Godard’s Best Picture Win: When a Critics Group Dares to Break With Critical Consensus

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Over the weekend, the National Society of Film Critics — a distinguished organization including some of the most widely respected movie scribes in the game — met in New York to make selections for their 2014 awards. (Side note: hats off to the group for waiting until 2014 was actually over to recognize its films.) They don’t nominate, and they don’t have a fancy dinner; they just get together, argue about the movies, cast votes via a weighted ballot system, and that’s that. And this year, their Best Picture selection was Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language. They didn’t choose Boyhood, like most of the other critics’ groups, or any of the rest of the Oscar faves. And, accordingly, the Oscar Watchers™ lost their damn minds.

It was, according to Movie City News’ David Poland, “about as stupid & self-congratulatory a choice NSFC could make. But hooray for jerking off!” Hollywood Reporter awards analyst Scott Feinberg called the pick “snobbish and elitist,” and smirked, “Just when you thought the National Society of Film Critics couldn’t make themselves more irrelevant…” Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone asked, “When the National Society of Film Critics themselves don’t care about critics, how can anyone expect anyone else to care?” And Hollywood Elsewhere’s loathsome Jeff Wells classified the choice, in a zany bit of his signature “here’s what they’re thinking” writing, as, “This is a very weak year and we’re going to swan-dive into our own navels and do what we want,” calling Goodbye to Language a film “Joe and Jane Popcorn wouldn’t see with a gun to their heads.” Because, y’know, that’s what critics’ awards should be about.

When reading the NSFC’s detractors (most of whom, it seems, haven’t actually bothered to see the film), it becomes clear that the group’s primary offense was simple: by making an unexpected and esoteric choice, they didn’t contribute to the Awards Season Narrative, so they’re out-of-touch, irrelevant snobs. Now, for context, note that the group doesn’t have a set pattern for participating in that narrative. Some years their Best Picture goes on to win that award at the Oscars (The Hurt Locker, Million Dollar Baby, Schindler’s List). Some years it’s nominated (The Social Network, There Will Be Blood, Capote). And some years they make a wild, left-field pick that has no chance of winning anything else, like when they chose Mulholland Drive in 2001, or Melancholia in 2011, or (best of all) when they shrugged off Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love in 1998 and gave the big enchilada to Out of Sight.

So sure, some years they’re part of the critics awards/Oscar prognostication circle jerk, which boiled down, this year, to whether each group gave Best Picture to Boyhood. And the NSFC nearly did so itself; according to member Lisa Schwarzbaum, Boyhood came up only one vote short on the first ballot, after which proxies for members not present dropped out. That left the final vote to only the 15 members in the room (18, according to the Los Angeles Times ), who were, according to Schwarzbaum, “making a point of not following the herd. (And loving JLG.)”

So Poland and Feinberg and Wells and the rest of them were right — this was just a bunch of East Cost elitists spitefully picking the latest from Godard, one of the last remaining auteurs from a time when critics actually mattered, what a bunch of assholes, let’s quote Rotten Tomatoes scores at them. But here’s the thing: even if that were the case, good for the NSFC (or, more accurately, their 15 members who showed up) for bucking an increasingly predictable system that lumps film criticism into a dispiriting parade of faux-populism and rubber-stamping.

Twelve major critics groups have called Boyhood the year’s best film. Birdman took the big prize from seven other groups; The Grand Budapest Hotel, two. What would another Boyhood win have added to the conversation — about that movie, or about the year in movies? Little to nothing. What does a prize for Goodbye to Language add to those conversations? A great deal. It draws attention, at least among those paying attention, to a difficult, challenging, off-the-map film from a living legend (and one who, as Hitfix’s Kristopher Tapley notes, has never won that prize before). And, perhaps more importantly, it notes that this was not just a great year for movies, but a diverse one, where — contrary to the previous month of awards and prognostications — there were more than three to five films worth celebrating.

The aforementioned Oscar blogger Stone opines that the year’s sight-unseen Academy Award faves, like Unbroken and Into the Woods, may well not suffer for their mixed-to-bad reviews; their “Oscar brand” is sturdy enough to withstand those notices, which won’t matter to the aging and not-terribly-discerning Oscar voting bloc. And she may be right — not just about that, but that the NSFC’s Goodbye to Language pick is “so utterly balls-out off the charts of the awards race it reads, to me, like a revolutionary battle cry to never want to be in the chokehold of the yucky Oscar race ever again.”

Stone writes this as though it’s a bad thing. It’s not. As Matt Zoller Seitz notes, the “widespread distress/bafflement over Goodbye To Language winning NSFC award proves that criticism has become an arm of advertising.” And it’s true. It’s worth remembering that there’s already a fairly wide disconnect between the year’s most popular films and the Oscar frontrunners; Boyhood’s $24 million domestic gross barely places it in the year’s Top 100. But even breaking away from those snobby critical faves makes you a snobby critic. At the end of the day, the Awards-Industrial Complex is a lucrative game, with sites like Stone’s, Wells’, and Poland’s generating months of content by reading the Oscar tea leaves alongside banner ads trumpeting the very films they’re “considering.” This year, the NSFC sat it out, and good on them. Instead of endorsing the movie everyone already knows about, they said, “Hey, take a look at this movie, maybe you haven’t heard of it, but you should have.” And when you get right down to it, isn’t that what film criticism is supposed to be about?