AFI Awards: Top 10 List Brings Good News for A24 and Netflix, Bad News for 'First Man'

Whenever AFI and the Academy have disagreed on top honors, it almost always has been a case of AFI recognizing a big studio film that is then replaced in the best picture Oscar race by either an indie film and/or a non-American film — or by nothing at all.
A24/Photofest
Ethan Hawke in 'First Reformed'

For the first time this season, a Hollywood-area voting body with real gravitas — and a solid track record of correlating with the Academy — has weighed in on the awards race.

The American Film Institute, as represented by juries of distinguished industry professionals, has brought universally expected good news for Disney's Black Panther, Fox Searchlight's The Favourite, Universal's Green Book and Warner Bros.' A Star Is Born, all of which cracked the organization's top 10 list. It also included Disney's Mary Poppins Returns and Paramount's A Quiet Place, neither a slam-dunk, but both probable picks with a group funded by the major studios.

With the final four slots, though, anything was possible. Interestingly, the juries ultimately opted for Focus Features' BlacKkKlansman and Annapurna's If Beale Street Could Talk — like Black Panther and Green Book, films about racial tensions — and two underdog indies from A24, Eighth Grade and First Reformed, which continue to pick up accolades left and right (they already won Gotham, National Board of Review and New York Film Critics Circle awards, and landed Spirit Award nominations).

One other awards hopeful received good news via AFI's announcement on Tuesday: Netflix's Roma, which is decidedly non-American (it is a Mexican Spanish-language film), was voted a special award, just like the French film The Artist seven years ago.

But for every happy campaign, there are many left disappointed — among them, Annapurna's Vice (which began screening late in the game, but so did Mary Poppins Returns), Warners' Crazy Rich Asians, Fox Searchlight's Can You Ever Forgive Me? (which has gained little traction anywhere apart from the supporting turn of Richard E. Grant) and Fox's Widows and Bohemian Rhapsody — but none more so, one can safely assume, than First Man. The expensive space-set film was thought to be Universal's best bet before Green Book lapped it at the Toronto International Film Festival en route to the audience award, but now looks wounded. Indeed, based on recent history, if a big studio production cannot make it with AFI, it is unlikely that it can make it anywhere. 

Indeed, whenever AFI and the Academy have disagreed on top honors, it almost always has been a case of AFI recognizing a big studio film that is then replaced in the best picture Oscar race by either an indie film and/or a non-American film — or by nothing at all. In 2017, AFI included Warners' Wonder Woman, Amazon's The Big Sick and A24's The Florida Project; the Academy replaced them with Focus' Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread. In 2016, AFI included Paramount's Silence and Disney's Zootopia; the Academy replaced them with The Weinstein Co.'s Lion. In 2015, AFI included Disney-Pixar's Inside Out, Disney's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Universal's Straight Outta Compton and The Weinstein Co.'s Carol; the Academy replaced them with Paramount's The Revenant and Fox Searchlight's Brooklyn.

In 2014, AFI included Paramount's Interstellar, Disney's Into the Woods, Universal's Unbroken, Sony Classics' Foxcatcher and Open Road's Nightcrawler; the Academy replaced them with Focus' The Theory of Everything. In 2013, AFI included Disney's Saving Mr. Banks, CBS Films' Inside Llewyn Davis and The Weinstein Co.'s Fruitvale Station; the Academy replaced them with Focus' Dallas Buyers Club and The Weinstein Co.'s Philomena. In 2012, AFI included Warners' The Dark Knight Rises and Focus' Moonrise Kingdom; the Academy replaced them with Sony Classics' Amour. And in 2011, AFI included Universal's Bridesmaids, Sony's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Warners' J. Edgar; the Academy replaced them with The Weinstein Co.'s The Artist and Warners' Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

There is still plenty of time for films to gain and lose momentum before members of the Academy — who number far more than any other voting body, especially the relatively small AFI juries — are invited to weigh in. Critics' Choice Awards voting is now underway; I'm a BFCA member and turned in my e-ballot on Monday, but aggressive lobbying continues — for instance, deliverymen in 18th century costume dropped off "How goes the kingdom" cakes on behalf of The Favourite. Golden Globe nominations will be announced Thursday. And SAG Award nominations follow on Dec. 12.

Many AFI jurors are trustees of the organization, which may have put Wonder Woman (directed by AFI Conservatory alum Patty Jenkins) over the top last year, and First Reformed (written and directed by AFI Conservatory charter class member Paul Schrader) this year — although, in fairness, it must be noted that alum-status did nothing for Darren Aronofsky with Mother! last year.