Film Group’s First Awards Lift Oscar Haze a Bit

OS ANGELES, Jan. 6 – The murky Oscar race may have lurched ever-so-slightly into focus as the American Film Institute, in its first annual movie and television honors, named “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” the best film of 2001 at a nationally televised banquet Saturday night at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The New Zealand director Peter Jackson’s 2 hour 58 minute adaptation of the first volume of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic beat out nine other finalists for the honor in voting by a panel of several dozen filmmakers, scholars, performers, critics and industry executives. The film has seen its Oscar chances rise perceptibly in recent weeks on the basis of strong reviews and persistent popularity. It was No. 1 at the box office for the third weekend in a row, having made more than $200 million in less than three weeks.

The current Oscar race is in a muddle because little consensus has emerged – among critics, audiences and industry professionals – about what the best efforts were in what is widely perceived as a lackluster year for mainstream moviemaking.

Most of the critics groups have by now handed out their annual awards. Also on Saturday, for instance, the National Society of Film Critics named David Lynch’s dreamlike “Mulholland Drive” the year’s best film, just as the New York Film Critics Circle had a month earlier. The National Board of Review chose Baz Luhrmann’s opulent musical “Moulin Rouge,” while Los Angeles critics picked Todd Field’s family drama, “In the Bedroom.”

How much real effect the new, untested American Film Institute awards might have on the wide- open Oscar race, however, remains to be seen. The institute’s inaugural ceremonies were somewhat ragged and conspicuously short of actual winners on hand to pick up their honors. (Among the missing were the best-actor winner, Denzel Washington, who played a crooked cop in “Training Day,” and the winner for directing, Robert Altman, who was selected for “Gosford Park,” although Sissy Spacek was present to accept best-actress honors for “In the Bedroom.”)

Coming weeks will also bring the Broadcast Film Critics awards (on Jan. 11) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes (on Jan. 20), followed by awards from the actors, directors and other Hollywood guilds in February and March. Oscar nominations will be announced on Feb. 12, with the awards ceremony on March 24 in the new Kodak Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

The institute, best known for its annual Lifetime Achievement Award and its occasional lists of the Top 100 this or that type of film (also accompanied by a television special), decided to take a slightly different approach from other groups in its annual honors. Unlike the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes and others, the institute’s top award is given to a film’s entire creative team, a calculated effort to highlight the collaborative nature of filmmaking and to stress the contributions of those whose work is usually less celebrated.

And instead of five nominations, the final award is chosen from an annual top-10 list, which this year included “A Beautiful Mind,” “Black Hawk Down,” “In the Bedroom,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Memento,” “Monster’s Ball,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Mulholland Drive” and “Shrek.”

Mr. Jackson’s film also won awards for its visual effects and production design, while “Moulin Rouge” was honored for its music and editing and “Memento” for its screenplay. Gene Hackman was named best featured actor for “The Royal Tenenbaums” (the National Society of Film Critics had earlier in the day named him best lead actor for the same role), and Jennifer Connelly won best featured actress for “A Beautiful Mind.” Mr. Hackman and Ms. Connelly, too, were not on hand to pick up their awards.

The institute also handed out awards for television, naming “The Sopranos” best dramatic series and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” best comedy series. Both are on HBO.