Big Apple Bash: ‘Carol’ wins big at New York Film Critics gala

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Saoirse Ronan, the Bronx-born Irish star of Brooklyn, claimed her roots on January 4 when she stepped up to claim her Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle at the ritzy TAO Downtown. “I’m one of you!” the 21-year-old trumpeted gleefully to a well-turned-out audience of reviewers, scribes and screen celebrities.

That was no malarkey, either. In 1994, her father was a Dublin actor filming The Devil’s Own on location in New York City when she was born, and the family stayed on in Woodlawn, Bronx, three years before returning to County Carlow, Ireland.

“‘Saoirse from the Block,’ is what they call me,” she kidded the crowd, referencing Jennifer Lopez’s song “Jenny from the Block.” “Now, go back to eating your dessert.”

Ronan had little doubt that that early start-stop immigrant experience helped to shape her prize-winning portrayal of Eilis Lacey, a young lass from southeast Ireland who immigrates to Brooklyn in 1952—only to be pulled back by her past, forcing her to choose between not only two different worlds but also two different suitors.

It’s a performance up for Golden Globe honors on Sunday, when Ronan will face some stiff competition from the Carol contingent—Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

Before then, on Friday, all three are expected to be among the contenders when the 2015 Academy Award nomination ballots come in. It wouldn’t be Ronan’s first time in Oscar contention. She was a 13-year-old Best Supporting Actress nominee for Atonement, playing the teenage years of a character portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave.

Monday night, Redgrave’s son-in-law, Liam Neeson, was the fellow Irishman who presented Ronan her critics’ prize (and a big hug). Another shared experience: He was in Broadway’s last revival of The Crucible; she‘s in the latest, bowing in March.

Carol was the big winner with the New York Film Critics this year. In fact, it was the group’s only multiple winner, taking in Best Picture, Best Director (Todd Haynes), Best Screenplay (Phyllis Nagy) and Best Cinematography (Edward Lachman).

Haynes and Lachman both won these categories before for 2002’s Far from Heaven, another high-gloss movie evoking the 1950s Imitation of Life style of Douglas Sirk. Their new effort is based on The Price of Salt, a romantic novel by Patricia Highsmith (best known for mysteries like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley), who saw fit to write under a pseudonym because of the then-dicey subject matter: an affair (also set in ’52) between an unhappy housewife and a Manhattan shop-girl.

Director Haynes was anything but blasé about his return visit to the winner’s circle. “This award has a very special meaning for me, coming as it does from film critics of this most seminal city,” he said. “I was born and raised in L.A., but it was New York that I fell in love with from my very first visit when I was nine years old. It was 1970. I can still feel the horse in the cab ride and the smell of those far dirtier, more pungent streets. Fifteen years later, it was New York where I first came into the world in the way you only really do after leaving home or school. So, in those years as a gay aspiring filmmaker, there was no choice to have—especially here. The times and the place demanded it. It demanded engagement. It demanded action, and action is what endowed my love of the medium and its history with a special force.

“It’s hard to imagine my career taking place outside of this place and those ties and without the attention my work has been given from the very start by its critics.”

The New York Film Critics Circle’s choice for 2015’s Best Actor, Michael Keaton in Spotlight, surprised some organizations—and even the film’s studio, which had submitted the whole cast to the Academy in the Supporting category rather than any one actor in Starring. This was in keeping with the “team spirit” of the film, which recites and celebrates the real-life drama of a group of Boston Globe investigative reporters unearthing the Catholic Church’s calculated cover-up of child-abuse cases.

Evidently, the NYFCC didn’t care for that kind of restriction and decided to throw their Best Actor trophy to Keaton, who, in a marginally larger role than the rest, spearheaded and orchestrated this Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation.

The always-dynamic Keaton (he’s been Birdman, Batman and Beetlejuice) indulged in a little low-key dirt-kicking when he accepted the award, heaping praise on his co-stars as well as on his director, Tom McCarthy, for keeping Spotlight so focused.

“Look, man, I’m a blessed dude,” he said with a helpless shrug. “I’ve had a nice life, y’know. I work hard. I deserve it. I’m OK with that. Took me a long time to get there.”

Another curve ball pitched by the New York critics was their Best Supporting Actress. They cited Kristen Stewart’s edgy depiction of a personal assistant for an aging movie actress (Juliette Binoche) in Clouds of Sils Maria. It won France’s Oscar (the César) almost a year ago, and she made a kind of history as the first American to win an acting award from the French Academy. The film didn’t reach these shores till April, but that was enough for Stewart to win supporting-actress nods from four other critics’ groups. The New York win should increase her Oscar-sleeper status.

The 25-year-old actress, who has been making movies since she was nine (45 in all, and 13 since Clouds of Sils Maria), came to prominence as a teen fave, playing Bella Swann in The Twilight Saga series—so getting a serious acting award, she noted, can really give a girl a jolt: “It means a lot for me to receive this from you, not the least because I’ve received a lot of MTV Popcorns, stuff like that. This is a little different.”

Mark Rylance, who has won two Tonys for starring performances and another for a supporting one (all these in the past five years), was too steeped in stage work to pick up his supporting award for Bridge of Spies, in which he played real-life KGB agent Rudolf Abel. David Hyde Pierce, who co-starred with him on Broadway and the London stage in La Bête, relayed Rylance’s remarks. “First of all,” began Pierce, “he’s so grateful to be getting an award for supporting actor. He said, ‘Leading actors are so rare. There are so few of them who can,’ as he puts it, ‘lead an audience through a moral quandary.’ He mentioned Tom Hanks as one of those few actors.”

Two of The Hateful Eight—Walton Goggins and Samuel L. Jackson—showed up to give-and-take the special award the critics voted to 87-year-old composer Ennio Morricone. Another special award went to the late William Becker and Janus Films.

The critics exercised a little wiggle room in order to honor two foreign-language films. Abderrahmane Sissako’s tale of a Jihadist takeover in Mali, Timbuktu, got Best Foreign-Language Film, and the Best First Film award went to Hungary’s Holocaust drama Son of Saul and its first-time filmmaker, 38-year-old László Nemes.

Pete Docter received the award for Best Animated Feature, and the 43rd documentary by veteran Frederick Wiseman was named Best Non-Fiction Film.

Marshall Fine, film and television critic for Star Magazine, presided over the NYFCC’s 81st annual awards ceremony. The parade of presenters included Nathan Lane, Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, writer-director Paul Haggis, Kevin Kline, George Takei, Tony Kushner and directors Bennett Miller and Jim Jarmusch.