I've had several weeks to draft this piece, and several drafts it has taken, but the introduction is always the hardest part – the part where the bittersweet reason for breaking from our daily programming has to be announced. So let's lead with the good news: I'm excited to announce that my three-year relationship with Variety is growing into something more permanent and prominent – starting this month, I will be contributing regularly to the trade paper, both as a film critic and a features writer. The bad news you may have guessed: this means my time at In Contention has come to an affectionate close.
Greg Ellwood expressly asked me not to make this a farewell note, and he's right: nobody's disappearing. Readers who wish to follow my writing will still be able to do so at a number of outlets; on the reverse track, I will remain an avid reader at HitFix. Still, after six productive years alongside Kris at In Contention, it will feel strange not to be providing the content at the site I firmly (if none-too-objectively) believe remains the best in the awards-coverage racket. In Contention has grown and changed substantively since I came on board in the spring of 2008, and not just through joining the HitFix umbrella nearly three years ago. Yet its clear-eyed editorial approach and active engagement with its audience have remained constant.
Proud as I am to have been a part of that, those were characteristics I admired about the site before my time there. It's why I sent Kris a tentative email when he put out a call for new contributors at the end of the 2007 awards season. (To jog your memory, the Coens, Marion Cotillard and Tilda Swinton were among those clutching their new golden toys. Daniel Day-Lewis had just won another. The more things change, eh?) I wasn't a published film writer in any forum. Rather, I'd spent the last couple of years temping, doing odd screenwriting jobs and poring over my own feature script. My criticism was confined to journals and diaries. Nevertheless, I asked, would it be useful to Kris to have someone pitch in occasionally from London? Slightly to my surprise, he thought it would.
I joined In Contention in March. The next month, I wrote my first review for the site: somewhat auspiciously, it was of Mike Leigh's “Happy-Go-Lucky,” a film I initially underestimated before it crept up in my affections, eventually placing in my Top 10 of that year. People said nice things; I was still somewhat bemused that my thoughts on a particular artwork were of interest to total strangers. It's a curiosity of film reviewing that never really goes away, even as your readership grows more familiar and more loyal. It's a lot to ask of a person, placing stock (and valuable reading minutes) in your opinion, whether they agree with it or not.
Reviews were a pretty infrequent business for me until we began hitting the film festival circuit – a cinephile's playground that never loses its sense of pleasure or privilege, and one I'd long dreamed of entering before In Contention gave me the wherewithal to do so. We started small, but not that small: it was our good fortune that the London Film Festival opened with the world premiere of future Best Picture nominee “Frost/Nixon” that year, and my tepid review gave me my first real taste of the blogosphere's biteback. I remember the film more fondly than I should – more than I should at all – as a result.
From there, we moved further afield to Edinburgh – a happy hunting ground that year, where I got my first glimpse of “The Hurt Locker,” “Fish Tank” and “Antichrist” – and then to Venice, which has remained foremost in my festival-related affections ever since. Let's say we got off on the right foot: an 8:30am screening of my beloved “White Material” (pictured above) and a nighttime wander through the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, shut down for a Todd Haynes-hosted dinner, are ones for the all-time memory bank. It was there, if I hadn't realized it before, that the good fortune of being able to consume art for a living was most emphatically underlined to me.
Berlin followed in 2010 – unearthing my favorite of that year, “The Illusionist,” as early as February – before we finally cracked Cannes. It's a circus as exhilarating as it is exasperating, first time or, I should imagine, fiftieth. I bought my penguin suit, accepted my lowly yellow press pass with a smile, and hoped for the best. I got it. Somehow scoring a ticket to the red-carpet screening of “Certified Copy” (my second look at Kiarostami's metaphysical marvel in as many days), sneaking a backward glance as I reached the top of the famous Lumière stairs and seeing Juliette Binoche beginning her own ascent, I allowed myself to get starstruck – not just by the star, but by the festival, the moment, the improbable circumstances that had put me there.
Reviews were just one side of things, of course. In Contention enabled me to interview personal heroes, and better yet, taught me to do so without quivering. A pinch of wonder remains, as I think it must: the day I'm not internally knotted over speaking to, say, David Cronenberg is the day I'll find a new line of work. Good interviews burn in my mind as brightly as good movies, be it a chatty Mayfair lunch with Patricia Clarkson or a melancholy phoner from Paris with Emmanuelle Riva. I fondly remember my first interview, with Eddie Marsan, over a pint in his local Turnham Green pub – he professed to being as unused to the practice as I was.
Then there were the articles in all other shapes and forms: the Top 10 lists, the Long Shot columns, the Page to Screen series, the awards predictions, the daily fill of newsy bits and bobs. I don't know how many thousand words I've written for In Contention since 2008, and I don't know how many of those are worth saving, but every one has contributed to a style that I hope is recognizably mine, wherever it lives in the future. In Contention gave me as free and generous a platform as any rookie film writer could ask for – through Kris' patient and open-minded editorship, but also through the ever-vocal, ever-inquisitive response of an engaged readership.
If I've become a better writer over the last six years, it's because I haven't been writing into a void: a voice cannot develop without conversation, after all. So here's my chance to thank you for being good readers, whether you've been with us from the modest blog days, or joined us in the shinier post-HitFix era. Some of you have enjoyed my work, others I know have not: either way, I've gained much from your interaction, support and frequent debate on these pages.
While watching Spike Jonze's “Her” last year, it occurred to me that the film's kinda-sorta-sci-fi premise wasn't so very futuristic or fantastical after all: the relationships formed with steadfast commenters, most of whose faces (or real names, even) I will never know, seem no less real than the bond Theodore Twombly forges with his formless OS. The internet, it seems, has changed the way most writers respond to their readers, whether on journalistic outlets, personal online diaries or social media. (Yet another item on the long list of things I owe to Kris: he was the one who persuaded me to most reluctantly join Twitter. Thanks. I think.) So much distance has been shortened in that relationship: a reader can follow a writer from one forum to another in the space of a click. It's yet another reason why this needn't be a goodbye.
With that, then, the other two obvious thank-yous. To Kris, of course, to whom I've already expressed my lifelong appreciation for his friendship, encouragement and every advantage given me by In Contention – my new employers would never have been paying attention in the first place if you didn't do what you do so well. And to Greg and the happily extended HitFix family, who secured us a bigger audience and have done so much to help us raise our game accordingly – I'm eager to see how In Contention continues to adapt and evolve from season to season.
You'll see my byline at least once more on the website: I have one more interview up my sleeve, stored up for next week. That it's with the stars and directors of Sundance hit “Land Ho!,” the kind of fresh independent work that I've tried to champion in my time here, makes it feel as sweet a note to go out on as any. Beyond that, look for me at my new Variety home (as well my weekly column at The Observer, among other gigs made possible by In Contention) and, of course, Twitter. “Don't be a stranger” feels an odd thing to say to uncounted readers on the internet; it's to your credit that it feels appropriate here.