circle prepared a printed program about its awards, and in each category it lists past winners. It is fascinating to look back in time. For example in its start-up year of 1935, the Best Picture was “The Informer,” with John Ford winning Best Director honors for directing it. In 1936 it was “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” In 1937 it was “The Life of Emile Zola.” The first Best Actress Award went to Greta Garbo for “Anna Karenina.” The first Best Actor award went to Charles Laughton for “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Ruggles of Red Gap.”

In his introduction in the program, Chairman Rothkopf concluded that what makes him happiest on the occasion is “to see our membership grow. Besieged in many professional quarters, the job of criticism remains as vital as ever. Tonight is a testament to our strength, passion and commitment to the art form we love.” Posted January 9, 2013.


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