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AFI Sums Up Cinema's Year, Both On and Off the Screen

Movies * The institute names five historic moments and 10 top films that defined 2000.


Seeking to preserve an annual record of U.S. cinematic history, the American Film Institute on Tuesday chose the Time Warner-America Online corporate merger and the stormy congressional hearings on media violence as among the five "significant moments" in film for 2000, while also naming two of director Steven Soderbergh's movies--"Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich"--among the 10 best films of the year.

The panel also listed the release of director Ang Lee's Chinese-language fable "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as one of the year's most important film stories. With its mesmerizing imagery that has touched a chord in American audiences, the jury said, the film "marked a watershed moment in the ongoing emergence of global cinema which fuses storytelling style and substance from many cultures into a new sensibility that is accepted and enjoyed irrespective of language."

Rounding out the top five significant moments of the year, the panelists highlighted a report by the Directors Guild of America citing the low level of employment of women and African Americans in the director's chair, and the continuing digital revolution that is reshaping all aspects of the film business.

Jean Picker Firstenberg, AFI's director and chief executive officer, said the significant moments highlighted by the AFI jury reflected the impact of culture, politics and commerce on the art of film and received vigorous debate by panelists.

"I don't think anyone on the jury had ever thought about this before," Firstenberg recalled. "It was a very rich discussion--they engaged in a very animated way."

She also acknowledged there was spirited discussion over which were the top films of 2000, but in the end felt satisfied that the selections represented a far-ranging cross section of genres, from sprawling spectacles with cutting-edge technology to biting satire to riveting, character-driven dramas.

The selections marked the first time that the institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and honoring excellence in the moving image, has entered the highly charged arena of selecting best films of any given year.

The other films named to the AFI's Top 10 list included, in alphabetical order, Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls," Christopher Guest's "Best in Show," Ridley Scott's "Gladiator," Stephen Frears' "High Fidelity," Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream," Curtis Hanson's "Wonder Boys" and Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me."

Firstenberg noted that the list embraces not only serious dramas, but also comedies and spectacles. In the future, she added, the list could very well include animation.

Firstenberg said that highly acclaimed films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Billy Elliot" were not considered by the panel because they did not fit the definition of being predominantly American-made productions. Also missing were notable films like "Cast Away," starring Tom Hanks, and "Thirteen Days," starring Kevin Costner, but Firstenberg said that with about 250 films in competition, the jury naturally had to drop some worthwhile movies.

Through these choices, the AFI hopes not only to honor the filmmaking teams that collaborated on making these movies but also encourage the public to see the films.

"That is the foremost objective--for people to say, 'I missed that movie. I should go back and see it,' " Firstenberg said.

The Top 10 list and the five significant moments will allow the AFI to compile a year-by-year chronicle that will eventually serve as a living historical document of our times as they relate to the world of film.

The jury found, for example, that the proposed Time Warner-AOL merger was "the business story of the year," in which a new-media giant agreed to buy the world's largest traditional media company. The jury noted that the planned marriage of Time Warner and America Online "marked the moment when it became possible for the digital revolution to reach the masses--a positive for the future that, nevertheless, for some raised concerns of monopoly and cultural homogenization."

Also deemed noteworthy was the day last fall when studio chiefs and studio marketing executives were called before Congress.

"In response to the Federal Trade Commission that cited movie studios, video game makers and the music industry as marketing violent entertainment to children under 17, senior executives from eight major movie studios . . . testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on Sept. 27, 2000. It was the first time that studio executives had been called before Congress to defend the marketing of their films."

The AFI jury consisted of producer Tom Pollock, who chairs the AFI board of directors; Newsweek film critic David Ansen; Wesleyan University film scholar Jeanine Basinger; director and AFI trustee Bill Duke; film preservationist-historian James C. Katz; Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley; filmmaker, writer, producer and AFI trustee Michael Nesmith, who starred in the 1960s TV series "The Monkees"; University of Texas film scholar Thomas G. Schatz; UCLA film professor and AFI trustee Vivian Sobchack; Anne Thompson, West Coast editor of Premiere magazine; Oscar-winning producer Saul Zaentz ("The English Patient"); and Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List").


American Film Institute's Movies of the Year

(Films are listed in alphabetical order)

"Almost Famous"--The AFI jury said Cameron Crowe "directs with an uncommon attention to detail of time, place and character, capturing how deeply music affects us."

"Before Night Falls"--Panelists praised director Julian Schnabel for his "sensual, lyrical and searing memorial to the late Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas," calling the biographical film a "moving testament to artistic and sexual freedom."

"Best in Show"--With this film, the AFI jury said, Christopher Guest and the ensemble cast "elevate the mock-documentary to new artistic heights," adding that the film "raises comedy to the level of insight and weaves a seamless narrative fabric from actors' improvisation around a central theme."

"Erin Brockovich"--Calling it a "finely crafted studio picture," the AFI jury said Steven Soderbergh's film "goes beyond the familiar with humor, texture and a fine attention to detail--an increasingly rare experience."

"Gladiator"--This Ridley Scott film updates the traditional American genre--the epic costume film--through cutting-edge technology, the AFI jury stated, giving audiences "a new kind of spectacle for the new millennium."

"High Fidelity"--The jury said Stephen Frears' offbeat odyssey about a thirtysomething record-store owner who knows everything about pop music but nothing about life "effortlessly breaks the fourth wall and, rather than shoe-horning its quirky characters into a tidy resolution, chooses a real-world ending."

"Requiem for a Dream"--The jury said Darren Aronofsky takes no prisoners in his harrowing second film, "utilizing the language of cinema to startling film effect" and condensing information through "multiple points-of-view and propulsive editing."

"Traffic"--Soderbergh balances a complex narrative structure that includes three separate stories and multiple outstanding performances, the jury stated. The film "moves with clarity, space and intelligence through a broad strata of American and Mexican society in this uncompromising tale about the never-ending fight to win a war against drugs."

"Wonder Boys"--Calling it a "sophisticated, beautifully-written comedy of manners," the jury said director Curtis Hanson displays "a sure comic-satiric touch and draws remarkable performances from his ensemble, particularly Michael Douglas" in this melancholy and funny coming-of-middle-age story.

"You Can Count on Me"--Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan "surprises time and again with his affecting story of a complicated, funny and emotional sister/brother relationship," the jury stated, creating heartbreaking characters in this underexplored thematic territory.

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