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 Timothée 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.)
In the end, I couldn’t be too disappointed with our group’s selections, especially when the top two choices for best picture, “Call Me by Your Name” and runner-up “The Florida Project,” were two of my favorites as well. You’re right, Glenn, that many of the winners seem in line with what other groups, the academy included, may end up recognizing. That said, given the unusually broad range of fine films and the absence of a “La La Land”- or “Moonlight”-style juggernaut, this doesn’t strike me as a year in which cut-and-dried conclusions can necessarily be drawn.
Chalamet’s NYFCC and LAFCA wins have given him a nice boost in the actor race, but from an industry perspective he’ll still look like a young underdog next to, say, Gary Oldman’s far showier work in “Darkest Hour.” I imagine that “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which received three LAFCA runner-up placements on Sunday, is cooling its heels in preparation for a bigger showing elsewhere. “The Post,” though ignored by NYFCC and LAFCA after its big wins from the National Board of Review (not technically a critics group), remains very much in the conversation.
And I hope the same is true of Christopher Nolan’s remarkable “Dunkirk,” which has been largely overlooked so far, but which fulfills an all-too-rare awards-season promise: It’s a sweeping, academy-friendly spectacle and a bona fide critics’ darling.
WHIPP: I’m not worried about “The Post.” Oscar voters packed its screening last night at the motion picture academy’s theater in Beverly Hills and roared their approval when Steven Spielberg came on stage for a Q&A afterward.
Circling back to the idea of consensus choices winning awards, “The Post” feels like the kind of movie that the academy might honor at this moment in time. Fashioned as a thriller dramatizing the decision to publish the leaked Pentagon Papers in 1971, it touches on issues — gender equity, freedom of the press — very much in the conversation in 2017. Academy members want the best picture Oscar winner to reflect well on their industry, and most would probably agree that a vote for “The Post” would do just that.
Now, I’d argue that there’s another movie — a better movie — that speaks to the current moment and that’s “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker’s expansive, emotionally raw look at people living on the frayed edges of America. Set in a rundown motel in the shadow of Orlando’s Disney World, the film follows a group of modern-day Little Rascals romping around a magic kingdom of their own making while the grown-ups (some barely removed from their own childhoods) struggle, often desperately, to make ends meet. It’s a miracle of a movie, buoyant and heartbreaking, and surveys an America we don’t often see depicted on screen.
As for Nolan, I’d guess that he’ll finally earn his first nomination as a director for “Dunkirk.” But his ambitious, twisty movies leave a lot of people cold, and “Dunkirk” is no exception. After I wrote about the strong reaction the movie received at its academy screening in July, several voters emailed me to tell me that they most definitely weren’t applauding from their seats that evening. Nolan might have to content himself with the total artistic freedom afforded by his commercial successes. No small prize that.