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Critics groups love 'Call Me by Your Name' and 'Lady Bird,' but will the academy follow suit?

Justin Chang and Glenn Whipp, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- Last week, the New York Film Critics Circle named "Lady Bird" the best film of 2017. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. gave top honors to "Call Me by Your Name." Times critics Justin Chang and Glenn Whipp, who are members of the L.A. organization, sat down to discuss the results and what they say (or don't say) about the state of awards season.

JUSTIN CHANG: If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences cared what film critics think, one might assume that both "Lady Bird" and "Call Me by Your Name" are bound for Oscar glory following their big critics' wins in the past week. The academy, of course, doesn't care what we think, as its members have proven time and time again. Sometimes there's overlap, to be sure: In the past two years the L.A. critics gave their top prize to "Spotlight" and "Moonlight," both of which went on to win best picture Oscars. But the nature of these very occasional overlaps is coincidental rather than predictive.

You and I both participated in the LAFCA vote, Glenn, along with our Times colleagues Kenneth Turan, Mark Olsen, Jen Yamato and Geoff Berkshire. Anyone who's ever attended a year-end critics group meeting knows that the process is far too unruly and arbitrary to reflect any clear agenda. We get together at someone's house and cast our ballots one by one, effectively squeezing a year's worth of cinematic highlights into five hours. And as ever, our final list of winners -- which included big wins for "The Shape of Water," "Lady Bird," "The Florida Project" and "Get Out" -- doesn't tell the whole story.

It may surprise some folks to learn, for example, that Dee Rees ("Mudbound") tied for third place with Sean Baker ("The Florida Project") in a highly competitive director race. Or that films like "mother!," "Marjorie Prime," "War for the Planet of the Apes," "Good Time," "Columbus," "A Fantastic Woman," "A Quiet Passion" and the one-of-a-kind documentary "Dawson City: Frozen Time" all drew support in multiple categories. The system favors consensus, of course. Which is a bit of a shame, since some of the most interesting films each year are those that don't build consensus but defy it.

GLENN WHIPP: Defiance is a proud LAFCA tradition. The group named Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" best picture in 1985, helping force Universal to release Gilliam's cut of the movie after a bitter, protracted battle between the filmmaker and the studio. We also had that inspired international run of best actress winners a few years ago, including Yolande Moreau ("Seraphine"), Kim Hye-ja ("Mother") and Yun Jung-hee ("Poetry").

That established pattern of seeing beyond the obvious made this year's LAFCA slate feel a tad conventional. I can't complain about the choices. Yet, I left disappointed that this was the rare year when our selections -- even the runners-up -- all seem destined to be rubber-stamped by countless other groups, including the motion picture academy. Instead of pointing the way forward, as we arguably did in years past with early honors for "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "Amour" and a best picture award for "WALL-E," our picks were almost -- and it hurts me to say this -- predictable.

 

I think one of the most vital things a critics group can do is expand the definition of what constitutes an awards-worthy performance. The New York Film Critics Circle did that a few days ago when it gave Tiffany Haddish its supporting actress honor for her deranged comic turn in "Girls Trip." We did that four years ago with James Franco in a Harmony Korine movie ("Spring Breakers").

I'm not saying we have to fly our freak flag in every category, Justin. But as much as I loved Sally Hawkins' work in "The Shape of Water," we had the opportunity to make a more electrifying choice -- say, Daniela Vega ("A Fantastic Woman") or Kristen Stewart ("Personal Shopper") -- by going in a less expected direction in that lead actress category. Both those performances are, I believe, every bit the equal of Hawkins' turn.

CHANG: I love flying our freak flag, the higher the better. And why not? As critics, we exist to acknowledge obviously great work but also great work being done on the margins. And so while I was happy to go along with consensus favorites like Timothee Chalamet ("Call Me by Your Name") and Willem Dafoe ("The Florida Project"), I also couldn't resist voting for Stewart, Haddish, Cynthia Nixon ("A Quiet Passion") and Vince Vaughn, who's riveting -- and totally awards-worthy -- in "Brawl in Cell Block 99."

As for Hawkins: Some may recall that while her brilliant performance in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" (2008) earned her prizes from the New York and L.A. critics, the National Society of Film Critics and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., all that love couldn't snag her an Oscar nomination in the end. She was clearly a major talent, but she was also a relative unknown. Nine years later, she's headed for much smoother sailing with the academy for "The Shape of Water" and deservedly so. (I think she's even better in her other movie this year, the artist biopic "Maudie," and indeed the group briefly considered recognizing her for both films.)

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