THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR when the various critics circles announce their arcane best picture candidates, a ritual that usually causes us to wring our hands or ask around to see if any living person actually belongs to the National Board of Review.

Anticipating the onslaught, I decided this year to assemble several Variety film critics, whose opinions I greatly admire, to solicit their reflections on the year’s fare.

What set this year apart?

As the critics dutifully filed into my office but remained standing around the conference table, I sensed one initial response to that question.

“My bottom’s sore,” explained one critic, who remained standing.

“It’s a lower back problem,” apologized another.

“I understand completely,” I reassured them. “All these three-hour movies like ‘Heat,’ ‘Casino,’ ‘Nixon.’ “

“Even ‘Sabrina’ was 2 hours and 15 minutes,” the normally unflappable Todd McCarthy observed. “But it was during ‘Nixon’ that I remembered Harry Cohn’s famous line that ‘My ass tells me when a movie is too long.’ That was what prompted one wag to complain that the whole world shouldn’t have to heed Harry Cohn’s ass.”

“It’s not just a question of length,” observed Leonard Klady, who under normal circumstances can be seen slumped in any chair that’s handy. “I was also disturbed by the ‘size’ of pictures — small stories being splayed across massive canvases. ‘Casino’ was a prize example.”

“Either way, this year was downright hemorrhoidal,” Brian Lowry said. “If movies get any longer, I expect to see merchandising tie-ins for Preparation H.”

I nodded sympathetically. “William Goldman said that this year’s movies were the worst since the invention of sound — anyone here agree?” I asked.

THERE WAS MUCH SHAKING OF HEADS. “The 1980s marked the low point,” said McCarthy. “It got so bad by the mid-’80s I couldn’t even fill out my 10-best list.”

“But we sure hit a bad streak in midyear 1995,” Lowry kicked in. “The week I saw ‘Scarlet Letter’ and ‘Showgirls’ back-to-back I almost found myself swearing off movies — that’s never happened to me before. Then things started to get better again.”

Noticing that my critics were shifting uneasily from one leg to another, I decided to move on.

“I thought you guys all made some terrific calls this year,” I offered, citing predictions of great success for several long-shots like “Babe.” “Any big surprises?”

“I thought ‘A Little Princess’ would find an audience,” Klady responded.

“I didn’t think ‘Dangerous Minds’ would do as well as it did,” said McCarthy. “Terrific promotion job. Same for ‘Seven.’ “

“‘Clueless’ was a delightful surprise,” Lowry chipped in. “And ‘Waterworld’ did damn good business even though people wanted to review the budget instead of the movie.”

MY VISITORS WERE CLEARLY GETTING foot-weary by this point. I decided to limit myself to one more question. “Any pet gripes?”

“I wish the studios would start screenings on time,” offered Klady. “It’s bad enough that they fill theaters with teenagers who are supposed to laugh and cheer on cue. But they also start the movies a half-hour late.”

“How about issues like violence or language? Any thoughts about this year’s crop?”

Heads were shaking once again.

“There were 365 ‘fucks’ in ‘Casino,’ according to Entertainment Weekly,” Lowry pointed out. “That dulls your sensibilities a bit.”

“One of the first words ‘Nixon’ utters in the Oliver Stone movie is ‘cocksucker,’ ” McCarthy offered. “That’s just for starters.”

“I get the picture. Thanks for your contributions.” As I watched the critics file, stiff-legged, from my office, I appreciated yet again the rigorous demands of the job. A film critic today must be at once tough and sensitive, inured to carnage yet open to compassion.

Most of all, unlike old Harry Cohn, they must not become obsessive about the nether portions of their anatomy.

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