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Throughout the 82nd New York Film Critics Circle Awards, which took place Tuesday night at the Tao Downtown restaurant, the most frequent subject of critical ire was President-elect Donald J. Trump. David Edelstein of New York magazine, who chairs the critics’ group, opened the evening by saying its aim was to celebrate “a few of the good things that happened during the shit-show of a year we just had.” Later, The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, while presenting the best documentary award to O.J.: Made in America, cracked that he thought we’d learned from the O.J. Simpson trial — until Trump’s election in November, which he called “another bad decision based on fame and race.” And other presenters like Robert Klein, Jonathan Demme and Baz Luhrmann, as well as some of the honorees — who were originally announced back on Dec. 1 — joined the anti-Trump chorus.
As for critical love, the group, which is comprised of 37 New York-based critics, spread it around, with key prizes going to Oscar frontrunners La La Land (best film), Moonlight (best director Barry Jenkins, supporting actor Mahershala Ali and cinematographer James Laxton) and Manchester by the Sea (best actor Casey Affleck, supporting actress Michelle Williams and original screenplay Kenneth Lonergan). Other winners included Isabelle Huppert for best actress, for both Elle and Things to Come; Zootopia for best animated film; Toni Erdmann for best foreign-language film; and both The Edge of Seventeen and Krisha for best first film.
A special award was given to veteran film editor Thelma Schoonmaker on the night of her 77th birthday; she has made 23 films with Martin Scorsese over the last half-century, including 2016’s Silence, which is why that film’s star Adam Driver honored her. And another special award was presented to Julie Dash on the 25th anniversary of her film Daughters of the Dust, the first ever directed by an African-American female filmmaker to receive wide distribution.
Some presentations got quite serious. Noah, after ripping Trump, said of O.J., “If you haven’t watched this film, you haven’t seen the story of America,” whereupon director Ezra Edelman accepted by quoting the late James Baldwin, who is the subject of perhaps his film’s chief competitor for the documentary Oscar, I Am Not Your Negro, which he heartily recommended.
Demme, meanwhile, cheered Jenkins for creating in Moonlight a “brilliant masterpiece” that “enters our heart and soul and takes root there.” And Jenkins, feteing Ali, said he was touched to see the film’s actor, not unlike his character, serve as a “father to all of those young men” on his film’s set.
Some of the presentations were rather zany. In handing out the Zootopia honor, Klein praised the animated film as “totally subversive, this movie — I’m gonna report it immediately to the Trump Administration,” and then forgot the names of those accepting the honor. And when actress Sandra Huller presented Toni Erdmann‘s prize to director Maren Ade, she was accompanied by the 10-foot tall hairy mascot that was featured in the film. “It was meant as a surprise to me, but I could smell him from far away,” the German filmmaker confessed.
The closest the evening came to controversy was when Lonergan, in introducing Williams (who was recognized for her work in both his film and Certain Women), called her “a character actress in a leading lady’s body,” which immediately provoked outrage on Twitter. But the people in the room clearly didn’t have a problem with Lonergan: Mark Ruffalo, in presenting the screenplay award, called his old friend and You Can Count On Me and Margaret collaborator “a great character writer” and “an absolute treasure to us, both in film and onstage.” And Affleck — after being hailed by his Gone Baby Gone co-star Amy Ryan for giving in Manchester “a masterwork of acting” that offered “a symphony of the human experience” and “shows acting as it can and should be” — called Lonergan “one of my heroes” and “my favorite living writer.” Affleck then brought down the house by reading past criticisms of his work that had been written by Edelstein.
The most eloquent speech of the night came from Damien Chazelle when he accepted, from Moulin Rouge! director Luhrmann, La La Land‘s best film prize. (The award itself was notable because critics from one coast rarely award their top honors to a film so closely associated with the rival coast.) Flanked by producers Marc Platt and Fred Berger, Chazelle spoke off-the-cuff about taking the train, as a kid, from his home in New Jersey into New York so that he could attend screenings of great films, often lured to them by New York’s critics. As fellow cineastes like Sony Classics’ Michael Barker (whose operation distributed Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash) looked on with appreciative smiles, he movingly explained how the ending of one such film, 1927’s Seventh Heaven, inspired not only the atypical ending of La La Land, but also his lifelong love of the magic of the movies and the power they possess to sweep us off our feet.
Afterwards, Edelstein took the stage one last time and closed the night by playfully stating, “I want to thank Casey Affleck for reminding us that our words have weight — though [Affleck’s 2013 film] Ain’t Them Bodies Saints really is an awful movie.” Williams looked aghast, but her co-star Affleck appeared to chuckle.
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