By S.T. VanAirsdale
The Reeler made its way to the New York Film Critics Circle Awards event Sunday night at The Supper Club, a venue demotion of sorts from last year's digs at Cipriani 42nd Street, but about a nearly straight vertical shot upwards in terms of star power. The evening's only award winner who skipped the party was Best Actress winner Helen Mirren (don't think the critics didn't notice, either); her fellow awardees -- from Martin Scorsese to Forest Whitaker to Jennifer Hudson -- arrived with A-list presenters in tow (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jim Jarmusch and Bill Condon, respectively) and attitude and gratitude to spare.
None of this works without cocktails first, of course, in pre-event festivities that included New Yorker critic David Denby cheerfully defending his recent, embattled industry think-piece to a three-at-a-time ebb and flow of guests, not to mention Roger Friedman throwing elbows for a one-on-one with Matt Damon, whose friendly declines to be interviewed Friedman naturally ignored until there was no escape. United 93 director Paul Greengrass, whose film won the group's Best Picture award, received congratulations and well-wishes en masse before the gathering moved toward its tables in the main hall, where The Supper Club had evidently skipped its namesake and sped right into dessert.
Nevertheless, the unbowed Star critic and NYFCC chairman Marshall Fine claimed the stage, introducing ev'ry colleague and lifting ev'ry voice. "Reading is being replaced by multitasking," he told the audience. "That is at least is what many critics hear regularly from their editors as the space for review continues to shrink. But still we persevere. We may be part of the dying breed, but we are not dead yet. As critics, we see hundreds of movies per year -- collectively, the films seen last year by this group's membership probably numbers in the thousands. We always try to go into the screening room optimistically, hoping we'll see something that attains the level of quality of the films we honor here tonight. More often that not, what we're seeing is something like the remake of The Hitcher -- way more often than not. But still we try to bring our A-game to the job every day. To watch and analyze each film with the same level of intensity and excitement as the actors on the screen and the people behind the camera bring to their work. To be a film critic, you have to love movies, because you see so many bad ones. Tonight, we honor the cream of what we saw last year -- the films that made our jobs, and perhaps our lives, exciting, compelling and rewarding in 2006."
The event carried on despite offended grumbling from the Hitcher fans in the room; Wall Street Journal veteran Joe Morgenstern appeared especially perturbed. But on they trudged: Best Cinematography, Best Screenwriter, First Film (Half Nelson, with director Ryan Fleck overjoyed at the love from his hometown critics), Foreign Film (Paul Schrader preceded his introduction of Film Forum/Rialto Pictures kingpin Bruce Goldstein with an indictment of the French critical apparatus that doomed Army of Shadows in 1969, which had Morgenstern grinning once again), Supporting Actor ("I hope he gets it all out because he'll never be anywhere near a microphone again," a colleague told me during Jackie Earle Haley's epic, if poignant, acceptance speech), Supporting Actress, Actor (a supremely humble Whitaker), Actress (a supremely absent Mirren, with Queen co-star James Cromwell accepting).
Robin Williams claimed George Miller's award for Best Animated Film, Happy Feet. In keeping with the absurd quality of the film's winning vote, Williams broke away from the prepared speech early and never looked back. "I want to thank you on behalf of all gay penguins," he said. "There's no way you could have found out five out of 10 peenguins could possibly be gay. How they found that out, I don’t know -- blowing a penguin is very hard. Tonight I feel like Mel Gibson at the B'nai Brith."
Williams gripped the sides of the podium, seemingly crafted from a sturdy, stained plywood. "First of all, I want to thank the Secaucus High School for this lovely podium. Thank you very much." He looked to his right, where Us Weekly critic Thelma Adams' young daughter looked on from a booth at the end of the stage. "Hey, there's a child up here," Williams continued. "You've learned a lot about penguins in the first minute." He gestured to the blue velvet curtains and orange-illuminated proscenium. "I also want to thank you for this lovely stage, where the cast of The Prestige will be doing a lovely magic act later on, with Britney Spears producing a rabbit from a very wonderful place -- in lieu of underwear. Yes, this is a wonderful room; the strippers will be back tomorrow. I'm here to present this award to George Miller, who wished he could be here, but obviously not that much. ... This is a very elegant night. I'm just happy to be out of rehab. The night you have an open bar, I'm out of rehab, thanks. ... And there's Clint Eastwood, saying, 'Sorry, Marty, I had to make a movie.' ... Right now, I feel like a leper getting a facial."
Williams split (eventually) and DiCaprio was summoned to present Scorsese his Best Director award for The Departed. "God, I have to follow Robin Williams," he said, adjusting the mic, settling in with his index cards a moment later. "When I first met Marty, like most people, I was most affected by his sincere passion and fanaticism for, as he calls it, 'the moving picture,' " DiCaprio continued. "But as time went on, I discovered something even more impressive: that someone who so feverishly loves an art form has had the ability to transcend their own admiration of that art form to create real innovation, to become a truly unique aritst in a world filled with personal heroes. ... (Scorsese) intuitively understands that to leave a lasting legacy in an art form that you so admire, you must study your predecessors, watch your contemporaries and yet create a piece of art that is completely your own and doesn't conform to a mold of expected storytelling -- to make films that are authentic, moving, inventive and even shocking. This is what Martin Scorsese does every time he walks on the set."
Scorsese was over the moon accepting the prize, visibly touched, thanking pretty much everyone but his late parents, even singling out former Band leader/Last Waltz leading man/longtime friend Robbie Robertson for turning him on to Departed soundtrack stars the Dropkick Murphys. He signaled behind him to DiCaprio. "It's been three movies now, and he, I must say, continues to move me and reward me on the set so many times when I don’t expect it," Scorsese said. "It's really in my mind, six-and-a-half years of work together and I hope many more. For him... I screen stuff for the younger kids." He pointed again to DiCaprio, nodded to Damon, seated in front of the stage. His speech accelerated. "They're great. I don’t want to go into it now -- its too much time. But I screened one film for him for this film: Ashes and Diamonds. So he could see Maciek -- so he could see Cybulski -- so he could see Andrzej Wajda's work. Print? 35. It was brilliant."
The filmmaker caught his breath. "Matt Damon for his wonderfully empathetic villian," he continued. "And Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin and Marty Sheen and Ray Winstone. And of course Vera Farmiga, who is intelligent and gifted and fearless and of course just worked on and off for over a year on this picture and pulled it all together. They all share with me the apparent success of this picture, which I talked myself into believing that it was going to be an exercise in style. And it fooled me. I mean, yeah -- style. Everybody referred us to the films of the past. We screened movies for tone and mood; you don’t know exactly what that is, so of course I ran for Michael Ballhaus and everybody Jean-Pierre Melville; Le Cercle Rouge -- obviously in 35. Not a bad print, not a bad print. Le Samourai, not a bad print in 35. I wish I could find Le Deuxième Souffle. Nothing! A disgrace. Paul Schrader and I saw that 35 years ago in the Vagabond Theater in LA in 35. It was glorious, OK? But for me over the years, the Asian cinema has been very important for the last 20 years, so I showed Michael Ballhaus Kiyoshi Kurosawa's films just to lighten composition sometimes; you never know. It's tough to talk about later on the weekends and things. Some Miike films, of course. And we saw some Korean films; the crew got really excited about Bad Guy -- Kim Ki-duk. Park Chan-wook films, of course. I can't forget us watching Bad Guy and Oldboy on the same night. ... "
It got weirder from there, but I couldn't bear it. I stopped taking notes and hit the coffee until the end -- through Scorsese, though Damon introducing Greengrass to collect Best Picture honor, the filmmaker's sober acceptance speech and salute to New York. I caught up with former Voice editor Dennis Lim afterward and asked what he thought of United 93's win; did it have an advantage as a New York film, or did people just really love it that much?
"I think it was very simply because we voted for it towards the end," he told me. "The Queen already had a few awards. I think it was simply that. The Queen had Helen Mirren and screenplay at that point. It was like a tiebreaker: United 93 or The Queen. And I think people just thought, 'Let's spread the love.' The reviews were good, weren't they?"
Yeah, they were pretty good.
"You think it's an unusual choice?"
I shrugged. I'm not the film's biggest fan.
"It's symbolic reasons," Lim said. "It is a New York film, and it's a serious, respectful take on 9/11. And I think that critics responded to it. I personally have mixed feelings about it; I think it’s a little suspect politically, but..."
What would he have chosen?
Now Lim shrugged. "I would have chosen Inland Empire, but you know, between United 93 and The Queen? United 93."
I spoke with a few other critics as well about the United 93 victory, both exchanges I'll publish on The Blog Tuesday. I feel like I've been running in Circles all day.
Posted at January 8, 2007 4:49 PM
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