It seems a long time ago that many breathless journos in Telluride and Toronto were predicting one film to rule them all when it came to year-end accolades: “12 Years a Slave,” we were told, was such a cast-iron critical phenomenon that every other film would have to consider itself unlucky to be released in its shadow. As we now know, things didn’t quite pan out that way: Steve McQueen’s formidable historical drama may have gobbled up an enviable amount of awards on the US critical circuit thus far, and is poised for a leading haul of Oscar nods, but the year-end discussion of the year’s best films has, happily, been far more malleable and wide-ranging than initially predicted.
I’m not referring mrely to the major-league critics’ awards, which have been democratically spread between the likes of “Her,” “Gravity” and “American Hustle.” But the proliferation of year-end polls and surveys, too, has revealed several other films for which critical passions run similarly deep.
This particularly came to my attention when, earlier this week, one film topped not just the prestigious Film Comment critics’ poll, but the similarly established and estimable Village Voice poll: Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film has, of course, been vastly acclaimed since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, but arguably not to the breathless extent of “12 Years a Slave” at Toronto, or even “Gravity” at Venice: it found hardly any detractors, but other films on the Croisette caused more of a sensation, eventual Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color” foremost among them.
Yet the Coens’ melancholy folk rumination has quietly endured in critics’ affections, getting second and third winds on the fall festival circuit, and yet another upon its opening in December. Perhaps the directors’ reliability was a factor at Cannes: few are surprised by another strong Coen Brothers film, so it doesn’t generate quite the level of chatter as other, more revelatory, highlights. Or maybe its plays best at home: it’s hardly surprising that the Village Voice crowd, to whom the film is essentially a bittersweet valentine, would name it the year’s best, or that another bastion of New York-based cinephilia, Film Comment, would do the same. (Coincidentally or otherwise, “Inside Llewyn Davis” tied for 22nd place in Sight & Sound’s more European-accented critics’ poll.)
Cross-referencing the Film Comment, Sight & Sound and Village Voice polls, with the more inclusive Indiewire critics’ poll for good measure, I was interested to see which films emerged as consensus favorites between them — and they weren’t necessarily the ones I expected. Differing release schedules may play a role, of course. I remain surprised that “12 Years a Slave” — ranked first, second and third by Indiewire, Film Comment and the Voice respectively — only tied for 14th with the Sight & Sound voters, and am sure an earlier UK release (it’s out next month) and more extensive press screenings might have bumped it up a few places.
I think it’s indicative, however, of the wealth of worthy releases this year, and the varied nature of the critical, conversation, that only four films placed in the top 10 of all four of those polls: Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” (which topped the S&S poll), Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” and Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha.” (Again, worth noting that all four of these films had been widely released in multiple regions by the beginning of November.)
Of those, only “Gravity” has received the kind of festival hype and headlines that, among other things, traditionally mints an awards contender. The others have been lower, slower burners: “The Act of Killing” and “Frances Ha” both debuted rather modestly on the festival circuit last year to approving but non-exclamatory notices, “Upstream Color” was an admiringly but quizzically received Sundance baby, and all three have been tirelessly championed by specialist critics and Twitterati ever since, without making much ofa dent on popular culture.
Of these four, of course, only “Gravity” shall receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination; “The Act of Killing” will receive documentary recognition if it’s lucky, “Frances Ha” can thank its lucky stars for a surprise Golden Globe nod and “Upstream Color” isn’t even eligible for the whole shebang. It goes without saying that critics and Academy voters live in very different worlds, but that’d be to imply that critics live in the same world. And given that “Frances Ha” and “Upstream Color” — consensus favorites if you believe the polls — have mostly been non-factors on the critics’ award circuit so far, that’s hardly true.
Meanwhile, add the equally prestigious but defiantly singular Cahiers du Cinema poll to the equation, and that list of four common Top 10 titles is reduced to just one: “Gravity.” What does it all mean? Not much, except that a good year for filmis ending with precisely as little consensus as it deserves.