Looking back on six great years at In Contention
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.