AFI's Lists of 2014's Best Films and TV Shows Serve Up Some Surprises

THR's awards analyst explains how the AFI Awards honorees are chosen, and why the AFI's movie list differs from the Academy's in very specific ways each year
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival; Courtesy of Amazon Studios
'Nightcrawler,' 'Transparent'

With Oscar nominations voting only weeks away — and SAG Awards nomination voting having just closed at noon PT, with Golden Globe Awards nomination voting closing at 5 pm PT — many in the industry are closely studying the meaning of Monday afternoon's announcement of the 15th annual AFI Awards honorees. The AFI annually selects a list of the year's top 10 films (though this year, the list grew to 11) and top 10 TV shows of the year.

Do the AFI Awards offer insight into how the Academy itself may act down the road? Yes and no.

AFI Awards selections are made "through an AFI jury process in which AFI trustees, scholars, film and television artists and critics determine the most outstanding achievements of the year." It is unclear exactly how many of the jurors are also members of the Academy (film and/or TV), but it is understood that quite a few are, including this year's film jury chair Tom Pollock (former vice chair of MCA and chair of Universal) and TV jury chair Rich Frank (former president of Disney and the TV Academy), along with the likes of Vince Gilligan, Marshall Herskovitz, Patty Jenkins, Kasi Lemmons, Matty Libatique and Phylicia Rashad. That means that one cannot dismiss the relevance of their picks.

Read more AFI List of Top 10 Films Expands to Include 11 Movies

As far as the criteria that they must consider in making those picks, the Academy considers all films for its best picture Oscar, whereas the AFI considers only American films for its top 10 list (hey, they are the American Film Institute). When the two groups have not overlapped in the past, it has usually been a case of the AFI recognizing a big studio film (which they tend to gravitate toward because of or in spite of the fact that the big studios provide AFI with much of its funding) that is then replaced in the best picture Oscar race by either an indie film or by nothing at all. (The Academy is not obligated to include 10 films, but rather somewhere between five and 10 — they've settled on nine the last three years).

Consider these discrepancies from the last three years. Last year, AFI included Fruitvale Station, Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks, which the Academy replaced with Dallas Buyers Club and Philomena — in other words, two indies replaced two indies and the Academy passed on one studio film that AFI endorsed. The year before, AFI included The Dark Knight Rises and Moonrise Kingdom, which the Academy replaced with Amour — a foreign indie that had been ineligible for AFI replaced an American indie and the Academy passed on one studio film that AFI endorsed. And the year before that, AFI included Bridesmaids, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and J. Edgar, which the Academy replaced with The Artist and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — the Academy replaced one studio film with an indie, another studio film with a different studio film and dropped a third studio film altogether.

See more Hollywood's 100 Favorite Films               

The point is that while it is unlikely that the Academy will replace an AFI pick with another studio film, it could replace one with an indie.

This year, AFI's film picks were American Sniper (Warner Bros.), Birdman (Fox Searchlight), Boyhood (IFC Films), Foxcatcher (Sony Classics), The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Co.), Interstellar (Paramount), Into the Woods (Disney), Nightcrawler (Open Road Films), Selma (Paramount), Unbroken (Universal) and Whiplash (Sony Classics). The inclusions that surprised some people were American Sniper (although I've been saying it's a strong contender ever since I saw it), Interstellar, Into the Woods and Nightcrawler (the least conventional "awards" movie of the lot, but a contender that deserves to be taken seriously after this and its recognition from the Independent Spirit Awards, National Board of Review and Online Film Critics, among others).

The most glaring absences were The Theory of Everything (which was apparently ineligible, although I don't know how that film is any more British than The Imitation Game), plus two films that seem to resonate more with women than with men, Gone Girl and Wild. If I'd take anything away from today's announcement, it's a reminder that the voting bodies for most of these awards groups are disproportionately male (the Academy is 76 percent male), which could jeopardize the best picture prospects of those sorts of films.

See more 10 Highest-Grossing Movie Sequels                       

Now let's turn to the TV list, for which series and, apparently, one-off miniseries were eligible. The AFI went with The Americans (FX), Fargo (FX), Game of Thrones (HBO), How to Get Away With Murder (ABC), Jane the Virgin (The CW), The Knick (Cinemax), Mad Men (AMC), Orange Is the New Black (Netflix), Silicon Valley (HBO) and Transparent (Amazon).

The most glaring omissions: True Detective (HBO) — how is that not there? — as well as House of Cards (Netflix), The Good Wife (CBS), Masters of Sex (Showtime), Scandal (ABC) and Veep (HBO), all of which made the AFI list last year. (PBS's very British Downton Abbey, of course, was ineligible.) The inclusion, presumably in their place, of the new shows How to Get Away With Murder, Jane the Virgin, The Knick, Silicon Valley and Transparent are noteworthy mostly in that they suggest that people in the industry are watching and liking them. (FX's American Horror Story, HBO's Girls, Showtime's Homeland, FX's Louie, ABC's Modern Family and AMC's The Walking Dead haven't cracked the AFI's list since 2012.) Whether or not the members of the SAG nominating committee, Hollywood Foreign Press Association or TV Academy are among them, though, remains to be seen.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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