Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association

The Los Angeles Film Critics are well aware that they symbolically uphold critical and artistic standards in a company town known for churning out "product." Perhaps because they're based in Hollywood, LAFCA members may be more aware of what actually goes into the making of a movie (and just how difficult that is, and how unpredictable the result can be). Accordingly, LAFCA in recent years has added categories the other U.S. critics groups don't acknowledge: music, production design, animation, indie/experimental -- and, each year, a "new generation" award to encourage a promising newcomer, and a "career achievement" award to salute a Hollywood veteran/legend. (The new generation award has been particularly prescient in anticipating good work form people in the early stages of their careers; winners have included Martin Scorsese, Jodie Foster, Spike Lee, Sean Penn, John Carpenter, and Leonardo DiCaprio.)
As the arbiters of hometown quality standards, LAFCA's influence on the Oscars has also been felt in recent years -- particularly with Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. (Eastwood himself actually thanked the critics for setting his Oscar sweep into motion.) And any actor who gets a nod from the LA critics is sure to win a nomination from the Academy. LAFCA isn't afraid of mainstream tastes, or to be a Hollywood booster -- if the movie's good enough. (Unlike the Academy, they did the right thing in 1982 and voted for E.T. over Gandhi.) In the most famous incident in the group's history, the critics intervened in the dispute between director Terry Gilliam and Universal Pictures when Gilliam screened his version of the still-unreleased Brazil for LAFCA members, who voted it the best film of 1985 -- and thus helped Gilliam's cut get distribution.
Perhaps the most enjoyable event of the grueling awards season is LAFCA's awards banquet (held at the Wyndam Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood for the last ten years or so). The critics don't just present the awards, they give (short) speeches about the winners' work. It's rare in a town of fawning and backstabbing to hear articulate people talk about movies, and the people who make them, with varying degrees of eloquence and passion. Some L.A. critics may have a tendency to get a little too involved in the business (it's hard not to, when you're immersed in it everywhere you go, but it kind of upsets the balance between "church and state"), but there's no question that the thing that brought them there in the first place is a real love of the movies.

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