If not for the critics, 'Hurt Locker' might have been just another Iraq War drama that died at the box office and was forgotten by last July. Instead, critics kept talking about the movie, praising it and giving it their own awards, until Oscar voting season began and Academy voters were forced to take notice. One group of people that the 'Hurt Locker' filmmakers might have thanked for their Oscar victories: the nation's film critics.
If not for the critics, 'Hurt Locker' might have been just another Iraq War drama that died at the box office and was forgotten by last July. Instead, critics kept talking about the movie, praising it and giving it their own awards, until Oscar voting season began and Academy voters were forced to take notice.
Most of the other films that made Oscar's shortlist this year had strong critical support as well (including 'Inglourious Basterds,' 'Up in the Air,' 'District 9,' 'Up' and, yes, 'Avatar'), but they also had skillful and lavish marketing campaigns and big box-office returns to garner attention. 'Hurt Locker' had only the championing of film critics.
In fact, some film critics had been touting the movie long before its theatrical release, going back as far as its appearance at the Venice Film Festival in fall 2008. By December 2009, however, critics were still awestruck by the film and made a point of saying so with their year-end awards. Early conventional wisdom among industry watchers suggested that the films to beat would be 'Up in the Air,' 'Invictus,' 'An Education' and 'A Serious Man.' But then, a dozen critics' groups, including the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle, named 'Hurt Locker' the best picture of 2009. Even more groups (at least 18) named Kathryn Bigelow best director. By the time of the Golden Globes in January, the critics had shifted the playing field in favor of 'Hurt Locker.'
So that's a year and a half of pushing the film, despite its meager grosses and long absences from theaters, into the winner's circle.
Critics were also instrumental in the Oscar success of 'Precious,' having touted it throughout the long months between its crowd-pleasing debut at Sundance last January and its theatrical release in November, and praising eventual Oscar-winner Mo'Nique's astonishingly powerful performance at a time when 'Up in the Air's' Vera Farmiga was thought to be the favorite for Best Supporting Actress. And early critical support for Jeff Bridges' performance in 'Crazy Heart' convinced Fox Searchlight to release it in time for this year's Oscars, enabling Bridges' Oscar win.
It's often argued these days that professional movie critics have all but outlived their usefulness. Newspapers are laying them off left and right, studios are bypassing them by opening genre movies without advance screenings for reviewers and the Internet has made it possible for anyone who can type to publish movie reviews. Plus, critics are supposedly elitist snobs who are out of step with popular taste, which in turn, makes the Oscars seem irrelevant for honoring obscure, art-house films few moviegoers have seen.
Certainly, critics have no impact on movies with megabudget marketing campaigns (such as 'Avatar' -- though most critics liked James Cameron's epic -- or 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,' which most critics loathed). But they can help direct moviegoers to worthy films that they otherwise wouldn't know about. Sure, the Oscars could recognize 'Avatar' (and did, in several categories), but 'Avatar' doesn't need anyone's help to sell tickets. And they could become the People's Choice Awards and recognize 'Transformers,' but they would no longer be about recognizing achievements in anything other than marketing and merchandising, and they would lose their prestige and credibility, which come from the notion that the Academy recognizes what is best and not merely what is most popular.
The industry doesn't favor those kinds of movies, at least not anymore. The art-house market is all but dead, and mainstream studios are no longer interested in making mid-budget movies for grown-ups (that is, dramas of the sort that rely on strong writing and acting and that win Oscars) because there's not as much money in them as there is in making cheap genre films (horror movies, teen comedies) or expensive 3-D blockbusters. So when award-worthy films do slip through the cracks in a system that is no longer interested in producing or marketing such movies, someone has to discover them and point audiences in their direction for them to thrive. That's what critics can still do that no one else can.
Now, thanks to recognition from critics that led to recognition from Oscar voters, a lot more people will see 'Crazy Heart' in theaters (where they are already seeing 'Precious') and rent 'Hurt Locker' on DVD. Before November, few filmgoers might have heard of these movies; now, they're household names. So critics have done their jobs, wielded the one tool of influence that they still possess, and turned a worthwhile but largely unseen movie into a star.