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Oscars: Variety Critics and Pundits Debate the Films

We asked Variety’s trio of top critics and our awards gurus to weigh in on 2014 cinematically with these questions:
1. How do you rate 2014 against other years cinematically?
2. What is the scandal/most talked or not talked about issue of the year?
3. What aspect of the year in film made you stand up and say bravo?
Here are their answers.

TIM GRAY, AWARDS EDITOR
1. I can’t answer this question until 2030, when we see what movies held up. But until then, I would rate the year highly. That’s based on the fact that we have at least four movies that could easily win best picture, and deserve to. Some years, it’s slim pickings, but there are some terrific films this year.

2. The most unsettling story is the Sony hacking. I feel bad for all those people who had their Social Security numbers and private information made public. And the hacking made all of us realize how dependent we are on our computers, and how vulnerable that info is.

3. The best aspect of this year is the number of films, from majors and indies, that reflect the personal vision of the filmmaker. Whether it’s a big studio film like “American Sniper” or a small indie like “Nightcrawler,” there were a lot of thoughtful and well-made films this year.

See More: Oscars: Red Carpet Has Its Own Surprising Turns

JENELLE RILEY, DEPUTY AWARDS EDITOR

1.  Maybe it’s just because we’re coming off such an exciting year, but I didn’t think 2014 was particularly exceptional. There were plenty of good films, but few that truly thrilled me.

2. No scandal was more dissected than the rape allegations against Bill Cosby. Every week seemed to bring a horrifying accusation.

3. There were several films that had truly original voices and took risks and it was inspiring to see them find success. Small indies like “Boyhood,” “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Nightcrawler” earned not only critical raves, but also tidy B.O.

RAMIN SETOODEH, FILM EDITOR NEW YORK

1. It wasn’t a strong year for movies. The studios are now so dependent on tentpoles — see all the various installments of “X-Men,” “Spider-Man,” “Planet of the Apes,” etc. — that original stories aren’t coming from them. And many of 2014’s most exceptional indies (“Begin Again,” “Cavalry,” “Love Is Strange,” “Mommy,” “What If”) didn’t find an audience, perhaps because adults are starting to feel like Hollywood has given up on them. There’s a reason box office was down by more than 5%. All the sequels in the marketplace are giving moviegoers a feeling of deja vu.

2. The Sony hack.

3. Watching Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy.”

JUSTIN CHANG, CHIEF FILM CRITIC

1. No year that gave us “Boyhood,” “Under the Skin,” “Only Lovers Left Alive,” “Selma,” “Mr. Turner,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Foxcatcher,” “Goodbye to Language,” “We Are the Best!” and “Stray Dogs” could be considered anything but a great one. Granted, four of those films I just mentioned actually premiered on the 2013 festival circuit, so I’m not sure if they count toward 2014 or not. By the same token, three very fine 2015 releases — “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “White God” and “The Duke of Burgundy” — technically first surfaced in 2014. All of which is to say that a simple year-to-year comparison is arbitrary; there’s always remarkable cinema, wherever and whenever you look.

2. Much has been made of the fact that Ava DuVernay was overlooked for a director Oscar nomination for “Selma,” and understandably so: For reasons that can hardly be blamed on the Academy alone, the industry missed out on the opportunity not only to honor one of the year’s finest directorial achievements, but also to make at least a show of progress where the chronic underrepresentation of women and people of color are concerned. As for a much less talked-about scandal: the utter lack of acknowledgment of the French drama “Bird People,” one of the year’s unsung delights, and one that just so happens to be directed by a woman as well.

3. Nothing caused me to pump my fist with more delight than the news that Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language”   had been named best picture by the National Society of Film Critics (of which I’m a member). The decision was of course met with the usual derisive hoots from the Oscar blogosphere, one of whom proclaimed that the National Society had made itself “irrelevant.” If that’s what you call refusing to let the studios and the awards-season machinery dictate how we should think about this global art form, then hallelujah and goodbye to relevance.

PETER DEBRUGE, CHIEF INTL. FILM CRITIC

1. Good but not great. So many strong performances outshined the imperfect pictures in which they appeared last year — among them, Marion Cotillard (“The Immigrant”), Charlotte Gainsbourg (“Nymphomaniac”), Scarlett Johansson (“Under the Skin”), Jack O’Connell (“Starred Up”), J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”), Reese Witherspoon (“Wild”) and, of course, James Franco, who really ought to be a bit more selective.

2. The sexual assault cases against Bryan Singer and Bill Cosby, both of which were tried in the court of public opinion. In Singer’s case, there was a homophobic double-standard at play, but that doesn’t make it any less shameful or necessary for these skeletons to come out, particularly in an industry where powerful agencies, networks and studios have long tolerated and even enabled dodgy behavior when lucrative assets were at stake.

3. As Variety’s festival-roving international critic, I can attest to the exceptional quality and sheer diversity of work being done outside the Hollywood system — some of it, like the German-funded, English-language “The Physician”  good enough to rival classic studio epics (which have given way to comicbook movies, fairy-tale adaptations and Bible stories). But if I’m permitted a “boo” to accompany my “bravo,” it would be directed at American distributors unwilling to support foreign-language cinema in the States.

SCOTT FOUNDAS, CHIEF FILM CRITIC

1. A very good vintage. To me, it’s always a good year if I have a hard time winnowing down my list of favorites to an end-of-year top 10 (or even top 20). Of course, that’s taking into account all the movies from all over the world that managed to run for at least a week in a theater in New York or Los Angeles. Alas, some of the best movies don’t last much longer than that, unable to make themselves known amid the din created by the big studio “event” movies.

2. It was the year in which the obsessive fact-checking of fact-based movies reached a new fever pitch, with “Foxcatcher,” “The Imitation Game,” “Selma” and (especially) “American Sniper” alternately praised and pilloried by disparate factions less interested in the art of cinema than in advancing their own pet political causes. Of course, as the disclaimers in the credits of all these films attest, these are dramatizations drawn from actual events, but inevitably condensed, rearranged and otherwise fictionalized for dramatic impact.

3. While we can argue all day long over why “Selma” didn’t get more Oscar nominations or make more money at the box office, I prefer to look at the positive: that an independently financed movie directed by an African-American woman got picked up for distribution by a major Hollywood studio and nominated for a best picture Oscar. And that this, in turn, opened up a conversation about the need for more diversity in mainstream American cinema is also a very good thing. So much of what is good about “Selma” comes from Ava DuVernay’s particular, very personal gaze on the subject of the American civil rights movement, heretofore depicted mostly in movies made by white filmmakers (like Alan Parker’s “Mississippi Burning” and Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi”) and told through the eyes of pious white liberal characters. It was high time for a change. Bravo, indeed.

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