Should ’10 best’ lists now be put to rest?

PERHAPS IT’S TIME to throw in the towel on those “10 Best” lists.

What was once a fascinating exercise in winnowing out the most memorable movies of the year has lately become a torture test. It’s no surprise that the “best” on some lists consistently re-appear as the “worst” on others.

Having survived the onslaught of pre-Oscar releases, one cannot escape the impression that Hollywood has opted out of the 10 Best business.

That’s not to say the studios are heartless or malevolent, just that they’ve succumbed to certain inexorable economic forces. Their vertically integrated corporate parents demand “numbers,” and the most risk-averse way to produce those numbers is to focus on sequels and effects-laden tentpole pictures, not on edgy “people pictures.”

For those newcomers to the scene, let me assure you that it has not always been thus. Writing in the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times, film historian David Thomson last week recalled the “dark excitements” of the 10 Best lists of 30 years ago.

Virtually all of the 1971 films he cited were major studio releases — films like “Klute,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Last Picture Show,” “The Hospital,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The French Connection,” “Carnal Knowledge” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

And “The Godfather” would have been released in 1971 except that Paramount postponed it to add 20 minutes of memorable footage.

A LOT OF PEOPLE IN HOLLYWOOD would like to put the studios back into the “10 Best” business. Actors want meaty parts. Directors post 9/11 yearn for more meaningful scripts. And some studio executives readily confess they’re bored by their monochromatic production slates.

So why does the town’s product reflect such a “sameness”? The fact that the studios have “gone corporate” is not the only factor.

For one thing, the “new players” representing overseas production financing seem bent at out-tentpoling the studios. Intermedia, funded out of Germany, is the force behind “Terminator III,” and Australia’s Village Roadshow is happily ensconced in the “Matrix” business.

Decades ago, Hollywood looked to France for bold new approaches to filmmaking. Today, French filmmakers are fearful that Vivendi and Canal Plus will lavish all their money on sequels to “The Mummy” and “American Pie.”

Just as these “overseas partners” have learned to play the studio game, so have the once-vaunted niche players. Most of the leading arthouse labels now huddle under a studio banner and, some argue, have themselves become pre-occupied by the numbers game.

The future of USA Studios, responsible for “Traffic” and “Gosford Park,” is now clouded by the Vivendi-Barry Diller deal. If USA Films becomes subsumed within Universal as another art-house label, how could it create a new “directors company” around Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne, Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher?

And then there’s the evolution of Miramax from a hardcore 10 Best player to a successful purveyor of genre product like “Scary Movie” and “The Others.”

Harvey Weinstein insists he plans an energetic return to the foreign pick-up arena, but meanwhile he is understandably focused on the release of mega-budget projects like “Gangs of New York.”

GIVEN ALL THIS, where will future 10 Best contenders come from? Surely someone will be tempted to dip a toe into these very still waters. HBO has set about re-inventing TV series and cable films, so will it now be tempted to venture boldly into theatrical features as, say, Film Four did in London?

Similarly, if the Vivendi-USA deal shuts the door on the projected director’s company, it’s likely these filmmakers would look elsewhere in their quest for autonomy.

Then too, eclectic DreamWorks may be counted on for some surprises, as can Revolution, whose “Black Hawk Down” was a strong last-minute entry into the Oscar race.

One abiding lesson of the ’70s was that innovative movies emanate from the passion of filmmakers, not from the egos of superstars. The ambiguous reception accorded Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey this December would seem to underscore that point.

Reinforcing all this, the extraordinary success of “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” provided a vivid reminder that the story remains the ultimate star, even in the bold new world of tentpole cinema. It is hoped that precept may serve to re-energize the 10 Best game before it’s consigned to Hollywood’s attic.

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