Casey at the Bat: Affleck goads Edelstein at New York Film Critics awards gala

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David Edelstein, film critic for New York magazine, is known for picking his words well, and indeed he came up with some swell twists and turns of phrases to emcee the New York Film Critics Circle’s 82nd awards ceremony Jan. 3 at Tao Downtown in Manhattan.

But his funniest material was delivered by Best Actor winner Casey Affleck, who, in accepting his prize for Manchester by the Sea, pulled out a laundry list of unhappy verdicts on his acting, all rendered by Edelstein, and, in effect, dumped a cauldron of scolding quotes back on their source—the up-to-then-jovial host.

• “Affleck, though likable, doesn’t have a lot of variety and resorts to chew gum to give his character through-lines.”

• “Affleck’s line readings would be too mumbly and mulish even for the glory days of ’50s Method momma’s boys, and he might as well be wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Shoot me.’ Fortunately, he’s not the lead.”

• “It’s looking like whenever I see Affleck’s name in a movie’s credits, you can expect a standard, genre B-picture—slowed down and tarted up.”

• “Affleck hasn’t been this mannered, and frankly annoying, since The Assassination of Jesse James [which garnered Affleck an Oscar nomination].”

• “Mr. Affleck mutters incoherently in a voice pitched too low for even a dog to hear.”

The actor, who wears personal pain like a flag in his new film, started slow before launching his toxic comeback, thanking Amy Ryan for her glowing intro and telling her how much he appreciated the kind words. “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me, including my mother,” he said. “I’d like a copy of that, if you have it.”

Then he lowered the boom and gave Edelstein a taste of his own castor oil.  

The whole room loved this self-depreciating symphony—well, maybe not the whole room. It definitely threw Edelstein off his game, and he tried to recover lost ground with a few puny potshots at Affleck, who wound down nicely from his hilarious high with a calming coda. “How,” he asked the critical community in front of him, “does one survive such scathing, and often accurate, criticism? Well, truth is, there’s never really been anything so horrible said about me that I haven’t either thought of or said to myself.”

Ironically, let the record show that Affleck’s anguished performance in Manchester by the Sea placed seven on Edelstein’s Top Ten Movie Performances of the year, and, in his actual review of the picture (which did not make his top ten), the critic wrote, “Affleck proves he can convey suffering as well as any actor alive.”

A professional comedian, Trevor Noah from “The Daily Show,” also provided some bright spots, presenting the award for Best Nonfiction Film to Ezra Edelman for ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America. “For me,” he said, “the best documentaries are a lot like sex: They’ll shock you, they’ll excite you and leave you thinking about yourself and the world you live in, in a completely different way. The film, O.J.: Made in America, was no [different] for me. If you haven’t watch that film a lot, then you haven’t watched the story of America. It’s also some of the best sex I’ve ever had… This epic story touches on so many themes: domestic abuse, police brutality, obsession with fame in America, race relations—issues that, thankfully, no longer plague America, but still…”

Another comedy pro, Robert Klein, showed up to pass out the Best Animated Film to Zootopia. “It’s a far cry from Porky Pig,” he found. After he left the stage, Klein revealed that in late March he would be the subject of a Starz documentary, made by one of those card-carrying New York Film Critics, Marshall Fine.

Thelma Schoonmaker, who would have made a great character comedienne of the Doris Roberts school had she not become the reigning queen of film editors, seemed profoundly moved accepting a long-overdue honorary award—on her 77th birthday.

(It was also the birthday (the 32nd) of Justin Paul, who, with his Dear Evan Hanson collaborator Benj Pasek, wrote lyrics to Justin Hurwitz’s music in La La Land. The two flew in from the La La Land set of their second film, The Greatest Showman, the P.T. Barnum bio-musical that they are writing for Hugh Jackman.)

Schoonmaker was introduced to the NYFCC award-givers by the latest star to benefit from her clip-clips: Adam Driver of Silence, the most recent of the 23 features/documentaries that she has done with, and for, director Martin Scorsese.

“I’m thrilled you are honoring what some call ‘the mysterious craft of film editing,’” she said. “You would have to sit in the editing room with us for months to really understand how editing works—and you would probably find it very boring as we go back and forth, back and forth, over the same material, but I think that it is the greatest job in the world, making hundreds of creative decisions every day: taking raw footage, molding and shaping it as it comes from the set, creating the pace and rhythm in a movie, building to climaxes, sometimes changing the structure, fine-tuning and strengthening the actors’ performances… It’s so exciting.”

While not as tardy as Schoonmaker’s, the special award the critics presented to Julie Dash came at the time of the 25th-anniversary restoration of her Daughters of the Dust, the first widely distributed feature directed by an African-American female.

Although no fanfare was made of the fact, Barry Jenkins became the critics’ first African-American Best Director. His Moonlight also won their nod for Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and Best Cinematography (James Laxton).

The 37 members who constitute the Critics Circle couldn’t agree on what was the Best First Film, so the award was split between The Edge of Seventeen and Krisha.

Both actresses honored by the New York Film Critics—Best and Best Supporting—were each cited for two film performances. “I feel like I have twins tonight—two films,” said the Best, Isabelle Huppert, proud to find herself in the same category as the first NYFCC Best Actress, Greta Garbo, back in 1935. She was feted for Elle and Things to Come.

Michelle Williams, the Best Supporting, who was honored for Manchester by the Sea and Certain Women, thanked her hometown critics for their candor: “You’re not afraid to tell me what you think of me when I’m winning and when I’m losing, so tonight I’m just really happy and exhausted and relieved to be nothing but at home.”

Presenting Williams her award, fittingly enough, was her Manchester writer-director, Kenneth Lonergan, who considered her “chameleon-[like], a character actress in a leading lady’s body,” which set off some silly Tweeter flutter. But Mark Ruffalo took that compliment and flung it back at Lonergan, calling him “a great character writer,” when he presented Lonergan the Best Screenplay prize.

Lonergan and Ruffalo met doing a play in L.A. and New York called This Is Our Youth. That was their youth 27 years ago, and Ruffalo went on to distinguish Lonergan’s two previous films, You Can Count on Me and Margaret. “There seems to be some contention about whether Kenny made me or I made him,” he remarked. “He reminds me of that every single time we’re in negotiations on a movie, but I think it’s settled here tonight who made Kenny Lonergan, and that’s Casey Affleck.”

Ruffalo—a Critics’ choice for 2011’s The Kids Are All Right—recognized, and commented on, the wall-to-wall genuineness of the room. “It’s so off-the-cuff and so sincere,” he said, dryly adding, “The actors haven’t polished their Academy speech yet, and it’s really fresh—and so, when they win, it’s really sweet to see them win.”

Huppert was introduced by John Turturro, who, off-podium, said 1) he won’t be doing the Broadway revival of The Price this spring—Ruffalo will do his role instead—because he’s deep in post-production with the movie he just directed and starred in, Going Places, and 2) yes, “we’ll see”—delivered with a Cheshire-Cat grin—to the pressing question of whether there’ll be a sequel to his super-acclaimed HBO miniseries, The Night of.

Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller presented her director, Maren Ade, the award for Best Foreign-Language Film, conspicuously accompanied by some tall eye-candy: a 10-foot-tall Bulgarian kukeri named Frank who’s in the film.

La La Land, which is said to be the Oscar front-runner, only got one award from the critics, but it was for Best Film. Before handing this prize to the musical’s director Damien Chazelle, Australian director Baz Luhrmann had some lovely things to say about this resuscitated movie genre, having stirred up some highly stylized dust himself 15 years ago with his Moulin Rouge musical.

“Of all the forms of cinema, nothing quite unifies audiences like the music cinema form,” Luhrmann insisted. “That’s the thing about that form: It can make the soul soar, it can make the heart sing, and it can just unify the world in a moment where you realize that no matter what’s going on out there, we’re all in it together. We’re all human beings… Mr. Chazelle has not only managed to find a language for this time, he’s found his own musical language, and in the two musical films he’s done, he’s also managed to make it personal. I think that is an incredible achievement.”

Chazelle, who will be turning The Big Three-Two himself on Jan. 19, also claimed, like a dutiful winner, NYC roots—but in a roundabout sort of way: “I grew up in New Jersey—that’s another way of saying I wish that I grew up in New York—and I basically spent my childhood taking the train into the city whenever I could [to see movies]… What I really wanted to do since as early as I can remember is make movies, and I learned by watching them. I learned by re-watching them in film retrospectives.”

His obvious love of movies goes back at least as far as 1927’s Seventh Heaven with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The ending of that ancient Oscar winner, he confessed, was his inspiration for his tricky, melancholy finish to La La Land.

 

The full list of winners:

Best Film: La La Land

Best Director: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Best Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert, Things to Come and Elle

Best Actor: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Best Supporting Actress: Michelle Williams, Certain Women andManchester by the Sea

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Best Foreign-Language Film: Toni Erdmann

Best Cinematography: James Laxton, Moonlight

Best Nonfiction Film: O.J.: Made in America

Best First Film (a tie): Krisha and The Edge of Seventeen

Best Animated Film: Zootopia

Special Awards: Editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust 25th Anniversary Restoration