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AFI issues a dubious list of 'eight moments of significance'

December 28, 2008 |  7:11 pm

Over the last few weeks the American Film Institute unveiled its list of top 10 films of 2008, which included obvious choices like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and nice surprises like "Iron Man" and "Wendy and Lucy" too. (See The Envelope's photo gallery HERE.) Then came AFI's list of top 10 TV shows with the predictable "Mad Man" and "The Office" plus the quirky "Breaking Bad" and "Life." (See AFI TV top 10 photo gallery HERE.)


Now AFI announces the top "Eight Moments of Significance in Film, TV and Web," which is full of odd selections and/or backup explanations. For example, AFI hails "Slumdog Millionaire." Huh? The movie isn't on AFI's list of top 10 movies because it's not an American production. AFI's lists focus on superb examples of America's "moving images" — it usually makes a strong point to underscore domestic turf — but now, to be brutally honest, it looks like the institute's cramming "Slumdog Millionaire" on this new, grab-bag list so it won't be embarrassed next February like it was two years ago when the Oscar best picture champ wasn't on the AFI top 10 film roster ("The Departed").

Speaking of "Slumdog Millionaire," the explanations of AFI's "moments" neglect to mention the film at a crucial spot elsewhere on its new list where it discusses the collapse of the independent film divisions created by the Hollywood studios — Warner Independent and Picturehouse. Initially, "Slumdog" was under the Warner Independent shingle, now extinct, and it is enjoying amazing success while being distributed by the indie division of a big studio that's still prospering: Fox Searchlight.

Speaking of AFI defining its responsibility to herald great examples of the "moving image," it usually focuses chiefly on traditional film and TV. Where is AFI's list of top 10 great Web videos? Today the institute finally addresses the existence of the Internet in this new list of "moments of significance," which seems to be a slush bucket of important things AFI neglected to address in its other lists. Swishing around inside is Barack Obama's mastery of Internet campaigning right next to Tina Fey's mastery of imitating Sarah Palin. Since this arbitrary list may include "influences with either a positive or negative impression" and "trends," AFI obviously feels that Fey's impression is much more important than the collapse of the world's economy.

Never mind the millions of jobs lost due to the recession. AFI cares much more about film critics being tossed out of work, possibly because they're the personal pals of the jurors who decide these lists.

Enough griping. Below is the AFI press release with further info:

"AFI Moments of Significance" may include accomplishments of considerable merit; influences with either a positive or negative impression; trends, either new or re-emerging; anniversaries or memorials of special note; and/or movements in new technologies, education, preservation, government or other areas that impact the art film, television and digital media.

The AFI Moments of Significance selections are listed below:

"'Slumdog Millionaire' — A Celebration of the Global Film" "Slumdog Millionaire" stands as a monument to the possibilities of cross-cultural storytelling. Danny Boyle's masterwork is rooted in the worlds of Dickens and Dumas but captures their spirit with a visual and narrative splendor that serves as a cinematic passport to a vibrant, modern India. A love story at its core, the film is also a powerful reminder that our global obsession with money leaves many of the world's children in need.

Also of significance, "Slumdog Millionaire" is a signpost in America's search for greater authenticity in its stories. Subtitles — once an inconvenience to American audiences — are now expected and, in fact, demanded to confirm the universality of our daily, global experience.

Other films that reflect this cultural shift include "Gran Torino," "The Visitor," "Australia" and television's "Heroes."

"Television and New Technologies Provide a Global Oracle for America's Presidential Race" — America's historic presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain mesmerized a global audience like a long-running television series. Television and Web coverage played to each other's strengths, as every nuance of the long, arduous campaigns was accessible for public celebration and scrutiny.

During this process, Obama not only won the election, but also took his place among those statesmen—from FDR's "Fireside Chats" on radio to JFK's telegenic performances in debates and news conferences—whose mastery of a new medium captured the public imagination.

Obama harnessed the power of the Internet for both messaging and fundraising, communicating with e-mails, online videos and social networking. His campaign crescendoed with a 30-minute infomercial that was transmitted simultaneously over several broadcast networks and cable channels in the closing days of the campaign.

New technology also helped to engage American citizens at unprecedented levels, most notably with CNN's "Magic Map," which brought a greater understanding of the electoral process to a new generation.

"NBC Coverage of Summer Olympics Brings the World Together" — For 17 days in August, NBC marshaled the forces of today's technology to beam the spectacle of the 29th Summer Olympics from Beijing, China, to screens around the world. NBC supplemented their coverage on television with over 2,000 hours of video on-line, creating an immersive media experience that celebrated diverse cultures, as well as each country's place in a larger, global community.

The opening ceremony, directed and staged by acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, marked the most significant live event of the year—one staged with breathtaking pageantry and poetry. The Opening Ceremony was seen by nearly 2 billion viewers worldwide, with 70 million viewers in the United States—a record American audience for an Olympics on foreign soil.

AFI salutes the athletes from around the world that inspire audiences to reach for more—and to NBC, for capturing this historic event with such glory and grandeur, making us all players in these global games.

"'Age of Anxiety' as Business Models for the Arts Evolve" — Though the Writers Guild of America ended its strike in February, the tension between artists and executives continues. The one certainty in these uncertain times is that the film and television communities continue to redefine their business models for the digital age.

A significant moment in the evolution of content delivery was NBC and News Corp's launch of Hulu, the first popular effort to present premium content in a user-friendly, no-fee, on-line exhibition experience.

Seismic shifts in the television advertising model included NBC's announcement that "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" would be moving to prime time, marking a dramatic reduction of drama on network television. Meanwhile, narrative fiction on cable television continues to grow and flourish. And in a new twist, DIRECTV — a distributor — funded a third season of "Friday Night Lights," an hour-long high-quality drama supported by an ardent fan base too small for network television.

With the historic downturn in the American economy, these issues weigh even greater than ever—as America looks to the worlds of film, television and digital media for entertainment.

"Tina Fey — America's First Lady of Laughs" — Tina Fey made the world laugh in 2008—an immeasurable gift in a year marked by ongoing war and an historic economic downturn.

Fey's impersonation of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin served as a lightning rod for laughs when she appeared on the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live." As America entered the final months of a long and heated campaign, Fey captivated the country with the wink of an eye.

In addition to regular appearances as Palin on "Saturday Night Live," Fey also continued to serve as writer, producer and star of "30 Rock," a weekly testament to her talents as America's first lady of laughs.

"Independent Film Artists Face Distribution Crisis" — 2008 marked a year when many of the independent film divisions created by the studios—Paramount Vantage, New Line, Warner Independent and Picturehouse—were closed or folded back into their parent corporations.

Despite the unprecedented availability of filmmaking tools and the explosion of opportunity in on-line exhibition, the challenge for independent voices in American film is perhaps greater than ever. Now, an artist outside the studio system must also master finance and distribution to have their stories told.

This moment is best illustrated in 2008 by "Ballast" —by writer/editor/producer/director Lance Hammer. When the heralded film struggled to find an audience through traditional means, Hammer took the movie back from the distributor and embarked on his own campaign to market the film.

"Film Critics Lose Voice" — In 2008, many of the ardent voices of film criticism were silenced. Full-time posts at Time, Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, Village Voice and Newsday, among others, were eliminated as the circulation of newspapers and magazines declined. As a result, writing about film has moved to the Web—a world where authority can be lost among the voice of the masses.

AFI celebrates the global community of film lovers interacting on-line, but also encourages these conversations to honor and appreciate historical context in addition to personal opinion.

The year also marked the passing of iconoclastic film critic Manny Farber. Farber was a champion of genres overlooked by many critics—crime, westerns and horror films—whose raw energy he admired. Among the publications in which his words appeared were The Nation, The New Republic and Film Comment.

"Dr. Horrible Operates in Explosion of Short Form" — In 2008, director/writer Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog" was released as three 13-minute webisodes and quickly became a cult hit. The films mark another moment in the evolution of established artists presenting short films on-line—pioneered last year by Will Ferrell's "The Landlord."

This movement was catalyzed in part by the Writers Guild strike of 2007, when artists from film and television came together in greater numbers to express themselves in the short form, an integral part of the moving-image experience since the dawn of cinema.

Photo: Fox Searchlight