MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

An Inside Look at the NSFC Awards 2011

The National Society of Film Critics — the most prestigious (dammit) of all the country’s numerous movie critic groups — met for their 45th annual voting meeting last Saturday at Sardi’s in New York City. And it was The Social Network all over again. (I write these awards stories every year in a kind of breathless journalese, so you’ll forgive me if I drop into the mode again.)

So … Keeping up its steady march though the year end “Best of 2010” votes, where it has emerged as the odds-on favorite and top prize gatherer, David Fincher‘s smart, iconoclastic saga of the beginnings of the Internet phenomenon Facebook, picked up four more major awards this Saturday from the NSFC. The Society‘s 61 members (or at least the ones who voted or sent in their proxies) gave it top honors for Best Director (Fincher), Best Screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin), Best Actor (Jesse Eisenberg, who played Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) — and, once again (following the example of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston), Best Picture of the Year.

Giovanna Mezzogiorno, a little surprisingly, was the NSFC‘s “Best Actress” winner for her role as Benito Mussolini‘s abandoned mistress in “Vincere.“ The foreign language picture winner was Olivier Assayas’ Carlos. And the top supporting actor and actress, were Geoffrey Rush of The King’s Speech and Olivia Williams of The Ghost Writer.

In the three contests won by Social Network, the competition wasn‘t even close. The Social Network beat its Best Picture runner-up Carlos, a French bio-drama about the notorious ‘70s terrorist, on the first ballot, 61 points to 28. Director Fincher took down Carlos’s writer-director Olivier Assayas by a slightly less embarrassing 66-36 margin. And Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (of West Wing) blew away David Seidler, writer of that other 2010 critic‘s pet, The King’s Speech, 73-25.

Network star Jesse Eisenberg — who played the Sorkin version of Facebook’s scowling, glib, fast-tongued founder Mark Zuckerman, a brainy, web-phenom motor-mouth picking up enemies and rattling off insults and geek-speak with annoying ease, while Facebook makes him an accidental billionaire at college age — had a harder time with rivals Colin Firth (of King‘s Speech) and Edgar Martinez (Carlos).

Yet ultimately, Firth, who portrayed, with memorable verbal hesitancy and some noblesse oblige, Britain‘s tongue-tied, over-sensitive World Era 2 era monarch George VI, and Martinez who played the radical killer-celeb Carlos (a.k.a. Ilich Ramirez Sanchez and sometimes a.k.a. The Jackal), a kidnapper-assassin who spoke a number of languages, fluently and often angrily, both lost to Eisenberg by a single point: 30-29-29.

(The points, by the way, are spawned by the NSFC’s weighted voting system in which the critics hand in folded ballots, or send in proxy sheets, with three points going to the first-place choice, two to the second place, and one to the third place. Proxies drop out after the first round, if both a majority of points and a plurality of ballots isn’t achieved, leaving the second, and sometimes later, rounds of voting in the hands of the critics left in Sardi’s banquet room — a long-standing rule which, over the years, I‘ve grown increasingly to dislike, especially during times I wasn’t in the room.)

There was one sort of surprise winner: actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno of Marco Bellocchio’s virtuosic but lesser-known Vincere. The Italian actress, who played Mussolini’s abused and discarded early lover Ida Dalser, who was also the neglected mother of the dictator’s son — a woman caught in a seemingly inevitable slide from Il Duce’s arms to the madhouse — was named Best Actress on a 33-28-27 point vote.

Mezzogiorno won over runner-up and seeming favorite Annette Bening as the wary, threatened lesbian mother in the genial sperm donor comedy-drama (with Mark Ruffalo as the genial donor) The Kids are All Right and (my own pick) Lesley Manville as the desperate, hard-drinking, love-starved and self-deceiving Mary, troublesome friend of happy middle-aged London suburban couple Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen in Mike Leigh’s Another Year. Manville’s third place finish was the (excellent) Leigh film’s only mention. (An interesting no-show: Vincere lead actor Filippo Timi — who brilliantly played both Mussolini and his son.)

Besides Social Network, no other film that Saturday afternoon scored multiple NSFC wins, though some critical favorites got multiple mentions. The King‘s Speech won the Supporting Actor scroll for Geoffrey Rush — playing George VI’s brash, irreverent, very witty and extremely effective Australian voice coach, the wonderfully named Lionel Logue — while actor Firth and writer Seidler took second place slots in their categories. Carlos, which supplied runners-up in the contests for Best Actor (Martinez) and Best Director (Assayas), won outright as Best Foreign Language Film, over Jacques Audiard‘s scorching prison picture A Prophet and Claire Denis‘ superb drama of African revolution White Material.

Roman Polanski‘s The Ghost Writer didn’t do badly either. Polanski’s sleek and menacing political thriller — about an ex-British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) who sets all kind of evil balls in motion, when he hires a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) to help manufacture his controversial memoir — was named thrice. Olivia Williams, who plays the P.M.’s ambiguous wife, got a Supporting Actress nod from the NSFC, while the embattled Polanski was the second runner-up in both the director and writer categories, sharing the latter with “Ghost Writer” novelist and fellow adaptor Robert Harris.

Finally, the documentary winner was Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s scathing indictment of the banks and politicians, and their roles in the recent economic collapse (with British street painter Banksy’s graffiti-art jape Exit Through the Gift Shop and Last Tram Home, Lixin Fan’s saga of millions of Chinese factory workers and their annual New Year holiday trek home, as the runners-up).

The cinematography prize went to the Coen Brothers’ constant collaborator Roger Deakins for his burnt-faded Old West landscapes in the Coens’ dark, dark version of novelist Charles Portis” Western classic True Grit (the source of the very tonally different 1969 Oscar-winning Duke Wayne-Henry Hathaway movie), followed by runners-up Matthew Libatique for the frenzied backstage ballet frescos of Black Swan. and Harris Savides for the glum Hollywood of Sofia Coppola‘s sad song of movie daughters and dads, Somewhere.

A good list of movies. Good voters. Good group. My own top picks, by the way: James Franco (actor, for 127 Hours and Howl), Manville (actress), winner Rush (supporting actor), Ruth Sheen (supporting actress, for Another Year), True Grit (picture), The Coens (directors), Sweetgrass (documentary), Claire Denis and Marie N’Diaye (screenplay for White Material), White Material (best foreign language film) and Anthony Dod Mantle (cinematographer for 127 hours).

Sadly for me, the NSFC chose again not to vote in their optional category of production design, an award for which I argue every year, to what are often fatigued voters toward the end of the session — but which I speak for again and again, because it seems to me such an obvious injustice not to celebrate some of the main visual artists in an especially visual art form. Some of my colleagues argue back that it’s late, they’re not sure how to judge it, and besides, why bother?

I wasn‘t there to argue this year. I feel bad, because the designers, deprived again of recognition from us, are often, like my late mother Edna, visual artists. Painters. Drawers. True artists, I think. Why not celebrate them too? (I suspect many of our voters rationalize that our cinematography award takes enough care of visual art and artistry for the year.)

But I bet Jess Gonchor of True Grit, who was on my original short list, would have been a good choice, one whom we could all have probably rallied behind. The others on my own vote-list were Robert Stromberg of Alice in Wonderland, Dante Ferretti of Shutter Island and Guy Hendrix Dyas of Inception. (Those last three, unfortunately, represent the kind of movies that some critics are strongly against as a whole. And, in that case, some of my friends may tend to think production design can be razzle-dazzle that distracts from the script and the story, or disguises their flaws. It isn‘t, of course. It can be a crucial part of the art.)

Of course, there was always Donald Graham Burt of The Social Network

Last of the votes was our Film Heritage Award, one of our most important, I think. It usually goes to laudable classics reissues, DVDs, new restorations, or other cine-cultural good deeds.

This year the Heritage award was divided among six scroll-winners: the 20th anniversary of The Film Foundation, and the recent rediscovery of John Ford’s long-lost 1928 silent Upstream (among a trove of 75 lost treasures unearthed by the New Zealand Film Archive).

And the following DVD releases: Chaplin at Keystone (on Flicker Alley), a marvelous 34 film restored package of Chaplin’s crucially important but sometimes neglected Keystone films, all from the year (1914) he went from British nobody to the world’s biggest movie star and our Eternal Tramp; The Elia Kazan Collection (on Twentieth Century Fox), a stunning compilation of Kazan‘s Fox films, with a Martin Scorsese documentary on Kazan; Lionel Rogosin‘s restored ‘50s documentary On the Bowery (Milestone); and the UCLA restoration of the landmark gay documentary by Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown and Rob Epstein, Word is Out (Milestone again)

That Heritage vote, in fact was the one part of the afternoon where I felt somewhat present and accounted for. I had to skip the luncheon this year — but at least I was a nominator for both the Chaplin and the Kazan and supported the others. I would have been happier still if I’d been successful with another suggestion: a proposed special award for 88-year-old Alain Resnais, on the occasion of his 62 years as a director, and the release of his latest film, Wild Grass. Well, I’ll try again on Resnais’ next movie.
Finally, we issued two important official statements, both of which I strongly supported.

The first was a stinging critique of some recent actions of the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Ratings Administration, a statement that targets the MPAA’s habit of leniency on big studio movie violence (not that we’re opposed to screen violence), while getting tougher with independent movies on questions of sexuality and language. More specifically, it raised the cases of the MPAA’s “NC-17” rating for sex content to the original Blue Valentine, their giving an “R” for language to The King’s Speech (for Geoffrey Rush’s comic tirades) and The Tillman Story (soldier talk) and another “R” for “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities” to Yael Hersonski’s fine and moving documentary record of the Warsaw Ghetto, A Film Unfinished.

The second statement was a protest against the recent brutal and unjustifiable incarceration by the Iranian government of filmmakers Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon) and Mohammad Rasoulof (The White Meadows) — both of whom were sentences to six year prison terms and banned from filmmaking for 20 years, for allegedly “colluding in gatherings and making propaganda against the regime.”

Two fine, gutsy statements. A good afternoon’s work, I thought. I wish I’d been there. Happy 45th, guys.

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6 Responses to “An Inside Look at the NSFC Awards 2011”

  1. Veronica Selver says:

    Hi Mike,
    Thank you for this long, thorough article. Let’s hear it for Alain Resnais’ 62 years of filmmaking. Seeing “Hiroshima Mon Amour” in high school was the film that lured me into filmmaking. Speaking of filmmaking I must point out that “Word Is Out” was made by a collective of six filmmakers, the Mariposa Film Group as we came to be called. I was one of them. This is a recurring problem in citing credits for the film, and so it is with a certain amount of resigned amusement that I point out this oversight once again. If one name has to be singled out it is that of Peter Adair, whose idea the film was in the first place, who gathered us together, and who tragically died of AIDS in 1996

  2. Dennis Doros says:

    First, I am very grateful to the NSFC who every year does recognize the work of archivists with their Film Heritage Award. It’s usually the one organization the truly thinks of those in the trenches who are working so hard to preserve these films. For example, WORD IS OUT took the Mariposa Film Group to make the film and this consisted of Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Veronica Selver, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein and Lucy Massie Phenix. (It’s my pleasure to have worked with them — sadly though, not Peter — to release their wonderful film). And then there’s Ross Lipman and everybody at UCLA, Kristin Pepe and the Outfest Legacy Project, Janet Cole and Susan Goldstein and the SFPL who licensed the rights to us. There’s also everybody at the film lab, the sound lab, the video lab and dozens of other people responsible for bringing a classic film back to audiences. And the same for ON THE BOWERY and the other films mentioned! This is why I’m so happy the Film Heritage Award exists!

  3. arman lardizabal says:

    Thank you for this informative piece on what has transpired on the voting of the NSFC. I have always been interested to find out the prestigious group’s other choices aside from the eventual winners. Here’s hoping you will do the same next year.

  4. John Lyca says:

    This year is very competitive for the awards. I wish Jess Gonchor of True Grit win some award as writer said.

  5. Thank you for this NSFC Awards 2011 information,it’s useful to me.

  6. Dave Kehr says:

    Poland, you really need to get a spam filter for your site!


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon