By William Wolf


Not only did Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett, along with star presenter Glenn Close, provide glamour at the 79th New York Film Critics Circle Awards, but a sense of movie history permeated key speeches at the dinner on Monday, January 6, 2014 in the Hotel Edison ballroom. Winning awards from this high-profile organization has long carried special prestige, and the turnout reflected the high esteem in which the honors are held.

The tone was set at the outset by the group’s chairman, Joshua Rothkopf, who noted that the length of deliberations by the members was because so many films of distinction were in the running this year and resulted in the care needed to make the final choices. As he wrote in his preface in the printed program: “It is our job as critics to be discerning, but damn if 2013 didn’t present us with euphoria after euphoria. As we close the best year in recent cinema memory, know that our recipients represent the top work in extremely tough fields.” The subsequent speeches by presenters and recipients also reflected appreciation for the level of quality among 2013 films, and put them in context of past and present.

Robert Redford received a standing ovation after being introduced as winner of the Best Actor Award by Glenn Close. Redford won for his performance in “All Is Lost” as a man alone struggling to survive when his boat is caught in a storm. Close recalled a learning experience in working with Redford in “The Natural,” stressed the admiration she had for him, asserted that he “has the soul of a true artist” and lavished praise on him for his work and as a person.

Redford, whose appearance was a high point, looked great and spoke with characteristic humility. Commenting that the evening represented a full New York circle, he told an amusing story about himself harking back to his theater roots and his first experience on Broadway. He had a small part in a show called “The Highest Tree,” written and directed by Dore Schary. In the out-of-town tryout, Redford said, he suspected that it wasn’t a very good play, but when one of his lines got a laugh, he thought as a novice, “What do I know?” Remembering the pall that set in at the party at Sardi’s when the scathing Broadway opening night reviews arrived, he noted that he was singled out as a poor excuse for an actor.

In his acceptance speech he gave great credit to screenwriter and director J. C. Chandor, who provided him with the character to enact and had the bold vision of creating a film that could in effect go back in history to the silent days of cinema when visuals, not dialogue, ruled.

The biggest nod to movie history came from Harry Belafonte in a lengthy presentation to Steve McQueen of the award as Best Director for “12 Years a Slave.” Belafonte referred to the early film “Birth of a Nation” in the way it dealt with America and its denigrating depiction of blacks, and he also spoke with deep feelings of his movie-going childhood when he first saw Tarzan films that, he said, used black Africans in such a demeaning way that it led to his conclusion as a youngster that he didn’t want to see himself associated with those demeaned figures on screen.

He continued tracing his life experience up to the point of viewing “12 Years a Slave, which, at his age of 87, impressed him as a film that finally revealed history in a way that generated pride at coming from an African heritage. In that emotional context he called McQueen to the stage to receive his award.

The history and aura of movies was also tapped into by director Peter Bogdanovich in presenting the Best Picture Award to “American Hustle.” Summoning up his James Stewart impersonation, he recalled a story that Stewart had told about a man who came up to him and complimented him on a poem he recited in a movie 20 years before, which indicated to Stewart how film preserves bits and pieces of memory. Drawing upon the inference, Bogdanovich cited “American Hustle” as a film that could have a similar future memory accomplishment, a film that was “beautifully directed and brilliantly acted.”

Blanchett was all charm as she accepted the award from Sally Hawkins, who played her character’s sister in “Blue Jasmine,” which resulted in Blanchett being named Best Actress. (Hawkins gave an excellent supporting performance.) Blanchett first joked about the wisdom of the critics giving her the award, then, getting serious, she complimented Hawkins and lauded Woody Allen for his direction.

The evening was filled with the customary array of compliments to award winners. Mark Ruffalo presented the Best Non-Fiction Award for “Stories We Tell” to director Sarah Polley, who in the film delved into the past of her mysterious mother, an achievement which Ruffalo called “brutally honest and unflinching.”

Oscar Isaac, this year hailed for his performance in "Inside Llewyn Davis,” did the honors of presenting the Best Cinematography Award to Bruno Delbonnel for that film. Critic David Denby of The New Yorker presented to and accepted for absent documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, honored with a Special Award for lifetime achievement.

Other awards went to “Fruitvale Station,” written and directed by Ryan Coogler, as Best First Film; Jared Leto as Best Supporting Actor for his performance in “Dallas Buyers Club;” Jennifer Lawrence as Best Supporting Actress for her performance in “American Hustle,” but unable to be there to accept the award presented by actor Bradley Cooper, also distinguished in the film; “Blue Is the Warmest Color” as Best Foreign-Language Film, with star Adèle Exarchopoulos accepting from actor Ethan Hawke; “American Hustle” for Best Screenplay, written by Eric Singer and director David O. Russell, and “The Wind Rises,” directed by Hayao Myazaki,” for Best Animated Film. Posted January 8, 2014.


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