What Role Do Critics’ Groups Play in Shaping Awards Season?

Twitter was abuzz Sunday with a mix of delight, confusion, and outrage as the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA) announced their Best Film of 2020 as Steve McQueen’s Small Axe. A collection of five separate films, Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White, and Blue, Alex Wheatle, and Education were released on Amazon Prime as a limited series. For LAFCA to reward it with the top prize was an exciting move that gave cinephiles plenty to talk about, while also reinvigorating the debate over whether McQueen’s anthology is really “a movie” or if it’s “television.”

We won’t be addressing that topic today. Other writers are hard at work on what to do with Small Axe, although the matter seems to have been settled by the director himself. Instead, let’s discuss the role critics’ groups can (and should) play when it comes to awards season.

There are many critics’ organizations around the world. Some are decades old, well established and highly respected. Exclusive clubs for writers at major publications and broadcast outlets, whose education and experience make them trusted resources in the industry. And others are newer regional groups of critics from lesser known outlets. Writers and podcasters who band together to provide opportunities for new and marginalized voices.

Some groups work year round to encourage a love of film and shine a light on filmmakers and projects that might otherwise be missed. This can take the form of influencing audiences to seek out independent or streaming movies that fall victim to our lightning fast news cycle. Critics and their organizations can also help put attention on specific performers or artisans, bringing attention to people who would otherwise be overlooked.

Their role in helping audiences connect with film is vital and exciting. But it can lead to some confusion and conflation about their role toward the end of the year. Critics’ groups do not vote for the Oscars and their importance in awards season prognostication can become muddled. Organizations like LAFCA or NYFCC are regarded as important stepping stones on the way to the Academy Awards, and often wins here do translate to nominations down the road. As we saw this weekend with LAFCA’s celebration of Small Axe, these members celebrate great art; the respect the industry has for them makes them seem like something of a barometer, although that is not their purpose.

Every year awards fandom focuses on a sort of pet project, a performer or a film they work to hard to champion toward Oscar glory. Recent examples include Tiffany Haddish for her breakout role in Girls Trip, Jennifer Lopez for Hustlers, and Adam Sandler for Uncut Cuts. It was exciting to watch these great stars receive recognition from such diverse groups around the world. It became a disappointing blow when nominations from critics didn’t translate to nominations from the Academy.

There could be any number of reasons why Adam Sandler didn’t receive that coveted nod in 2019. But it probably wasn’t because he just didn’t win enough acting prizes from critics. Likewise, some of the names we will hear over and over in 2020 will not be invited to the ceremony in April.

Does this mean critics don’t matter? Of course not. Which brings us back to why LAFCA’s Best Picture selection was so exciting. As LA Times writer Justin Chang wrote, Small Axe is “a best picture pick that I find by turns audacious and maddening, contradictory and inspired.” It was a celebration of a monumental cinematic achievement, and one that will continue to break down barriers as the world debates the unexpected choice. The members of LAFCA didn’t choose the anthology to try to convince anyone that it is or should be an Oscar contender. They chose it because it is a celebration of love, life, a tumultuous and changing world. They used their platform to draw attention to a beautiful work of art (or five) that are already available in millions of homes.

Awards from critics’ organizations are good. They can be fun and exciting and give us some great things to discuss. They should be used by cinephiles, casual viewers, and even the industry to find new films to watch, new artists to appreciate, new performances to admire. The role of the critics’ group is to celebrate and contextualize art. When we burden them with too much meaning, awards season can be a frustrating endeavor. When we allow them to simply champion great art, awards season is very entertaining.

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