Every December, 50-odd members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. meet and vote on a collective "best" of the movie year. Arguments are made, voices occasionally raised, but mostly there's a prevailing tedium to the day as members systematically move from category to category, each critic voting for three top choices and, once the points are tallied, the group choosing a winner between two finalists.
This year the best picture vote resulted in a tie, with an equal number of critics raising their hands for Alfonso Cuarón's visually striking space epic "Gravity" and
This being a room full of professional grumps (full disclosure: I am among their number), Wheat's disapproval was met with silence and muttering of the who-asked-you? variety. But 30 minutes later, with the vote over, one LAFCA member motioned to bestow a special citation to the creative team of "12 Years a Slave." The proposal carried, barely, and
We're at the time of year when critics and awards voters — affiliates of various guilds and Motion Picture Academy members — consider the subjective notion of "best." Los Angeles critics — often called "contrarian" by outside observers — decided that the superlative could include both "Gravity," a movie that used technology to create a groundbreaking spectacle, and "Her," which pondered our relationship with technology within the framework of a sincere romance. Meanwhile on the other coast, the New York Film Critics Circle put
As for the multitude of critics groups that followed, it wasn't even close — 20 of 24 went with "12 Years a Slave." Three others voted for "Her," while Toronto critics lauded the
Was the resounding endorsement of "12 Years a Slave" the result of heeding Wheat's line of reasoning, that McQueen's movie was not only excellent filmmaking but also culturally important? And if so, why didn't Los Angeles and New York see it that way?
"The way to show people that you're smarter than they are is to make the nonobvious choice," says Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz, author of the book "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less." "Nonobvious choices communicate to people that you can see things that they miss."
Maybe. Who's to say? (Though that could explain
By the time the
In a way, those choices as well as others by the academy ("Shakespeare in Love" over
Of course, the reasons behind why Oscar voters, film critics and moviegoers place a movie in high esteem go beyond mere rebellion. Dave Karger, who has long covered the Academy Awards, first for Entertainment Weekly and now as chief correspondent for Fandango, believes all best picture Oscar winners share one element: Voters believed, either because of the filmmaking or the narrative behind the movie or even the narrative behind its awards-season campaign, that they represented the most "exciting" choice.
Still, willful nonconformity probably ranks as the least defensible reason to designate something as best. (Runner-up: Rewarding subject matter over accomplishment.) You're voting for something. The reasons may be, in a voter's mind, noble or personal or even partly unknowable. But when you have a good year for movies like 2013, the beauty is that "best" can be defined in a multitude of ways and argued over with a passion that makes moviegoing so rewarding.