Critics still split on 2001's best picture

Well, two weeks vacation didn’t seem to help clarify who’s leading the Oscar season horse race. The arrival of 2002 — marked by year-end top-10 lists from the major print critics, along with results from a couple of low-profile critics orgs — leaves the matter as unsettled as it was in the middle of December.

Certainly the major print and broadcast critics weren’t a particularly helpful barometer. Their diverse top 10 lists underscored the no-frontrunner nature of the 2001 race.

For instance, the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan picked “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” as his top pick (it was also the choice of Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum and the Toronto Sun’s Bruce Kirkland), while Schwarzbaum’s fellow EW critic Owen Gleiberman chose “Memento” (top choice of the Washington Post’s Desson Howe, the Toronto and Las Vegas critics orgs, as well as the Online Film Critics Society).

Roger Ebert went for “Monster’s Ball,” while NPR’s Bob Mondello chose “Shrek,” which as has already been reported was also Time magazine critic Richard Schickel’s favorite of the year. “Moulin Rouge” topped Washington Post critic Rita Kempley’s list as well as the New York Post’s Sara Vorhees.

It’s worth remembering that at this point, the Oscar contest is to make the semi-finals: the final five. And so if different pictures were chosen by many of the top critics, it’s also true that most of the films noted here show up in various runner-up spots on the year-end top 10 lists. “The Lord of the Rings,” “Memento,” “Shrek” and “Moulin Rouge,” along with “Black Hawk Down,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” “Ghost World,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Monster’s Ball” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” all turn up on multiple lists.

On the other hand, by the time you read this the American Film Institute’s inaugural AFI Awards will have been handed out (too late for our deadlines), and if the AFI’s strategists are right, their picks should be among the most reliable award indicators.

While the AFI’s voting body of around 100 is significantly smaller than the 5,000-plus of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, it’s weighted toward industry insiders whose tastes may well mirror Academy voters.

The whole awards season heats up now, with nominations from the Producers Guild due to be announced Jan. 9 and winners from the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. and the People’s Choice Awards due in the coming week.

So who knows, maybe this oncoming avalanche of kudos will provide some clarity. Or maybe not.

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