Video clips of the critics’ conversation are available on Variety Vision at www.variety.com/crixvideo

Critics love to talk, especially about movies.

So Variety collected four of its film critics and asked them to discuss the year in cinema. Joining the discussion are chief film critic Todd McCarthy, film critics Robert Koehler and Scott Foundas, and columnist and critic Brian Lowry.

A very good year

Todd McCarthy: I’d like to begin by proposing that this was an awfully good year. We saw one of, if not the very best, animated films ever made in “The Incredibles.” I think the spirit of Jean Renoir revisited us in a rare instance in American films in “Sideways,” a very human comedy. I think one of the last classical directors working in Hollywood, Clint Eastwood, delivered a classically great film. I think that there was some very unusual work done on the margins of mainstream Hollywood with “Eternal Sunshine (of the Spotless Mind)” and “Before Sunset.” I think one of our best directors, Martin Scorsese, made a fabulously entertaining film in “The Aviator,” a wonderful biopic, of which there were many this year. Quentin Tarantino delivered “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” which was also very entertaining. And there were quite a few films beyond that that I think you could say were worth seeing. Do you agree it was a pretty strong year?

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Scott Foundas: I do, and I would add that it was a particularly strong year for American films, but not necessarily films made by the major studios. In most cases, all the films you just mentioned are from the specialty divisions or the mini-majors. And when you look at the movies that are shaping up to be the contenders in the Oscar race, they’re mostly these films.

Robert Koehler: We have a year where you have to be careful what you even refer to as “Hollywood” because I think the best films that are coming out of the country, that are getting distribution, that are getting advertising are almost accidentally Hollywood. “Million Dollar Baby” is a perfect example, where it’s an authentically independent film that happens to be backed — and I think you could put backed in quotes — by Warner Bros. That’s become kind of a well-discussed point at the end of the year, that Warner Bros. didn’t really know what they had. It’s the independent divisions that are really providing the films that are worth talking about. But on the other hand, I have to say that talking about less than 10% of the product coming out of Hollywood, boy, I mean the other 90%, I don’t know, it’s about as bad as it’s ever been.

McCarthy: I disagree because I think in the ’80s, there was hardly anything interesting being made except here and there. I don’t think you could come up with a strong 10 best list any time in the ’80s — let’s exclude foreign films — and I think now in a way there are more opportunities for these films to get made, either completely independently or with these units. I think we’ve seen for quite a few years that the big studios and their main units are not very interested anymore in making award-type films. It used to be that, say Warners always had David Putnam making films like that or they’d make sure, kind of in the old Irving Thalberg tradition, there would be two or three kind of quality films that they’d make to win Oscars. That kind of stopped. And now I think the studios have figured out a way to cover their bases by letting these semi-independent arms make films like that.

Brian Lowry: For me, there was kind of a sense of malaise at a certain point in the year and I think it was the early part of the summer because there was a real sort of wave of disappointing franchise and wannabe franchise movies: the “Van Helsings,” the “Troys.” But you’re right. If you look at the year in its totality, it was a very strong year. The kind of disappointing part about that though is a lot of these movies, even after awards season — we’ll see if a lot of them pick up — aren’t making a lot of money.

Foundas: You have to wonder if someone like Clint Eastwood won’t ultimately be making his films at Warner Independent instead of at Warner, just because of the fact — as he’s been fairly open talking about in the press — it wasn’t just that Warners didn’t know when to release this film, in the early stages they didn’t want to make it. They passed on it. They decided only to take the domestic rights, which is the same thing they had done with “Mystic River.” So two of Eastwood’s strongest films in a row, the very studio that he’s had this decades-long relationship with sent him all around town shopping the project to other studios that also passed on it.

McCarthy: All the top films of the year, at least from my view, were films made by very strong directors. And you make the film where you’re able to make the film, and mostly now these people are settling in at the subsidiary companies of the major studios because you’ve got some pretty smart people running those divisions and they can detect what the interesting material might be and they trust these filmmakers to deliver the films. And then it really is up to the filmmakers. And if you are Clint Eastwood, then historically you’ve got a studio base to work from or otherwise either a kind of home base the way Quentin (Tarantino) has always had at Miramax or you find Fox Searchlight or whatever else. But also, they’re filmmakers sticking to their guns. I mean “Maria Full of Grace” was a very unusual type of film to get made; Mel Gibson sticking his neck out to make a film the way he wanted to make it — that’s the ultimate in independent filmmaking no matter what you think of it.

No laughing matter

Koehler: One of the ways I’m not optimistic at all about American movies is the state of comedy. You brought up the ’80s, Todd, and the ’80s as we know were just — it could get no worse it seemed in American comedy in the ’80s. It’s just as dreadful now. Occasionally, there’s a “Mean Girls” that pops up on the horizon. And you’ll notice the reaction, the response to a “Mean Girls,” which in a decent state of affairs would be just an average film, and people lurched at that film like it was an oasis in the desert.

McCarthy: That’s what I felt when I saw “Bad Santa” a year ago. That came out of nowhere and it was hysterical and we haven’t seen anything quite like that unless you want to include “Team America.” But let’s take another example, let’s combine the world of comedy and independent filmmaking and take the case of “Napoleon Dynamite.” Now that film was a huge success. It’s done $40 million and is still going and people saw it time after time. I’m told that there are three copycat films in Sundance this year that are these off-the-wall, out-of-left-field comedies that are aimed specifically at 14- to 24-year-olds. You’re going to be able to count on one the hand the number of people over 25 who are going to like any of these films. What do you make of “Napoleon Dynamite”?

Foundas: I thought it was a dreadful film. And I think that if “Sideways” extols a kind of humanity and a sort of, as you say, a Renoir-type quality, then “Napoleon Dynamite” is the antithesis of that movie. It’s a hateful, misanthropic film in which all of the characters are held up for ridicule from the audience from beginning to end. Unfortunately, that does appeal to a certain demographic. You’re never really encouraged to sympathize with this title character, Napoleon Dynamite, or his sort of other gallery of absurd friends and relatives. They’re targets of this sort of broad slapstick comedy and if this is starting a trend then I think it’s an unfortunate one.

Koehler: I saw it with an audience entirely under 20 years old and I saw how it was playing and I thought, “This is probably what it was like with the ‘Gidget’ movies,” which the critics always hated, but they played well with their target audience. They’re bad movies, but they know their audience and they play to it. The assumptions inside of “Napoleon Dynamite” are pure ugliness. You could almost say that it’s a hateful movie, but I think you have to acknowledge the reality that we’re faced with is that audiences, perfectly good people, will be willing to go see bad movies. And they’ll go not only go see them once, they’ll go to see them twice.

McCarthy: You’ve got on a higher end though some filmmakers like, say, the Coen brothers’ “Intolerable Cruelty,” where they’re trying to make sophisticated, very upscale comedy, but it really doesn’t cut it even though it has big stars. And there have been a couple of other examples like that. I also sort of wonder, each generation for the last couple of decades seems to have had a group of comics — Second City and so on — many of whom, from Nichols and May all the way up to Belushi and then the “Saturday Night Live” crowd and then certain other people — Eddie Murphy and all that — were making a lot of popular comedies for many years. And I wonder, where are those guys? You had always a kind of fertile ground to draw in upon from other parts of culture that fed into movies and I really don’t see that happening as much now.

Koehler: Out of the “SNL” factory, Tina Fey, who wrote “Mean Girls,” may possibly be a source of some interest but that’s very much a work in progress. Look where “Saturday Night Live” is compared to where it was in the ’70s. It’s pathetic. I mean they ought to cancel the show. It’s just not funny anymore. Jude Law of all people can come on there and tank. It really makes you wonder: Is it in the Zeitgeist or is it a period where sometimes we just can’t do comedy? A film that came out this fall, where we saw a director clearly trying to work in a Wilder kind of a classic Hollywood comedy vein, American comedy vein only much more modernized, was David O. Russell with “I Heart Huckabees.” You could see where he was going with this, you could see where the ideas were coming from, you could see where it started and where he wanted to go, and it got stuck in the mud in between the two.

McCarthy: Well, another director working in the Wilder tradition is the Weitz brothers with “In Good Company,” which was inspired by “The Apartment” with a little bit of “The Graduate” as well, and with mixed results. But at least he’s trying to do something that is set in the recognizable contemporary world with real issues about corporations, about ethics and so on. And that was semicommendable, I would say; more successful than some.

Foundas: I think part of the problem is just the writers. I think you’ve got talented people. A good example is Bernie Mac, who’s very, very funny as a standup comedian, very good on his sitcom on television. But then he turns up in a movie like “Ocean’s Twelve” and he’s basically relegated to the sidelines and not given anything interesting to do, or “Mr. 3000,” where he’s the star and doesn’t have much to do.

Koehler: I’m not gonna so much rain on “Sideways,” which I’m not as enthusiastic about as some of my colleagues. But you know I recently saw Jean-Pierre Bacri’s Cannes-winning screenplay film — “Look at Me” is the English title — and I came away from that film and the memory of thinking about “Sideways” and “Sideways” is left in the dust by a film like “Look at Me.” There are French filmmakers who are making human comedies — and you talk about the Renoir tradition — that are vastly funnier, smarter, more creative, more thought provoking, that stay with you the day and the week after than even an exemplary film like “Sideways.” And it made me wonder where the country is at in terms of its filmmaking. I’m troubled that even with something of slightly more quality like “Sideways” it is I think diminished.

McCarthy: I could argue with that a bit, but I would say it’s much more the exception in the United States that you’d have a film like that. That tradition really comes out of France and so it’s more customary there. It’s taken for granted, whereas here a film like “Sideways” is so unusual, that you get such humanity and human characters and spirit of revived humanism, that it seems like a breath of fresh air.

Foundas: The same thing could be said about “Kinsey,” which is one of my favorite movies of the year. The only people that I’ve encountered who have any significant criticism of that movie are European critics and I think part of that reason is that what may strike us as being very provocative about “Kinsey” — the sexual politics of the film and the openness with which it talks about sexual issues that’s so sort of rare in American movies — is again much more common in especially French films.

Role playing

Lowry: Something we were discussing before is this idea of a sort of disconnect between that which critics like and that which is perceived as being good. And we were talking about it in terms of “National Treasure,” where after “National Treasure” started making a lot of money there’s been some coverage which has sort of said, “Well, critics missed this movie.” Which sort of assumes that because the movie is making money the movie is good. And it seems like you’re hearing a lot of that now, which is that whatever is successful therefore is good and if the critics don’t like it or, the converse, if they love a movie that doesn’t catch on, there’s this disconnect. And I guess without getting too highfalutin about it, what’s the role now? It almost seems like critics are under siege in the sense that there’s an expectation that they’re going to validate what the public likes.

Koehler: That’s a real serious question and it really speaks to the heart of what we do and how readers relate to what appears in print, what appears online and then how they respond to it. I don’t know if there’s an alienation between the reader, the moviegoer and the critic like there is between the sports fan and the highly paid athlete in the arena. I don’t think it’s quite that dramatic.

Lowry: Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!

Koehler: Yeah, let’s hope it doesn’t come to brickbats in the theaters and throwing Coke bottles at our heads! There is and there can be a disconnect between films. On the other hand, I think one can be grateful at the times when we’re all thinking in the same way. And I’m thinking of “The Incredibles.” Everybody knows that’s a great, great movie. Doesn’t matter what angle or what entry point you’re discovering that film or you’re encountering that film in, everybody loves it with good reason. What the problem is is it almost seems like cable stations, networks are doing these, quote, review shows invariably without real critics. It’s almost as if they’re afraid of real critics and there’s a sense that the real people know how to respond to the film better than the critic can.

Foundas: It’s almost ridiculous to expect that a critic who sees 200 or 300 movies a year is going to react to “National Treasure,” to cite one example, in the same way as a mother and her children who might go to see the film on the weekend in the middle of doing their Christmas shopping and might see something like 10 or 12 films a year theatrically. I think, hopefully, for the sake of film, that the people writing about it have not necessarily a higher standard but that they come to a movie with a certain knowledge and a certain experience and they can see a certain film like “National Treasure” and say, “There’s 30 films I can think of off the top of my head that do exactly this kind of story in a more entertaining way, in a smarter way, in a faster way.” And maybe that’s not what the average moviegoer, if there is such a thing, is necessarily thinking about. They just want to park themselves for a couple hours in an air-conditioned theater and gorge themselves on popcorn and just have some kind of mindless entertainment. I think that’s very possible.

McCarthy: And I don’t see my job as telling people, “This is a terrible movie and you shouldn’t go see ‘National Treasure.’ ” The critics should be — and I think in terms of what we should be doing — is what we are doing: calling attention to a little movie. I mean “Sideways” is a more high-profile movie than some movies that come along, but critics can serve that movie to get people who wouldn’t ordinarily see it to see it. And that’s what we’ve always done. And I think when you’re talking about “The Incredibles,” it’s so refreshing when you see a film like that, the way that all the Hollywood movies used to be. They had to basically appeal to everyone, so everyone from 90 years old to 9 years old, anyone could go see any movie Hollywood made in the old days. And now the market is so fragmented with different little niches, the “Napoleon Dynamite” group and black films or older sophisticate films.

Foundas: “The Incredibles” does have that appeal without feeling like it’s been dumbed down in any way. It shows that you can do a very smart script, a script that respects the intelligence of the audience, be they 9 or 90, and you can still have a major hit on your hands. “Million Dollar Baby” is a movie I think is going to be very popular with audiences once it gets into wider release even though, again, it’s a film that doesn’t feel at every step of the game it has to explain to you in every minute detail every little thing that’s going on. There’s a lot of things sort of left ambiguous and it engages the audience I think when a movie is like that.

Koehler: Even though I made the point that there’s no stopping audiences from going to see bad movies and audiences will go see bad movies, at the same time I think Hollywood especially undervalues audiences and audiences want good movies. They want to be talked up to, not down to. They’re not stupid people out there going to movies, they don’t shut down their minds. They do want escapism, they do want entertainment, they do want engagement and that’s what “The Incredibles” offers. If any studio seems to get the model of “we can make a movie that isn’t dumbed down, that appeals to every kind of audience and that’s thoroughly engaging,” Pixar gets it. And I think they provide a hopeful model. Now whether that can be applied to live action is another question.

Blurred lines

Lowry: When you’re reviewing for the trades, obviously part of your job is to step outside the movie and say how you think the movie is going to do. One of the interesting things I’ve seen, and I don’t know if this speaks to a kind of defensiveness among critics, but more and more when I’m reading reviews in consumer publications I see them kind of sneaking in the same thing, which is basically, “I don’t care for this, but I know it’s going to make a lot of money.” And the related point is when you saw, I think, the average first-to-second-week box office drop over the summer was something like 50%, 51%. That says to me that there is a significant critical component of people coming to that second week because there’s something happening between that first week and that second week. And because there were movies that held up better than that, it’s not just that everybody who wants to see it sees it the first weekend. It’s partially the people who see it the first weekend aren’t urging anyone to go see it.

Foundas: This is a point that’s not lost on the studios, which increasingly make their biggest films, like “Van Helsing” or “Troy” or “The Day After Tomorrow,” impossible for critics to see until maybe two or three nights before the film opens because they don’t want that bad advance word leaking out there.

McCarthy: There’s one other area that I’d like to get into a little bit. There are a lot of movies that were based on either real people or historical events this year; So many biopics, from “Ray” and “Finding Neverland” and “Kinsey,” “Beyond the Sea.”

Lowry: “Hotel Rwanda,” even.

McCarthy: Yeah, absolutely. When you have a whole person’s life to deal with, is it best to try to tell that life or is it best to try to look at one aspect of the life?

Foundas: Focusing in on one aspect of a life is a really good thing for filmmakers to do. One of the strongest parts about “Kinsey” is that it really kind of discards all of the uninteresting parts of his life and really kind of homes in on what made this man important, which was the scientific work he was doing at Indiana University in the 1940s. Bill Condon, who wrote that film, has likened it to flipping through a biography of somebody’s life until you get to the part you want to read about. I think that too many historical or biographical films that you see sort of get hung up on this very tired three-act structure where you get a lot of exposition and then midway through you finally get to the interesting part and then you get to the inevitable, if it’s a biopic, showing the person getting sick or dying and all of that. The movies that avoid that — Bill Condon did it very well in “Gods and Monsters” — are the ones that try to find a new approach. “Beyond the Sea,” about Bobby Darin, is another movie that tries to get at its subject in a different way, in a way that feels like it’s integrated into his personality and not just the existing biopic structure that was imposed on the film.

Koehler: There are great models of that in the past of Hollywood. John Ford’s personal favorite of all of his films, “Young Mr. Lincoln,” is a beautiful example of telling the life of Lincoln by only telling a tiny portion of the life of Lincoln. “The Aviator” focuses on two decades, which relative to something like “Kinsey” is a huge chunk of time. “Finding Neverland” focuses in on the key moment in J.M. Barrie’s life; it was never conceived as a biopic, an adaptation of the play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” but you have the key, defining moments. So by selecting the key element, you reveal the whole within the specific, and that’s really the art of the screenwriter and the director really focusing on what counts. I think that kind of old creaky form, Scott, that you’re referring to, I tend to think that’s a kind of form that’s dead and buried or that’s a form that’s been relegated to television that feature films and I think the studios, too, are very wary of going into this all-encompassing, huge life story kind of approach. I don’t see that form lasting much longer, if it’s even lasting at all now.