Which movie critics really matter?

Which movie critics really matter?

Which movie critics really matter?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 29 2003 6:18 PM

Which Movie Critics Really Matter?

Year-end awards to heed and ignore.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The New York Film Critics Circle recently named Lord of the Rings: Return of the King as the best movie of 2003. The National Board of Review, meanwhile, opted for Mystic River, while the National Society of Film Critics has yet to reveal its choice. What's the difference between all the cinematic groups that dole out end-of-year awards, and which ones are best at prefiguring the Oscars?

The National Board of Review is perhaps the most curious of the lot, since it comprises "film professionals, educators, students, and historians" rather than working critics. The organization was founded in 1908, in response to a New York City mayor's efforts to shutter movie theaters on moral grounds. The board's solution was to create a seal-of-approval system, a forerunner to the ratings system now employed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Movies deemed morally upstanding were tagged with the on-screen graphic "Passed by the National Board of Review." But when the MPAA launched its own self-censorship in the 1920s, the board began to morph into a film appreciation society, publishing cineaste journals and hosting panel discussions. Membership is by invitation only, and the voters' names are kept anonymous—13 get full votes, and 90 others have a partial say.


The board is often confused with the National Society of Film Critics, which consists of 52 of the nation's most prestigious reviewers (including Slate's David Edelstein). The society is known for its intellectual tastes, and often opts for art-house and foreign fare in lieu of Hollywood epics. In 2000, for example, the group gave its best picture nod to the Taiwanese film Yi Yi: A One and a Two, while the Oscars chose the decidedly more mainstream Gladiator. The society's members include newspaper, magazine, and online journalists.

The society was actually founded in 1966 as an offshoot of the New York Film Critics Circle, which at the time didn't accept magazine writers in its ranks. The circle has been handing out hardware since 1935, when John Ford's The Informer earned best picture honors. Virtually all 34 members are New York-based print journalists, though a few write for publications with their headquarters elsewhere (such as the Christian Science Monitor's David Sterritt). A notable exception is Newsweek's David Ansen, who lives in Los Angeles despite writing for a New York-based magazine.

The most well-known Johnny-come-lately is the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, founded in 1975 and known for its populist bent. In 1977, for example, the association feted the box-office sensation Star Wars as its best picture, while virtually everyone else (including Oscar voters) went for Annie Hall. The 50 members include TV critics like Entertainment Tonight's Leonard Maltin, in addition to the usual suspects from the local newspapers—and, yes, David Ansen.

Every other big North American city worth its salt also seems to boast a critic's group—Toronto, San Francisco, and Chicago all have them. There's also the increasingly influential Broadcast Film Critics Association, which consists of 182 film critics who appear on local newscasts, cable, and in syndication. The BFCA has actually been on a hot streak as of late; over the past five years, it's beaten out the Golden Globes—not to mention the more prestigious critics' associations—in terms of how many of its winners wind up as Oscar nominees. (The Golden Globes, of course, are also awarded by a group of critics—the 94 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.)

In assessing predictive powers, the Web site OscarGuy.com gives the overall laurels to the Angelenos, whose winners in the major categories (picture, director, actor, actress, etc.) have gone on to win the equivalent Oscar 36.2 percent of the time. But the New York critics have an edge in terms of predicting best picture honorees: 42.2 percent of their choices go on to win Oscars, but only 28.8 percent of their cross-country rivals' snag that honor. The National Society of Film Critics has the worst overall record, with the Oscars following its lead just 16.3 percent of the time.