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The AFI Lists. Useful or Redundant?

Earlier today we heard the AFI Lists for film and television. I immediately wondered what purpose they served. There are so many lists these days that are like spotlights on "CONSENSUS!" that the very act of publishing them feels redundant. With so many talking heads commenting on the Oscar race each year, both full time specialists and average reporters who become part time "experts" by virtue of, um, grist for the content mill, consensus is no longer an interesting thing to "find" or "capture" because it is so very inescapable.  AFI's list looks EXACTLY like an Oscar pundits chart, whereas in year's past they seemed to be about 70% Oscary 10% populist and 20% random. In fact, it looks the Gurus of Gold made it!

The AFI Top Ten (Motion Pictures)

In fact it's identitical to the current Gurus of Gold top ten chart but for one switcheroo: the pundit chart includes Lee Daniels' The Butler instead of Fruitvale Station. Interestingly enough, both Best Picture hopefuls come from the Weinstein Company who are our usual Oscar champs but seem to be struggling with traction this year. In fairness, The Butler was never expected to place during "critic's week" but if it doesn't perform well at SAG and the Globes in a couple of days, it's Oscar dreams will die.

This can only mean two things:


  1. The AFI committee this year is secretly composed of only BFCA members and they're aiming to exactly predict the Best Picture race.
  2. It's a weak year for British pictures in terms of American traction. Since the AFI only looks at American pictures, strong British Oscar contenders sometimes automatically make the AFI list more interesting because they have to look elsewhere to fill the top ten. The only exclusion that might not be worrying awards strategists today is the exclusion of Philomena (also from Weinstein Co!) which is directed by, written by and stars Brits... and therefore ineligible. 


The American Film Institute also releases a television list for some reason despite the name of their organization. That went like so...

The AFI Top Ten - Television

And I think it's a (slightly) more interesting list in that it looks a little more like the AFI lists of yore in that it's partially awardsy but also kind of guilty pleasure buzz-sensitive. Or maybe it's just more interesting because people can actually enjoy these shows instead of the movie list which is (sigh) heavily titled towards movies that have just opened or haven't opened... just like the critics awards. It's still fairly Emmy correlative but there's no Homeland or Modern Family so that's something. I haven't had time to write about it but I am head over heels in love with / in lust for /  in awe of Masters of Sex, which is the single best show on television at the moment. It's so assured, so fresh, so perfectly cast... and weirdly gets better every single week. I really can't get over it. I look forward to each new episode like I haven't looked forward to any tv show's new episode in years. 

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Reader Comments (24)

Yay I feel the EXACT same way about Masters of Sex, Nat - wonderful wonderful wonderful from top to bottom (heh). I am totally into every single character, and every week it keeps enriching its world and finding surprising layers and shades to play. RAVE.

December 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJA

lizzy caplan, allison janney, julianne nicholson, caitlin fitzgerald, helene york, ann dowd, anneliegh ashford - hmmm, i wonder what the appeal of masters of sex is...?

(although micheal sheen, beau bridges and the boy from election are pretty great too)

lizzy caplan singing? i heard you fall from here

December 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpar3182

Nathaniel: are you still watching revenge?

December 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdave

Nathan, did u see that EW chose AHS best in TV.

December 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I totally hope The Butler totally goes down the drain and Fruitvale Station prevails.

December 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Masters of Sex better get some Golden Globe nominations this week.
The whole thing is so absolutely amazing is every aspect they even make me root for Allison Janney to win another Emmy as best guest actress.

December 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVictor S

MoS is so good. It was a slow burn for me, but it's just blazing hot. And I'm happy to say that I watch 9 of the 10 AFI shows. Only show I need to still watch is SCANDAL. Soon.

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

I'm so behind the curve on new shows these days. Have yet to watch a single episode of Orange is the New Black, and I've only seen the pilot (which I liked very much) of Masters of Sex.

Still, I agree that the TV list does a better job of capturing where the TV zeitgeist is these days. The movie list is fine - I've seen eight of the selected movies and they're all good or better than good movies. But it's too Oscar-y, and gives a limited view of what has been a wonderfully diverse, exciting year in film.

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

@Rick I can not imagine the Butler winning anything substantial especially with the competition that has already been seen and soon to be American Hustle and WOWS. It was a complete melodrama.

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkatie

August Osage County doesn't look like it's gonna get a Best Pic nom - and Streep and Martindale don't look like getting nods either.

This regularly happens when a critically acclaimed Broadway theatre show gets the film treatment. Carnage also missed out at the Oscars.

BTW - have Mandela -Long Walk to Freedom's chances improved now that the great man has gone to heaven?

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

I haven't watched all of Masters of Sex but while I liked OITNB, it and House of Cards (MEH) appearances on end of year Top Ten lists are baffling. Again I like OITNB but seeing it ranked over Enlightened or Top of the Lake to me is insanity.

I get Scandal as a populist pick. That said, I really wish the list highlighted the artistry that is unflattening the television format like Hannibal.

At least they put Mad Men, The Americans, and Veep on the list but to me Justified is missing to me is just an easy pick. Compared to shows that fell off the list like Homeland, Justified has managed four seasons, and I know people will always insist the second season could not be possibly replicated, of effortless television. It gets no love and I am honestly confused as to why.

I've not paid attention to the list too much but do animated shows ever get singled out, like golden age era of The Simpsons? Not that Archer or Bob's Burgers would have a shot but I'm curious.

I shouldn't measure my taste versus a critic group because I am fairly certain my list would have Turner Classic Movies near the top and I'd have WWE RAW share a spot with Mad Men because I see correlations.

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I absolutely hated "Nebraska," but alas, I fear it's this year's "Silver Linings Playbook" (another film I really disliked, aside from Jennifer Lawrence), or "As Good As It Gets" (which I loathe). I think I have a thing about faux-cynical, "edgy" movies that go all flooey at the end. But there's no point in dissing "Nebraska" at this point--lots of people love it, and its awards momentum is going to bump off other, worthier candidates ("Fruitvale Station" "The Butler" "Before Midnight" "Short Term 12" etc.). Whatever awards it's up for at the Oscars, I hope it loses every one of them--especially the garishly cartoonish June Squibb. (I did like Will Forte's subtle work, and the beautiful cinematography and evocative, minimalist score.)

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

The only thing the list tells us is Harvey is probably pushing Fruitvale hardest, which I think is a mistake. Of the four he has in play, while The Butler has a shot, I think it would be smartest to back August: Osage County. I'm betting it gets two nominations for acting, which will be more than any of his other films (though I'm not sure if the supporting nod will go to Roberts or Martindale - or maybe even both).

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I don't understand how Before Midnight isn't getting many Top Ten notices; great reviews, willing campaigners, expertly crafted. Boggles the mind.

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

Orphan Black is missing from the tv list.

The movie list is predictable.

I agree that August and Butler seem to be fading from the conversation. Not surprised in regard to AOC. stage to screen is not as easy as it used to be.....seems the opposite is more the case lately. But for Butler, which had so much buzz earlier........I'm not even sure Oprah is a sure thing anymore for a nom, let alone a win.

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I remember when the AFI actually stood for something. They still claim to: their website notes the AFI Award-winning films are selected "through AFI's unique jury process." But as you so rightly point out, there's nothing "unique" about this list. The AFI is either kidding themselves or lying to the rest of us.

One would hope that the American Film Institute would dig deep into the year in American film -- not just picking over the well-publiized awards fodder, but delving among the one-week-run indies and festival favorites still looking for distributors.

Maybe they should get John Waters on their "unique jury"!

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

The AFI list doesn't make sense when you compare it to what their website claims the list is meant to symbolise. "[E]nhance the rich cultural heritage of America’s art form, inspire audiences and artists alike, and/or make a mark on American society.”

Honestly, NEBRASKA and SAVING MR BANKS have enriched the cultural heritage of America, inspired audiences and made a mark on American society? Actually, it's statistically impossible for that last point to be proven for at least half the films since they're not even released yet. How can WOLF, BANKS, HUSTLE, HER and LLEWYN DAVIS (released for not even one week so far) have left a mark on American society? Hell, how can they have enhanced the cultural heritage when nobody but critics and a handful of festivalgoers have had the chance to, well, been, enriched by them?

Going by their own definitions, I'd say FRANCES HA, BEFORE MIDNIGHT and BLUE JASMINE would have been worthy selections. But, then again, they've been released for some time and have had a chance to have actually made an impression on anybody. Hell, even THE GREAT GATSBY would be an appropriate choice.

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Where's Girls?!!

I'm so glad you're watching Masters of Sex. The minute Ann Dowd appeared on screen I thought of you and last year's interview. I agree that Alison Janney's performance is a little work of art.

Does anyone watch Getting On starring Laurie Metcalf? I've only seen two episodes, but I'm already in love.

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Glenn--I think you read my mind.

I would imagine that less than 2,000 Americans have seen the films that haven't been officially released yet. I always think that this list should be delayed by at least 6 months, otherwise the real list should be composed of Catching Fire, Thor, and Fast and Furious 6, and maybe Despicable Me 2 and Frozen. That's the real American culture!

Thrilled to see Orange is the New Black on the TV list!

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I haven't seen many of these movies but it is a pretty boring list. Thesr are almost all the BP contenders.

And I hope all this Gravity love means people will revisit Children of Men, the true masterpiece of Cuaron's work.

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

This is tangentially related to the AFI television list: Regina Spektor is Grammy-nominated for that shrieky atrocity she sings over the Orange is the New Black title sequence. That song is the absolute worst.

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

Hayden: LOL - I LOVE that credits song. I bought it on ITunes and everything!

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Hayden--ack! Regina Spektor! Yikes, my nemesis (well one of em)

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Did You Know? Peter Travers secretly compiles the AFI Top Ten.

Seriously, though, it does look like Oscar buzz drives this list and not the other way around. In the previous three years, only four BP nominees weren't on an AFI Top 10, and three of those were not American (Amour, The Artist, The King's Speech). That sole American oversight? Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which no one predicted, so they can be excused.

Even their weak predictive percentage in 2009—5 out of 10—can be mostly explained away: An Education and District 9 were foreign-made, and Avatar and The Blind Side's Oscar buzz only begun to generate after the AFI's early-December list was released; I'm convinced that if AFI had waited until the actual end of the year, they'd have included those two titles and knocked off two "lesser" movies. Somehow they missed Inglourious Basterds that year—but they learned from that lesson by correctly predicting um, SELECTING Django Unchained last year even though that movie's Oscar buzz hadn't formed yet.

So basically, yeah, with the exception of Philomena or some unforeseen weak-but-popular late entry, this is the list to work from. (And it will probably be 9 BP nominees again. Let's get used to that.)

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJ.P.

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