Exclusive Circle: New York Film Critics honor 'Boyhood,' Cotillard and Spall

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“I think that Manohla Dargis said it most aptly,” Ethan Hawke told the august New York Film Critics Circle at its annual awards-giving bash on Jan. 5 at Tao Downtown in Manhattan.

Introducing the NYFCC’s choice for Best Director of 2014, Hawke took no small measure of devilish delight in reprising the opinion of The New York Times’ co-chief film critic. “She really got it right,” he insisted very straight-faced. “I quote, ‘Richard Linklater seems to achieve the impossible: He makes Ethan Hawke bearable.’”

A veteran of eight Linklater films, Hawke couldn’t agree more—and didn’t. “I think that that accomplishment pales in the light of his most recent achievement, and I, personally, want to thank Mr. Linklater for continually achieving the impossible.”

Linklater, a native Texan like Hawke, accepted this award—as well as the Best Picture prize that followed—with similar dirt-kicking, self-depreciating charm, contending that the latter was really for Best First Feature for a Director over 50.” It was, in fact, for Boyhood, the definitive coming-of-age picture that he filmed over a 12-year period, tracking in bits and pieces a Texas lad’s life journey from six to 18.

Striking a serious note, Linklater dedicated his award “to the New York film critic who has had the most profound effect on me,” George Morris, who wrote for Film Comment and got fired by Texas Monthly for writing a bad review of Urban Cowboy.”

Linklater knew him when he was the film critic for the Austin Chronicle. “George was the first adult I met who lived for cinema. That’s all we talked about. That’s what his life was dedicated to. He was a critic, but he was such an enthusiast. I remember coming out of Godard’s First Name: Carmen, this 40-year-old man, literally like a seven-year-old, jumping up and down, squealing with delight how much he loved this movie… He taught me you could really put life in film, that it’s important.”

It was that kind of night. Nosegays and polluted bouquets were flung back and forth all evening at the 80th annual NYFCC Awards—a reflection of the eternal love/hate relationship that exists between artists and critics even during a temporary truce.

Bob Balaban, there to present the Best Screenplay award to the man who directed him in Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, began with a special shout-out to David Denby, whose reviews Balaban admires—save for the one about “a nearly perfect movie, except for my performance.” That review ignited a friendship.

The winner of the screenplay award—Wes Anderson, another Texan—was not present. His remarks were read by Hugo Guinness, who co-authored the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel with him. Those remarks included Rex Reed’s sweeping assessment of Wes Anderson movies (“I hate them all!”). And Reed is a Texan, too!

J.K. Simmons got his 60th-birthday present four days early from the critics—the Best Supporting Actor award for his work as the Music Teacher From Hell in Whiplash. “My job was so perfectly clear from the first day I was handed a script,” he said, doing a deep bow to Whiplash’s writer-director, Damien Chazelle. “This character was absolutely all there on the page, and I felt 100% certain all I had to do was to lift it off to the best of my ability and not get in the way of what Damien had written.”

He recalled the review that sent him spinning into an acting career for more of the same. It was for a non-Equity production of Once Upon a Mattress in Seattle—he had the Jack Gilford role—and a critic said, “J.K. Simmons creates a good share of joy.”

“I think that’s what we all try to do,” Simmons said. “Sometimes it’s not quite so obvious that the joy is the emotion we’re after, but there is joy in the variety of emotions that we all try to build, and we’re celebrating that tonight.”

The boy of Boyhood—Ellar Coltrane, now a strapping lad of 20—did the intro for the year’s Best Supporting Actress, his much-married onscreen mom, Patricia Arquette. She came to the podium (very un-mom-like, Scotch in hand) and launched into a lengthy, largely inaudible monologue that seemed to salute moms everywhere. “Thanks for your childhood—and your chickenpox,” she told her young co-star.

The Best Actress winner (for two films, James Gray’s The Immigrant and the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night), Marion Cotillard, came all the way from her native France to tell the gathering she never reads their work. “I just feel it’s healthier to avoid reading things about myself,” she explained. Nevertheless, she does pick up encouraging drips and drabs from publicists and underlings, and “I must confess, it is fulfilling to hear the voices of people who love movies as much as us actors do” Later, Cotillard returned to the awards podium to present the Best Cinematography prize to the man who photographed her in The Immigrant, Darius Khondji.

Timothy Spall, much leaner and less meaner than he was in Sweeney Todd and the Harry Potter movies, cleaned up quite well for the occasion, looking startlingly spiffy in a smart three-piece suit—quite a turnaround from his Best Actor award-winning performance in Mr. Turner (a.k.a. J.M.W. Turner, the celebrated 19th-century British painter whose delicate brushstrokes contrasted sharply with his personal crudeness).

“Mike Leigh is a genius, a true genius,” he said of the director who talked him into two years of painting classes prior to filming. It seemed to have paid off handsomely, with the Best Actor nod here and at Cannes and with the Golden Globes and Oscar on the horizon. “We all say that awards are not important, but, my God, when you get one, it’s just really, really fucking lovely,” he allowed. “I’m very, very, very touched, and I think it’s because in your career you get a lot of kicks in your ass—you get massive amounts of kicks in the ass—and sometimes you don’t work, and that’s worse than being ignored. We all know, as actors and directors and artists who rely on film collaboration, that not working is awful. At least if you’re a painter, you can paint. You can’t walk around the room acting. It’s embarrassing.”

Spall was presented the critics’ Best Actor award by John Lithgow, who described Spall as “a prime example of my favorite kind of actor—an actor who bravely, almost blindly puts his own singular qualities as a person to work in creating a character, resulting in work that is unconsciously, almost accidentally brilliant.”

Star-Ledger movie critic Stephen Whitty, who chaired the evening efficiently if not awfully swiftly, made the point that Spall was “absolutely in the tradition” of the critics’ first Best Actor choice, Charles Laughton, 80 years ago. (Indeed, Spall’s Turner is a discernible cross between Laughton’s Rembrandt and Quasimodo.) Laughton was cited for two widely disparate films—Ruggles of Red Gap and Mutiny on the Bounty—and the Best Actress pick, Greta Garbo (for Anna Karenina), was a no-show.

Wallace Shawn, the character actor-comedian and playwright, presented the Best Documentary trophy to Laura Poitras’ film on CIA secret-leaker Edward Snowden, Citizenfour, a picture which he described as “a marvelous film about a marvelous man.” Poitras softened that a bit: “What motivates us as documentary filmmakers isn’t the politics, but to express something about what we see and about humanity.”

Jennifer Kent, the Australian who copped the Best First Film prize for The Babadook, couldn’t attend, and her award was accepted by Rose McGowan, an actress/newly turned director who was dressed to rebel. Pissed that only six percent of directors are women, she slammed this on the table: “When they say the box office is down, perhaps it’s because you’ve done one too many fucking superhero movies.”

As the show windily crawled toward the three-hour mark, even Whitty had to admit the evening was starting to seem 80 years old. But, at the outset, he gave free rein to all speakers—presenters and presented alike—and that was license to kill time.

“The humorous remarks are about to start again,” quipped a dead-on, deadpan Nick Offerman as he presented Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the two young zanies who masterminded and manipulated his voice work as Metal Beard in The Lego Movie. The assembled critics called it the year’s Best Animated Feature. Offerman described it as “a brain-melting mindfuck of an anti-establishment film.”

Lord and Miller tag-teamed their thanks (mostly gags) and left the stage, citations waving, with “This is the most fun I think I’ve ever had at an Asian restaurant.”

The critics presented a special award to someone not in the direct ebb and flow of film—Adrienne Mancia, a Museum of Modern Art curator from 1964 to 1998. “She brought art to the masses and the masses to the museum,” said her longtime colleague, Mary Corliss. “Adrienne opened the eyes of America to world cinema.”

That was seconded by Bill Murray, in a rare public appearance. “Adrienne said, ‘I never showed anyone’s films in MoMA who was either a friend or a lover,’” he noted, adding after an especially emphatic pause, “None of my films are at MoMA.”

Paul Schrader, who scripted Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for Martin Scorsese and directed American Gigolo and Affliction, flashed some wit when he stepped up to present Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski the Best Foreign-Language Film prize for Ida. “Where’s Armond White when we need him?” he cracked about the critic who was drummed out of the organization last year for conduct allegedly unbecoming a critic.

Where he was, was in The Hollywood Reporter hurling thunderbolts at the group from a guest-column perch, calling them “celebrity-worshipping awards-givers”—a description that Whitty negated by pretending to embrace it in his opening remarks.

Whitty also got off a nice shot at the rival film group that, for the first time in years, didn’t post their award-winners before the NYFCC: “We’re not the National Board of Review because we’re actually a board of reviewers,” the chairman declared. “I don’t know who those people are. I don’t know anyone who has actually met one.”