When the AFI announced their top ten of the year, it was astonishing that two acclaimed films about American entrepreneurs, were left off of their list. It was a very carefully curated list, as it always is, but with the two glaring omissions of Ford v Ferrari and Dolemite Is My Name it represents a misread of the year in film and only serves to illustrate how insular the Oscar race and it’s feeder tributaries have become, especially the rush to judgement in this year’s crushingly compressed time frame.
The Oscar race was never meant to take place in the cloistered enclaves of festivals, private screenings, and VIP parties. It was meant to celebrate the most successful and critically acclaimed achievements in film. But if the taste and enthusiasm of the ticket-buying public is cut out of the equation, then what’s the point? We now have so many critics groups that honor and cleave so closely to this insider game and very few that look outside of it.
We’ll never know the various agendas at play today as the AFI judges endeavored to curate their list. But if any effort was made to eliminate movies that would stir criticism, then they have done a disservice by failing to create an accurate snapshot of year in film — in terms of how strongly American studios have stepped up and delivered a raft of quality films, making a great case that the epic theater experience is alive and well, proving that American cinema can still provide thrills that don’t rely on superheroes, and overall enhancing the collective experience of watching and appreciating movies.
With big studio offerings this year like WB’s Joker (and Richard Jewell and Just Mercy), Universal’s 1917 (and Us and Queen & Slim), why would they not complete the picture and include Fox’s Ford v Ferrari?
I didn’t expect they would go for three Netflix movies. And I’ve been hearing for months that they would only pick The Irishman and Marriage Story, but somehow I could not bring myself to believe this. How could anyone argue that Dolemite Is My Name isn’t one of the best films of the year? Oh well, I guess a number of critics would agree with that. They somehow don’t see it as “important” enough, which is curious. Is it that they feel uneasy about what they’re supposed to be rooting for? Such a successful film with a predominantly black cast would have been the only such film in the AFI lineup, and would qualify as one of the most significant of the year by most people who aren’t critics. But there’s that weight of so-called “importance” that it apparently lacks? It’s not good enough that that it’s just a really good film?
This year, several titles on this list are films that no one has yet seen. And as we know, once a film is seen by the public, the dialogue around it changes and perceptions also shift so that in a year’s time this list might look odd to those who actually remember the reception of some of these films. Of course, we can’t yet know that. But why not include films that are already known to be both critically acclaimed and popular?
One of the reasons the Oscars are seen to mean increasing less and less to regular civilians is that it often reflects nothing more than the insular bubble of those who cover the race. Major taste-makers rarely step outside their designated lanes for fear of being mowed down in oncoming traffic. The AFI’s annual list of ten films has always rightly forsworn calling their 10 titles the “best” of the year — instead opting to celebrate their choices as the “AFI Motion Pictures of the Year” — but this year, more than usual, their picks represents what the bubble of Oscar punditry has proclaimed the 10 Favorites Most Likely to Succeed.
It doesn’t really matter, because nothing really matters when it comes to the game of film awards. But all I can say to this is, come on. Really?
98% audience rating for Ford v Ferrari with 16,457 ratings.
Dolemite Is My Name didn’t have the chance to play to theaters so it couldn’t do what Ford v Ferrari is doing — make money and register audience enjoyment, but even with that, it is still doing really well. And yet, both these quintessential American narratives were ignored by the AFI.
Audience ratings show how well these movies are received in the real world. And I can promise you that these numbers will remain higher than almost every other movie on the AFI list.
When I first started covering the Oscars, twenty years ago, no one cared what the critics thought when it came to the Oscars — least of all the Oscar voters. Over time, that changed because the conversation got bigger, and the very process of handicapping the ponies in the race required data points to plug into the formula. Suddenly, last year everyone realized that the Oscars had pinched themselves off from the whole movie going population to curate and cultivate this isolated island. Hence, the threat of a sad stop-gap measure to initiate a ghetto category reserved for — brace yourselves — popular films.
Now, we see that clash playing out. Today we see it starkly outlined. The New York Film Critics are doing what they should be doing — rewarding films that the critics like. The AFI though? They should try to maintain a broader view of the year in film, as supposed custodians of American film history. Maybe they should expand that list to 20 so that the AFI panel can include all the films they need to make the point they want to make, as well as including the actual best films of the year.
As I said, it doesn’t matter because nothing really does where film awards are concerned, but as someone who participates in helping the shape the Oscar landscape, I hate to see others stiffen the Oscar confines, I would hope that we can remember what it is that makes a good film. Something’s missing in this tribute to American movies, That missing element is American moviegoers.