Variety senior film critic Justin Chang, secretary of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., offers his insider's notebook on Sunday's awards vote.
By Justin Chang
The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.'s decision to give best picture to Michael Haneke's "Amour" came as a surprise even to some of us who attended yesterday's 5 1/2-hour meeting, following several rounds of voting that had heavily favored "The Master" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Indeed, a showdown between those two American indie darlings seemed imminent from the moment the first three prizes were handed out: supporting actor to Dwight Henry of "Beasts" (squeaking past "Django Unchained's" Christoph Waltz by a single vote), production design to "The Master" and music to "Beasts," going head-to-head with Jonny Greenwood's "Master" score. In category after category, fans of Paul Thomas Anderson's cool-toned psychodrama and Benh Zeitlin's exuberant post-Katrina fairy tale seemed to represent the dominant voting blocs, though with a healthy measure of overlap between the two.
"Amour," by contrast, seemed to command respectable but not overwhelming support early on. Haneke's script barely factored into the race for screenplay, which went to Chris Terrio for "Argo" (beating out runner-up "Silver Linings Playbook," as well as "Lincoln" and "Compliance"). Even odder, Haneke himself was a distant contender for director, placing well behind winner Anderson, runner-up Kathryn Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty"), Leos Carax ("Holy Motors") and Zeitlin; the Austrian helmer mustered more support in this category three years ago, when he was named runner-up for "The White Ribbon."
Jean-Louis Trintignant's performance in "Amour" received a handful of votes for best actor but didn't develop much traction in what was perhaps the org's single most competitive category. Support was strong for Daniel Day-Lewis ("Lincoln"), John Hawkes ("The Sessions") and Jack Black ("Bernie"), as well as for eventual winner Joaquin Phoenix ("The Master") and runner-up Denis Lavant ("Holy Motors") -- a super-tight race between two powerfully eccentric, intensely physical performances.
Even Emmanuelle Riva's actress award — the only other prize "Amour" received -- proved hard-won, as the voting resulted in a tie between Riva and "Silver Linings Playbook's" Jennifer Lawrence. Even if we had set out to do so deliberately, we could scarcely have found two more disparate performances to honor in the same category -- not just in terms of the age difference between the two actresses, but also in the almost comically stark contrast between vigorous screwball comedy and deathly serious drama.
Yet in the end, it may have been our awareness of that contrast — which is to say, the calm, unshakable power of "Amour" and its death-comes-for-us-all realization — that made Haneke's film impossible to ignore when it mattered most. The best-picture voting saw "Amour" earn enough of a consensus to vault over "Beasts," "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Holy Motors" into a showdown with "The Master," which, having just copped a directing prize for Anderson, yielded graciously to Haneke's film in the run-off.
In light of the fact that we had just given an import our top honors, yours truly made the ungenerous if logical suggestion that we suspend our foreign-language film category this year. . (Point of clarification: Every year, we vote on foreign-language film after best picture, based on the possibility that a foreign-language film might well be the best picture.) But the membership was not in a stingy mood and pressed onward, happily so in the cases of winner "Holy Motors" and runner-up "Footnote" (to avoid duplicating prizes, the group passed a simple motion not to submit votes for "Amour" in this category, although a few members did so anyway).
In the lead-up to Sunday's meeting, awards watchers had speculated that LAFCA, having previously honored native son Paul Thomas Anderson for 2007's "There Will Be Blood," would go for "The Master" in a big way and presumably push it into Oscar contention. They were hardly wrong, insofar as “The Master” led the pack with four awards and two runner-up citations. (It lost the cinematography prize to Roger Deakins' snazzy work on "Skyfall," in one of the group's spread-the-wealth nods.) Similarly, some had suggested that the L.A. critics would make every effort to avoid honoring "Zero Dark Thirty" in order to distinguish themselves from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, the Boston Society of Film Critics and other awards-giving bodies that had already hailed Kathryn Bigelow's thriller.
Were the pundits right on that score? LAFCA's stubbornly idiosyncratic streak may be no secret, but I wouldn't presume to question my colleagues' motives -- or, for that matter, their fabulous taste. Suffice to say that “Zero Dark Thirty" demonstrated clear support in numerous races: Bigelow was runner-up to Anderson for director, Jessica Chastain drew the most actress votes after Lawrence and Riva, and Jason Clarke was an unexpectedly strong contender for supporting actor. Still, it's interesting to consider that, had we not opted to introduce a film editing award this year, "Zero Dark Thirty" may well have left empty-handed.
What too often gets lost in the predominantly Oscar-centric coverage of a critics group's choices -- amid the usual accusations of agenda mongering, industry whoring and contrarian posturing -- is the sheer range of individual tastes and passions represented in the voting. You wouldn't guess, looking at the final results, that Ann Dowd ("Compliance") and Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master") drew numerous votes in the lead and supporting races; that "Moonrise Kingdom," "Anna Karenina" and "Life of Pi" all had their champions, especially in the technical categories; or that Rodney Ascher's "Room 237," Jafar Panahi's "This Is Not a Film" and Kleber Mendonca Filho's "Neighboring Sounds" were three of the group's most passionately defended titles. Well, they were, Oscar hopes be damned: When it comes to the movies, true amour knows no bounds.