First is the Worst: Looking at Critics’ Awards


critic award

Awards season is about to get real. End of the year lists have already started to roll in and this week, shiny little statues will begin to be handed out to those films that you just might get around to seeing in like February or something. Us critics get all excited about this time of year, it’s that time when we are seemingly rewarded for slogging through months of reboots, sequels, and the just plain bad, with something much closer to consistency. Gone is the sieve of selectivity, replaced with the open mouth of excitement. For this isn’t only a time of increased quality in the multiplex, for critics, it’s also a time for screeners.

Screeners are a weird thing. See, every year, in preparation for this season of awards, the studios pick their top contenders and they send out DVD copies and web links to packs of salivating voters. I say voters, because the field is a crowded one. These studios are not only concerned with those that vote in the prestigious Academy Awards (although admittedly that is the obvious endgame), they care about all those with voices loud enough to be considered relevant. In many cases, those voices are those of the film critics, or to be more specific: established groups of film critics.

I somewhat cautiously chuckled, of course I wouldn’t toss around these discs like a spoiled rich kid at a strip club; after all, I am a critic, not a pirate.

As an admitted film addict, I had little awareness of this “for your consideration” world for years. Even after taking that addiction into something closer to productive as a film writer, it remained largely outside of my mind. I would read headlines about the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) or a baker’s dozen of Oscar prediction write-ups, but had no real idea of the mechanizations that kept all those systems running. That changed last year as I joined the Boston Online Film Critics Association (BOFCA).

criticWhat was lingering behind the curtains was a bounty of riches. For weeks my doorbell rang at the hands of UPS and both my physical and electronic mailboxes overflowed with films. As I opened my first package, unaware of just what it could contain, I was confronted by a letter that was equal parts joyous and threatening. The front half of the letter was all celebration and thanks. It read like the copy of an overzealous salesman, braggadociously lauding all that this film had to offer. But then came the darkness, the instructions to destroy said disc after viewing. Then came the threats. The studio insisted on making me aware of just how quickly these gifts could be snatched from hands, for this DVD was watermarked with information directly tied to me. If I were to let anything out, that would be my end. The screeners would stop coming. I would be blacklisted. I would not pass Go, I would not collect $200 (let’s be serious, that kind of money has never been on the table). I somewhat cautiously chuckled, of course I wouldn’t toss around these discs like a spoiled rich kid at a strip club; after all, I am a critic, not a pirate.

These were the first half of a transaction. A transaction I was expected to complete.

As I Indecent Proposal-ed amongst the many screeners, I had no clue the amount of work they so clearly implied. These weren’t gifts. These were the first half of a transaction. A transaction I was expected to complete.

I thought I had time. I just needed to watch these by the end of the year. No big deal. That was in no way near the case. A largely mandatory component of being a part of a critics group is participation in the year end voting. What I had overlooked was that critics announce their awards long before most physical awards are actually doled out. To paint a picture, let’s just look at this year.

NYFCCToday, November 30, the Gotham Independent Film Awards will be handed out, making them the official first organization to chime in on this year of cinema, although the National Board of Review will be hot on their heels the next day. Then begins the critics groups. NYFCC will be first and unlike internet commenters, being first here matters. There’s a reason you so often hear about NYFCC’s picks and that is in large part due to their typically first status. By shouting its picks before all others, the NYFCC doesn’t have to worry about being drowned out. Their voice carries loudly over the masses, unsullied by the chatter of the smaller organizations. For a good couple of days, they are the critical word. The first word gets to be the most relevant, even if that relevancy is short-lived. Studios do not shirk NYFCC, whose members are given the full breadth of “for your consideration” offerings. To ignore NYFCC is to risk falling out of the conversation just as it begins and that could mean the end of an awards run.

Me, I’m not a member of the NYFCC. BOFCA is passionate yet very small group and even the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), of which I also count myself as a member, isn’t touting robber baron levels of clout. So we must push to be loud and early. This year, I must submit my ballot for BOFCA and nominations to OFCS before the end of the week. With a deadline looming, a pile of unviewed screeners sits mockingly waiting for my eyes. Unfortunately for me, film criticism does not pay the bills, so I cannot sit all day plowing through every last film sent my way. Instead I must prioritize the films that I believe have a shot at entering my top ten. If I don’t watch a screener, that is my fault. But for other films, I flat out have had no chance to see them all.

Living in Austin and not New York City or Los Angeles, the amount of “for your consideration” screenings are nearly nil.

Living in Austin and not New York City or Los Angeles, the amount of “for your consideration” screenings are nearly nil. Spotlight and Carol are only just now in extremely limited release and films like Anomalisa, Joy, and The Big Short haven’t even been shown. That doesn’t mention juggernauts like The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which are all expected to feature highly in the larger awards conversation, and are not making any attempts to garner the awards of critics. This doesn’t mean that critics’ awards are not relevant, just that maybe they should be viewed differently.


Rather than trying to act as a predictor of the Oscars, these critics’ awards should act as your portal into the forgotten. You, the film fan, should approach such awards with the understanding that very few, if any, critics have found a way to see every film that has been released that year. I have no idea how Anomalisa compares to Inside Out, nor can I comment on whether or not Joy is anything that should be celebrated. As a Tarantino faithful, I am beyond excited for his latest, but my integrity precludes me from including it in any of my votes, ditto for The Revenant. So what use are critics’ awards?

Well…while we may not have seen them all, we certainly have seen a lot. Critics’ awards should be a celebration of great film, regardless of the strength of an awards campaign. These selections should be used as a time to consider what the Oscars will likely overlook. Make it your mission to find and enjoy films like Tangerine, The Look of Silence, Welcome to Leith, and Slow West. Consider more deeply performances in foreign films like The Tribe and The Second Mother. Reconsider films with more modest roll-outs like Sicario or outright flops like Steve Jobs. Don’t be afraid to go back and re-watch Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina because they are both just that good.

These selections should be used as a time to consider what the Oscars will likely overlook.

The Oscars will remain that behemoth of politics and studios, but every year there are so many great films that come out and go ignored by the Academy. Critics’ awards should remedy that ignorance. They should shine a light on what the Academy will not, if not in hopes of changing the monster’s mentality, then at least to share great cinema. The system will continue to make us clamor to be first and we will cling to our screeners like a man overboard to a life preserver. Rather than looking at critics’ awards as incomplete or irrelevant to the larger awards discussion, they should be appreciated for what they truly are: recommendations for fantastic films.


About Author

Derek was the only engineer at Northeastern University taking a class on German film and turning a sociology research paper into an examination of Scorsese’s work. Now in Austin, TX, he blatantly abuses his Netflix account on the reg, although his List mocks him as it proudly sits healthily above 200. He continues to fight the stigma that being good at math means you are not any no good at writing. I good write, very much.

  • Doug Heller

    I sympathize, Derek. I just got into the OFCA in late September and less than a month later started getting screeners. I am trying to make a go of writing professionally and I still don’t have time to get through most of them.