Critics' darlings: Less monogamy

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NEW YORK -- As I write this, the New York Film Critics Circle is a few hours away from handing out its awards at a downtown Manhattan restaurant.

The Gothamites will be toasting "Milk" (though hopefully not with milk) as their best film. The L.A. Critics next week will raise their glasses to their surprise choice, "WALL-E." And the National Society of Film Critics voted Saturday to fete "Waltz With Bashir." All this comes as regional groups from Dallas, Phoenix and San Diego coalesce around "Slumdog Millionaire."

The old joke has it that two critics yield three opinions. Now they yield three (or more) genres. What looked like a developing consensus around "Slumdog" -- the kind of movie, like "No Country for Old Men" last year, that offers both crowd-pleasing elements and bestows cred -- has given way to choices further afield, at least from the higher-profile groups.

There's a nice unpredictability to where the critics are going this year. This will mark only the second time in six years that the New York, L.A. and National Society of Critics chose a different movie. THR's six regular film reviewers each chose a different film as their favorite. The Boston critics were so divided -- um, enamored of the many choices -- that it made the rare move of naming two films as best picture.

The media and industry tend to infer from this a diversity of quality -- "a wide-open race," in Oscar parlance. And sure, strong pics now come from many quarters as studios trust their biggest projects to such visionary directors as Chris Nolan and Andrew Stanton.

But almost as interesting as what this diversity says about the films is what it means for critics.

There used to be a sense that movies were divided into critical favorites and commercial ones, and the gulf ran wide. Awards movies sat in the middle; they tended to the former but didn't necessarily end up there. The L.A. Film Critics and the Academy, for instance, haven't agreed on a best picture since 1993.

With this gulf in place, many critics were determinedly obscure. One magazine critic used to call it the Revenge Theory -- that is, after being forced to review too many commercial blockbusters nine months out of the year, they had their revenge the last three months with esoteric choices.

But it's getting harder to advance that theory. Yes, "Silent Light," "Secrets of the Grain" and the like make many lists. But such movies as "The Dark Knight" and "WALL-E" are increasingly there too; in fact, it's the first time in recent memory two movies from the year's boxoffice top five also ended up on many lists.

Even the phrase "critical darling" is turning into a misnomer, since many of those darlings are now also commercial ones. Your mother-in-law is as likely to love "Slumdog" as the critics do.

Critics' willingness to recognize those movies -- and not just difficult or low-earning ones -- is a good thing. But it's also a slippery slope. This year, a well-placed "WALL-E" or "Dark Knight" gives a list a refreshing dash of eclecticism.

Too much of it, though, could be dangerous -- not because the movies aren't strong but because it could create the perception that critics are merely ratifying what the public has already decided. That might not be critics' primary concern when they're making aesthetic choices, but it might be the result.

And in a time when reviewers' ranks are diminishing and their influence, at least for certain films, faces erosion from bloggers and fan sites, that's a risk to be mindful of.

Critics have been privately having a version of this affirmative-action debate for years. There's a backlash to a popular film, then a backlash to that backlash. The results this year were pleasantly diverse. But here's hoping that it doesn't tilt too far in that direction. Because sometimes, when everyone is following the slumdogs, it's good to do your own waltz.
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