A Critic's Choice 

Why I want no part in the "Oscars conversation"

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Right around the time the print issue of this paper hits the streets on Jan. 14, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce nominees for the 88th Academy Awards. I'm quite comfortable with the idea that those nominees have nothing to do with me.

I risk treading into territory that's pretty inside-baseball for most movie fans, and territory I've covered previously over the years. I've made peace with the Oscars as a part of the movie world that, if they're ever actually about greatness, are about it incidentally. The correlation between Oscar nominees and my own favorites inspires a shrug more than a grumble.

But in 2015, the matter became personal again. For several years, I've been a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which selects the Critics' Choice Awards. This year, members' nominating ballots were due in early December, before any media would see the much anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens. When critics finally did see the movie, and it was generally well-received, BFCA leadership considered adding The Force Awakens to its already-announced list of 10 Best Picture nominees. The question posed to members, verbatim: "If you had seen The Force Awakens before casting your Critics' Choice Awards ballot, would you have included it in your five choices for Best Picture?"

On Dec. 22, the BFCA announced that The Force Awakens had been added as a Best Picture nominee. A few hours later, I resigned.

That decision didn't come impulsively. For a while, I'd been ambivalent about membership in the BFCA, partly as a result of expanded awards categories that felt designed more to draw eyeballs to an awards broadcast than to recognize greatness. Then the BFCA leadership sent out an email to members in December, attempting to address potential confusion over performances that could be identified either as lead or as supporting. While the message did offer common-sense suggestions like Rooney Mara as lead rather than supporting in Carol—she actually has more screen time than Cate Blanchett—it also said, "Traditionally, BFCA respects category assignments made by the studio."

Here's the problem with that sentiment: The studios are often playing a game with category assignments, designed to improve the odds of getting a nomination or win. BFCA members are, at least nominally, journalists. And the notion that those members would "respect category assignments made by the studio" even when they're patently idiotic and self-serving—as happened when Rooney Mara was placed by the BFCA in the supporting category anyway for Carol—suggests either an icky coziness with the studio marketing system, or a lazy unwillingness to figure out what "lead" and "supporting" actually mean.

This idea came further into focus when Variety writer Kris Tapley reported on communication he'd received from BFCA publicists, which focused on the Critics' Choice Awards historical correlation to eventual Oscar nominees. The upshot of the information was that the Critics' Choice Awards are important because they help predict Oscar picks. And that, dear friends, is where I head for the door.

There's nothing inherently compromised about movie critics' groups giving out awards. Those groups often draw attention to movies that would otherwise be outside the typical awards conversation, as the Utah Film Critics Association—where I'm also a voting member—did in 2015 when they awarded Best Supporting Actress to Rose Byrne in Spy. They serve readers and movie-lovers by saying, "This is what we think excellence in cinema looks like." That is all they should serve.

While it may seem fair on the surface to allow a back door for a movie that couldn't be seen by pre-set deadlines—and apparently had been allowed once previously, for Cast Away, in a year prior to my membership—the phrasing of the question to BFCA members stacked the deck in a bizarre way, since no other film was required to be on a true majority of ballots in order to become a nominee. If a majority of BFCA members voted to include The Force Awakens, only one of three things could be true: 1. A majority of members actually thought The Force Awakens was one of the five best movies of the entire year; 2. They misunderstood the question; 3. They deliberately lied in order to make sure the year's most popular film was nominated—and Star Wars fans might be more likely to watch.

I really don't want to believe that No. 3 is true; in a response to my resignation, BFCA president Joey Berlin wrote to me, "Dozens of members requested that we DO SOMETHING [his all-caps] to recognize The Force Awakens after they saw it because they believed it was one of the year's best films. THAT was the primary motivation in doing this." But the accumulated actions and statements of the BFCA and on its behalf suggested an interest in something besides journalistic integrity. They suggested a desire to be part of the bigger Oscars conversation, in a way that would increase its value as a brand. It should never be forgotten that the Academy Awards are recognitions that an industry gives to itself and, as such, are about showing the world a very specific image of that industry. There's a difference—or there should be—between supporting the art of film, and supporting the film industry.

So yeah, I'm OK with those who snicker at the idea that talk of "integrity" has any place in a conversation about picking a Best Picture. This critic's choice happened to be ducking out of any attempt to be part of the "Oscars conversation." Critics' time, in general, might be better spent on conversations about movies themselves.

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