Variety Critics and Pundits Weigh in on the Year In Cinema

We asked Variety’s top critics and awards aficionados to discuss how 2015 shaped up cinematically. Here they answer the following questions:
1. How do you rate 2015 against previous years cinematically?
2. What is the scandal/most talked about or not talked about issue of the year?
3. What aspect of the year in film made you stand up and cheer?

Justin Chang, chief film critic
1. A good year, not a great one. If I were forced to redo my year-end list for 2015, I would probably call first place a tie between “The Assassin” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (1) — both long-gestating action movies, directed by auteurs working at the height of their powers — followed by about 20 or 30 unranked honorable mentions.
2. The ongoing challenges of diversity and representation have shaken the industry to the core, and not a moment too soon. With the recent outcry on behalf of women and people of color — and the Academy’s honorable attempts to rectify the situation among its ranks — I think we’re clearly experiencing growing pains. Progress has been made. Hopefully more awaits.
3. I was one of the few dissenters on Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” but his “The Look of Silence” held me spellbound. I’m less enamored than most of the Chinese director Jia Zhangke, but “Mountains May Depart” (which recently opened in U.S. theaters) is the most affecting thing he’s done in ages. Nothing earns a “bravo” quite like the realization that a filmmaker you had earlier discounted can still surprise you.

“The diversity conversation was necessary, but it wasn’t exactly —
for lack of better terminology — black and white.””

Tim Gray, senior vice president, awards editor
1. I won’t be able to rate 2015 until 2035, and we see what held up. Meanwhile, I think there are a lot of B-plus movies, and just a few that are A or A-plus (“Mad Max,” “Cartel Land”). And the artisan work this year was beyond great.
2. This year, the word “Oscar” is synonymous with “diversity problem.” However, people in the film industry seem to agree that this is not the Academy’s fault, but rather a fundamental problem in the system of funding and greenlighting. If all of this leads to long-overdue changes in the industry, 2015 could be remembered as a watershed year. So cross your fingers.
3. Two things cheered me up. One is that decision-makers seem to be taking the protests seriously (even though they don’t like to address it on the record). And artistically, there was great work from artisans … and several blockbusters that did what Hollywood does best (spectacle, thrills) while retaining a personal director’s vision. Ridley Scott (“The Martian”), George Miller (“Mad Max”) and Pete Docter (“Inside Out”) delivered films that were crowd-pleasers, but distinctive: No one else could have directed those films.

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Kristopher Tapley, co-awards editor
1. Honestly it felt a bit muted. I liked plenty, but the passion wasn’t quite there, for me, on a broad level. In some ways it seems like I won’t know the answer to this question until a few years down the line, when the movies have a chance to resonate (or not).
2. The nuance about why films like “Creed” and “Beasts of No Nation” missed out on Oscar nominations was missing in the diversity debate. The former, for instance, wasn’t a focused push for Warner Bros. until late in the game (why that is could certainly make for a second debate). The latter may have been harmed by the Netflix branding, setting it apart as a streaming title more than a theatrical one. The diversity conversation was necessary, but it wasn’t exactly — for lack of better terminology — black and white.
3. One could only sit in awe at what director George Miller was able to accomplish at 70 years of age with “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It’s far and away his greatest achievement.

Jenelle Riley, deputy awards & features editor
1. It was a good year for movies, but not a great one. Lots of solid, entertaining, thoughtful and well-made films emerged, but only a few will likely be remembered as seminal in 10 years. Most big-budget spectacles failed to impress me (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” being an obvious exception) while smaller-budgeted films like “Room,” “Spotlight” and “Ex Machina” (2) showed remarkable ingenuity and originality. But it was a great year for comedy — particularly women in comedy — with the excellent “Spy,” starring Melissa McCarthy, and Amy Schumer proving her movie stardom with “Trainwreck” (3).
2. It would be hard to top #OscarsSoWhite because rarely has hashtag activism resulted in actual action. The response to people of color being shut out of the Oscars had effects far and wide, with the Academy taking swift action and making changes that are proving to be controversial and should continue to play out for the next few months.
3. It was exciting to see so many great actresses delivering knockout performances this year. Daisy Ridley emerged from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” as a star to be reckoned with. Alicia Vikander had no fewer than three great turns with “Ex Machina,” “Testament of Youth” and “The Danish Girl”— and I’ll even throw in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” for pure fun. As previously mentioned, comedy greats Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer showed their box office clout with “Spy” and “Trainwreck.” Even established performers like Cate Blanchett continued to wow us with breathtaking turns in films like “Carol.” But perhaps most enthralling was the emergence of Brie Larson, who has been quietly delivering standout work for years, as an Oscar frontrunner for her stunning turn in “Room.”

“Overall, it was an encouraging year for American cinema, with a number of massive blockbuster hits bucking the trend toward dumbing things down.”
peter debruge

Peter Debruge, chief international film critic
1. Overall, I’d say it was an encouraging year for American cinema, with a number of massive blockbuster hits bucking the trend toward dumbing things down for younger and non-English-speaking audiences. “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the “Hunger Games” finale both boldly encouraged audiences to think critically about what our leaders (and the media) are feeding us, while “The Martian” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” represent smart, thrilling examples of science fact and fiction. That’s not to say there wasn’t the usual glut of insultingly dumb fare, though I’m encouraged to see audiences seeking out and supporting some of the brainier offerings — none more delightful than Pixar’s “Inside Out” (4).
2. From my perch in Paris, I’d say pretty much everything to do with the Donald Trump presidential campaign has been outrageous. And lest you reprimand me for bringing politics into this, let me clarify that I’m not talking about his incendiary views so much as the strategy by which the loud-mouth “The Apprentice” honcho has managed to play the media nearly every step of the way. It all brings us that much closer to the world Mike Judge predicted in “Idiocracy.”
3. I’m happy to report it was a great year for French cinema as well, with a number of “local” films being as good or better than the eight English-language movies the Academy picked to compete for its top prize. Best of the bunch was “Mustang” (which is nominated for a foreign-language Oscar), though there was also Maiwenn’s “Mon roi,” the Frenchified Florence Foster Jenkins biopic “Marguerite” and two holdovers from Cannes 2014, “L’il Quinquin” and “Girlhood” that finally opened in the U.S.

Andrew Barker, senior features writer
1. 2015 was a strong year for film, if not an exceptional one. I don’t feel that the year produced any sort of all-time masterpiece that film students will still be dissecting in 2035. But considering the past 12 months brought us a clutch of exceptionally well-crafted old-school crowdpleasers (“Creed,” “Brooklyn”), uniquely smart and relevant sci-fi (“Ex Machina”) and bold statements from exciting new international talent like Ale Abreu, Deniz Gamze Erguven and Laszlo Nemes, it feels almost churlish to complain.
2. It may have taken until 2016 for the wave to finally crest, but this renewed urgency to make Hollywood more reflective of its audience’s ethnic heterogeneity is certainly worthy of the attention. Whether it will lead to meaningful structural change, or simply introduce “diversity” as another buzzword to be diluted into meaninglessness through rote repetition – that remains to be seen. But it’s encouraging to see these difficult conversations actually come out into the open.
3. Even as a sometime music writer and onetime musician, I had begun to regard cookie-cutter music biopics and documentaries with the same sort of dread usually inspired by the words “a Happy Madison production.” But in 2015, we saw a widespread willingness to really rethink the form. Documentaries like “Amy” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” dug into the artistic process with unusual clarity and specificity, while fiction films “Love & Mercy,” “Eden” and “Born to Be Blue” exhilaratingly broke free of the clichés and stilted conventions that had started to make “Walk Hard” and “Walk the Line” feel more alike than different.

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