Top New York Film Critics Speak at Reel Montclair: Academy Award Edition

By Julia Siegel, Contributing Writer

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Stephen Whitty (left), Stephanie Zacharek (middle left), Matt Singer (middle right) and Alison Bailes (right) discuss this year’s academy award nominations and what it takes to become a film critic. Julia Siegel | The Montclarion
Stephen Whitty (left), Stephanie Zacharek (middle left), Matt Singer (middle right) and Alison Bailes (right) discuss this year’s academy award nominations and what it takes to become a film critic.
Julia Siegel | The Montclarion

The New York Film Critics Series and the Film Institute at Montclair State University teamed up on Tuesday, Feb. 14 to present Reel Montclair: Academy Award Edition at Leshowitz Hall. The event brought New York Daily News and The Star-Ledger film critic Stephen Whitty, Time magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek, WOR 710AM and Sirius XM film critic Alison Bailes,and editor-in-chief and film critic of ScreenCrush.com Matt Singer together to discuss the Academy Awards and what it takes to be a film critic. The panel discussion was moderated by Whitty and recorded as a special episode of Carpe Diem.

The discussion started off with a look inside the life of a film critic. The critics mentioned that, when reviewing a film, they look at the emotions of the actors, intentions of the filmmaker, storytelling, editing, camera work and then are honest about their feelings for the film. Singer said that, no matter how you feel about a film, a critic “shouldn’t couch those feelings based on the reception it will get.” Singer went on to say that, “I wish I could see every movie twice [before writing a review].” All of the critics agreed that they catch more of the little nuances the second time through and would prefer to watch a film twice prior to writing about it. Whitty agreed that it is “a wonderful luxury if you can do that.”

Each of the critics delved into how it is tougher to review mediocre films that you do not have any passion for because it is hard to find words to describe not feeling anything, which I completely agreed with as an aspiring film critic.

Zacharek said that she prefers to write about the “smaller pictures” (i.e. independent films) because she tends to enjoy them more and wants to make the public more aware of good filmmaking. Singer echoed that the Academy Awards are a great way to get a chance to write about smaller films that are either nominated or snubbed, which can help bring them to light with audiences.

As for this year’s Academy Awards nominees, the critics were, for the most part, in agreement about who will take home the golden statues on Feb. 26. In addition, they all agreed that Annette Bening was snubbed of a nomination for Best Lead Actress in 20th Century Women and would have preferred Bening to be nominated over Natalie Portman.

Bailes made a case for Sully’s Tom Hanks over Andrew Garfield for Best Lead Actor. Whitty felt that Hanks and Bening were forgotten because they gave quieter performances that lacked showstopper moments. Bailes also thought that the Best Lead Actress category could easily have extended to include more than five actresses and cited that Bening, Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) and Amy Adams (Arrival) all deserved nominations.

The critics also made their predictions for the major categories. For Best Original Screenplay, they were leaning toward Manchester by the Sea, but not everyone agreed on Best Adapted Screenplay. Bailes discussed why Fences deserved to win, but was opposed by Zacharek, who made a case for Hidden Figures.

The panel was less divided on the acting categories. They all agreed that the most up-in-the-air category is Best Lead Actor and that Denzel Washington has an edge over Casey Affleck at the moment after his SAG Award win. Everyone also agreed that Emma Stone will be taking home the Best Lead Actress statue for her light-hearted role in La La Land.

Bailes and Singer said that Mahershala Ali is a lock for the Best Supporting Actor category, even though Whitty preferred Jeff Bridges or Michael Shannon. Interestingly, all four critics agreed that Viola Davis will win the Best Supporting Actress category, but feel that Michelle Williams deserves the trophy. Whitty especially preferred Williams’ small role with the scene where she is sick in bed with a head cold being his favorite. There was an agreement that it is not quite fair for Williams, who has three or four scenes in Manchester by the Sea, to be up against Davis, who was in a vast majority of the scenes in Fences.

Unsurprisingly, there were split opinions on Best Director. Singer and Bailes sung praises for Damien Chazelle’s work on La La Land, while Zacharek was hoping for Barry Jenkins to upset for his work on Moonlight.

Bailes said, “La La Land is a great director’s film. It’s outstanding with what [Chazelle] did with this film.”

Lastly, the critics feel that La La Land will be awarded with Best Picture. They all enjoyed the eclectic, diverse group of films nominated this year that are not typical “Oscar movies.”

Who will actually take home the gold from the Academy is still uncertain, but the Academy Awards are sure to be an interesting show again.

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