Winners Circle: New York Film Critics salute Streep, Pitt and 'The Artist'

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“This is a real pleasure for me to see some of the faces behind the formidable names that instill such fear and reverence in the film industry—although I thought you’d be taller,” Brad Pitt quipped as he peered into the uncertain shadows of Crimson which were peppered with 31 card-carrying screen critics and packed with other interests both vested (movie publicists) and deep-pocketed (Hollywood producers).

He added a serious P.S. “I am continually surprised how much I learn about film, about filmmaking, about my own films many years later, about storytelling from your reviews and your words. It arms me for the next one, and I thank you for that.”

The occasion was the 77th annual New York Film Critics Awards, and the 48-year-old super-hunk was there on Jan. 9 to receive the Best Actor prize for two of his 2011 performances—the loving father with poor parenting skills in The Tree of Life and the transforming general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, in Moneyball. Both films, it was said, would not have been made without his starry participation.

In his humble, dirt-kicking fashion, Pitt reminded the room where he came from to get to this point and this podium: “I’m a guy who’d never ridden an airplane until I was 25.” He made that trip in 1989 as an actor to New York City, to audition for a role on a television soap opera, and put himself up at a friend’s apartment in the Village on densely gay Christopher Street. “My first impression of the city,” he recalled, “was: ‘My God! There’s a lot of guys around here—but they’re so nice!”

Pitt hit the red carpet at Manhattan’s Crimson club with a limp and a cane, the result of a fall on a slippery ski slope, and spent the weekend hobbling up to harvest Best Actor awards both here and on the other coast at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Running visual interference for him and any hint of lameness was a stunningly upstaging Angelina Jolie on his arm, slithering through the paparazzi commotion in a tight leather skirt, white shirt and a single spectacular emerald around her neck.

The “money shot” of the evening consisted of the glam couple who would be The Pitts—plus the actress Tony Kushner calls “Streepgoddess.” Meryl Streep was there to pick up the Best Actress prize for her portrayal in The Iron Lady of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, thus probably setting herself up for another Oscar fall. As the most nominated contender in Academy history (16), she has also lost the most (14).

Her standing with the New York Film Critics is somewhat better. She leads the ladies’ division with four of their prizes, but that still puts her behind Jack Nicholson’s half-dozen and the four each of Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Even those four she undercut when she eventually stepped onstage to collect her trophy: “A couple of years ago you awarded me with this recognition for Julie & Julia in what I thought was the last time—you did, too—I’d be standing here.”

But here she was yet again, and it was clear she was wising up to the field. “I take courage from Margaret Thatcher. Because of the beautiful transparency of the Internet, you can find out exactly how many people in the New York Film Critics Circle voted for you and how many rounds of voting there were, and so I’m happy to report that Margaret Thatcher was the longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, and she never got more than 30 percent of the votes—like me.”

In The Iron Lady, Streep presents two Thatchers—one ruthlessly at the top of her political powers, the other befogged by age and Alzheimer’s. “I’m really proud of our attempt to get at something human in someone that we all thought was very weird.”

It’s the actor’s life for her, all right. “I think it’s a great privilege just to be an actor, to be entrusted with the stories of lives. Whether they’re real people or whether they’re made up, they each deserve the truth—as close as you can get to it.”

Critics’ chairman John Anderson of Variety and Newsday kept the evening moving at a nice clip and with some surprising patches of humor. He noted that two of the circle’s voting members were not present—Star magazine’s Marshall Fine, who is vacationing in Iceland (“Someone can explain that to me later”), and The New Yorker’s David Denby, who, it was alleged, was reviewing movies for the magazine’s 2012 Christmas issue. The latter allusion was to Denby’s embargo-breaking review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which infuriated the film’s producer, Scott Rudin. The Denby-Rubin wars served nicely as the evening’s running gag.

To present a special posthumous award to Chilean writer-director Raul Ruiz, whose final film, Mysteries of Lisbon, opened last summer, Anderson did a lovely drum-roll for another fellow critic he brought forth: “I want to say, as a small boy, I dreamt of growing up to be our next presenter and then, at some point, came to the crushing realization that I was going to have to settle for being merely brilliant. Please welcome Jim Hoberman.” The Village Voice, which unceremoniously sacked Hoberman last week after three decades of distinguished service, was then referred to by Anderson only as “the publication whose name should not be mentioned.”

Steven Zaillian, an Oscar winner for Schindler’s List, and Aaron Sorkin, who won the critics’ nod last year for The Social Network, shared the Best Screenplay prize for their Moneyball. Zaillian spoke first, and Sorkin came prepared for that: “My acceptance will be 30 pages longer and include references to Gilbert and Sullivan.”

What he did reference—and praise—were Modern Romance and Lost in America, two screenplays by Albert Brooks, whom the critics were honoring as their Best Supporting Actor for his kinky, cast-against-type turn as a vicious hoodlum in Drive.

“First of all,” said Brooks when the time came for him to accept his award and comment on the evening, “I’m still knocked out by what Aaron Sorkin said. It was so sweet, and I feel so guilty for selling my Academy copy of The Social Network.”

Before that laughter subsided, he landed another: “By the way, let’s admit the real reason David Denby couldn’t be here: He was picking up Scott Rudin’s dry cleaning.”

What followed was more stand-up than acceptance speech. Indeed, there was no mention of Drive or any of its personnel, but Brooks did get into his charmed life with critics. “I’ve heard the expression ‘critic-proof.’ I would be the opposite of ‘critic-proof.’ I’m critic-prone.” His screenplay for Mother was a previous critics’ winner.

Jessica Chastain, whom the critics honored as Best Supporting Actress for three (The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help) of her six 2011 movies, struck a moist note. “Before I came to New York,” she said, “I had never seen a foreign film—and as my appetite grew, I was starved for new points of view and unknown stories to be told.” She thanked the critical group for guidance in “helping to shape the student I am.”

The critics’ choice for Best Foreign-Language Film, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, was shut down in mid-production by Iran’s Ministry of Culture because of anti-censorship remarks made by the writer-director—but finished by Farhadi anyway. His acceptance speech, delivered via a translator, reflected the trouble he’d seen: “I believe people, before they’re born, have to pass a test, and those who fail to pass the toughness test are born critics. Therefore, I am very happy about this award. I would like to dedicate this award to all the members of the Iranian cinematic family who are passing very tough days. I want to share this award with them.”

3D and Werner Herzog—names that never came up in the same sentence till 2011—conspired to make the critics’ Best Non-Fiction Film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Emmanuel Lubezki received the Best Cinematography award for The Tree of Life. 

J. C. Chandor, who gamely came to grips with the 2008 financial collapse in Margin Call, took the prize for Best First Film of 2011. “I’ve been trying to do this for a long time. I never had a very good idea, actually, before this. I didn’t know that till now.”

Debbie Reynolds, the mother of Mother, didn’t make it but sent Brooks a note. The otherwise unbroken line of name-brand presenters included Francis Ford Coppola, Linda Emond, Kevin Spacey and Robert De Niro. The latter, who was head of the Cannes jury that voted the Best Actor prize to The Artist’s Jean Dujardin, politely braced himself while Dujardin did his “You talkin’ to me?” imitation on him.

The Artist was the critics’ pick for Best Picture, and its director was named their Best Director—lucklessly, by De Niro, who made four separate and distinct train-wrecks out of Michel Hazanavicius. “You gotta change your name,” De Niro finally shrugged.