Winning over critics can boost campaigns for Oscars

“Who is Yun Jeong-hie?” That was the question being asked on Dec. 11, when the 67-year-old Korean won Best Actress from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. for her performance in “Poetry.” Awards-watchers had expected Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady”), Michelle Williams (“My Week with Marilyn”) or Tilda Swinton (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) to prevail.

Jeong-hie’s win is less surprising when you consider that “Poetry” won Best Screenplay at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, earned a score of 89 on MetaCritic, and has been certified as 100% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes.

How many of this year’s top Oscar contenders have 100% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes? If you guessed none of them, you’re right.


Alas, “Poetry” isn’t on the list of 2011 films eligible at the Oscars. Even if it were, convincing Academy members to watch it would be difficult as it not on their radar. Voters inevitably prioritize those films they consider to be the most significant, including those with well-known actors or directors, festival favorites given late-fall theatrical releases and heavy promotional pushes, and major prize-winners during the year-end awards blitz. 

As the industry professionals who make up the Academy can’t be expected to see everything, the most important factor for any film is visibility not quality. That’s where critics come in. Their position is unique in that they see most eligible films as a matter of course, both the high-profile titles Academy members are likely to watch anyway and the kinds of smaller, more obscure films that prompt questions like, “Who is Yun Jeong-hie?”

Such films are often among the least-seen but best-reviewed of any given year, so why do so few of them make an impact among critics’ groups? This year, the New York Film Critics Circle was so determined to be first that members didn’t even see one major film — “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” — before announcing the winners on Nov. 29. They recognized only films and performances with major studio campaigns, lending a helping hand to contenders that don’t need it (“The Artist,” Streep, and Brad Pitt, among others). That is disappointing not because the recipients are undeserving, but because they reflect a narrow perspective of the year in film, suggesting that the only movies that merit consideration are those that have already been discussed.

While the NYFCC cites only those films that are already part of the Oscar conversation, LAFCA has shown a renegade streak in recent years. Yun was their third consecutive foreign-language winner for Best Actress, following Yolande Moreau (“Seraphine”) in 2009 and Kim Hye-ja (“Mother”) last year. They also cited Vera Farmiga ifor the obscure “Down to the Bone” in 2005. In the supporting races, they’ve honored Luminiţa Gheorghiu (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” 2006), Vlad Ivanov (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” 2009) and Niels Arestrup (2010, “A Prophet”). None of these performers ever stood a chance at the Oscars. But critics shouldn’t concern themselves with trying to predict Academy tastes; we’ve got the Golden Globes for that.

While the LA critics went out on a limb for Yun, the Boston Society of Film Critics made a case for “Margaret,” the little-seen film by two-time Oscar-nominee Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”). Plagued by lawsuits, the film’s release was delayed for six years before debuting this fall in fourteen theaters nationwide and grossing all of $46,000. The Beantown critics — who named the film as a runner-up in many categories, including Best Picture — urged Fox Searchlight to send screeners of the film to Oscar voters. Soon thereafter, it reopened in New York City and DVDs were mailed to Academy members. However, the film remains an Oscar longshot at best.

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The National Society of Film Critics — whose membership includes Roger Ebert, Andrew Sarris, Time’s Richard Corliss, and the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy — has been bold in its choices. Its recent Best Picture winners include “Yi Yi” (2000), “American Splendor” (2003), and “Waltz with Bashir” (2008). Like LAFCA, it has selected foreign performances for Best Actress for the last two years: Moreau in 2009 and Gionvanna Mezzogiorno (“Vincere”) in 2010. Recent supporting champs include Eddie Marsan (2008, “Happy-Go-Lucky”),  Hanna Schygulla (2008, “The Edge of Heaven”), Paul Schneider (2009, “Bright Star”),and Olivia Williams (2010, “The Ghost Writer”).

However, all the other critics’ groups stick to the same script. This year, “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” and “The Tree of Life” have divided the lion’s share of Best Picture accolades, even though lesser known titles like “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” “13 Assassins,” “The Interrupters,” and “Meek’s Cutoff” were as well-reviewed by these critics. 

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