New York Film Critics: A Perfect Score for Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow's thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln' draw first blood in the year-end awards campaign

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Columbia Pictures

The war-on-terror movie beat the Civil War movie at the 78th New York Film Critics Circle Awards on Monday. And in the earliest of a few dozen year-end announcements from critics’ groups, some other late-year favorites — Argo, Les Misérables, Life of PiThe Master, Silver Linings Playbook — got lost in the war cloud of enthusiasm for the top two finishers.

Zero Dark Thirty, the scrupulous docudrama about one CIA analyst’s search for Osama bin Laden, was named Best Film by this venerable group of 33 reviewers (including me) for Gotham-based newspapers, magazines and websites. The NYFCC also cited ZDT’s Kathryn Bigelow as Best Director and Grieg Fraser for Best Cinematography. Lincoln, which dramatizes the push to pass anti-slavery legislation in the last months of the War Between the States, won awards for Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln), Supporting Actress (Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln) and Screenplay (by playwright Tony Kushner).

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Zero Dark Thirty)

Those two films won half of the dozen categories that the NYFCC voted on. Rachel Weisz was named Best Actress as the doomed adulteress in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea. Matthew McConaughey was chosen as Best Supporting Actor — a kind of Independent Spirit blessing on the Hollywood star — for Magic Mike and Bernie. (Killer Joe, in which McConaughey did the best work of his career, was not cited because his role is a lead.) Michael Haneke’s Amour won Best Foreign Language Film, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie took the Best Animated Feature award, and Ken Burns’ The Central Park Five was the favored Non-Fiction Feature. The prize for Best First Feature, which now can go to a novice film director in any category, was given to David France’s ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague, which displaced Benh Zeitlin’s front-running Beasts of the Southern Wild — exactly the kind of imaginative, calling-card debut the award was designed to honor.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of The Deep Blue Sea)

Outsiders may imagine that these conclaves are marked by contentious, principled debates like the ones Tommy Lee Jones’ character led over the 13th Amendment. Actually, they’re more like after-school detention for overage misbehavers. On Monday, trapped in an airless Lincoln Center bunker suitable for waterboarding, the members spent five hours scribbling names and film titles on scraps of paper and listening as Time Out New York’s Joshua Rothkopf, our placid, efficient chairman, read out each ballot. Then we waited while the votes were tabulated. Twelve times.

Attending to our Scrooge & Marley duties for longer than it would take to sit through a double feature of the big winners (or Les Misérables and Django Unchained), some members turned addled or puckish. One ballot for Best Director listed “Spielberg, Soderbergh, Peter Berg” — the directors of Lincoln, Magic Mike and Battleship. Another voter, meaning to honor Zero Dark Thirty, instead listed the 1979 football movie North Dallas Forty.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Lincoln)

We are sworn, under penalty of gelding, not to reveal the runners-up for fear of encouraging movie publicists and other riffraff. But I will say that in four of the categories, the process went to a fourth ballot, wherein members are obliged to vote for three of the five finalists and surprises abound. That’s how Weisz, a dark horse among such Oscar-touted golden girls as Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence, advanced to take Best Actress; how Field overtook the likes of Anne Hathaway, Amy Adams and Judi Dench; and how The Central Park Five, a sympathetic study of young black males unjustly convicted of killing a white woman, triumphed in the Non-Fiction Feature slot over the pop docs Searching for Sugarman and The Queen of Versailles.

(MORE: The Oscar Push for Silver Linings Playbook)

But enough inside sabermetrics. You want to know how the New York citations will tilt the coming Academy Awards campaign. At least the professional Oscar touters do. Some even predict the NYFCC prizes. The industry swamis at Gold Derby went 1 for 6 in the major categories: they got Day-Lewis right but chose Lawrence for Best Actress and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master for Best Film, Director, Screenplay and Supporting Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

(MORE: TIME’s Review of The Master)

And when the awards were announced, some bloggers got huffy. “Many of their other choices raised eyebrows among cinephiles across the globe,” wrote Gregory Elwood on Kris Tapley’s site In Contention, who apparently took an instant, worldwide eyebrow poll before writing his piece. “Is throwing McConaughey’s charismatic work a bone worth dismissing Hoffman’s cinematic achievement?” he demanded; and on Weisz, “Is her turn in the league of Emmanuelle Riva’s work in Amour or Marion Cotillard’s in Rust and Bone?,” adding unnecessarily, “We think not.”

(MORE: TIME’s Review of Magic Mike)

Members of the group might be flattered or amused by the notice outsiders take of us. And because the NYFCC is the first major organization to announce its awards in the three-month Oscar season, some readers will make inferences and objections. But our job is not to set the morning line for the Academy Awards Sports Book. It’s to collate 33 opinions about 12 aspects of the year’s movies into an intelligible compromise. If Weisz’s performance in a little-seen film receives more attention because of her win, that’s fine. If Argo retains its predominance over Zero Dark Thirty as the Oscar voters’ CIA-hero choice, that’s O.K. too. The Academy picks its winners; we choose ours.

Except for How to Survive a Plague over Beasts of the Southern Wild as Best First Feature. That’s just ridiculous.