Institute celebrates its picks for the top 10 films and TV shows of the year

By Nicole Sperling
Updated January 08, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Guests at the annual AFI Awards luncheon love the AFI luncheon. The event, which celebrates what the institute deems the top 10 films and television shows of the year, features no acceptance speeches, no losers, and no glad-handing. Set days before the Golden Globe awards and a week before the Oscar nominations are revealed, the AFI awards luncheon is a brief respite during the ever-more frenzied award season.

According to its president Bob Gazzale, it’s a “campaign-free zone,” where “you don’t have to thank anybody. We are here to thank you.”

As such, the brief program consists of a lot of pre-lunch schmoozing, where most of Hollywood’s studio heads — including Disney’s Bob Iger, Fox’s Jim Gianopolus and Stacey Snider, Universal’s Jeff Shell, Ron Meyer and Donna Langley, Warner Bros. Kevin Tsujihara and Sue Kroll, and of course Harvey Weinstein — commiserated with the filmmakers, showrunners and actors behind the honored films and shows.

Mad Men’s Jon Hamm was on hand with former castmates January Jones and Kiernan Shipka and creator Matthew Weiner to receive AFI’s special award recognizing the show’s landmark contributions to America’s cultural legacy across nine years. Hamm introduced himself to Ryan Gosling (The Big Short) and commended him for his recent Saturday Night Live performance. Weinstein chatted up Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams. Bridge of Spies director Steven Spielberg talked with Blackish star Anthony Anderson, while The Big Short director Adam McKay was practically rendered speechless when he met one of his idols, legendary director, producer, and writer Robert Towne (Chinatown), who offered the benediction closing the event. With no cameras and a tiny press line, he mood was light and breezy.

The show was also an opportunity to celebrate the 50-year-old AFI Institute, which included 39 graduates in its lists of honored films and TV shows this year, including Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spotlight producer Steve Golin, and Straight Outta Compton cinematographer Matthew Libatique, among others.

Learn why the AFI jury selected each honoree in the list below:


THE BIG SHORT achieves the extraordinary — making sense of the 2008 market collapse and making it entertaining. Adam McKay’s whip-smart satire pulses with brazen pacing, pop-up celebrity cameos and AAA performances from Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. This endlessly innovative comedy is also an object lesson in greed’s consequences for the many and, ultimately, a tale to break a nation’s heart.

BRIDGE OF SPIES is history written in moving images and another chapter in this nation’s collective chronicle brought to life by an American master, Steven Spielberg. A brilliant script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen serves as code to crack this story of the Cold War, with Tom Hanks proving his place in the canon alongside cinema’s great everyman heroes. His charge to defend a Soviet spy — portrayed in a transformative turn from Mark Rylance — embodies our nation in its finest hour, fighting for what’s right no matter the cost.

CAROL sets the screen aglow with the light of longing as Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara transform a period piece into a timeless cry from defiant hearts. Todd Haynes serves their romance as a restorative cocktail, adding splashes of color to a repressive Eisenhower-era, when love was often seen in black-and-white. From luminous performances to sumptuous production, this is cinema’s promise fulfilled — a haunting portrait in moving images, painted in the universal hues of heartache and passion.

INSIDE OUT invites audiences on an introspective adventure unlike any other — bringing to life the emotions that make us whole, while sending them on their own sentimental journey of self-discovery. Presenting this existential exploration as an epic candy-colored confection, Pete Docter and Pixar’s brain-trust have created an utterly unforgettable experience — taking us inside the mind of a young girl to consider the emotional bond between sadness and joy.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD explodes with apocalyptic anarchy — a journey of fire and blood through which the action genre is razed to the ground and reborn. Visionary director George Miller drives the creative engine that fuels this cinematic fever dream with poetic rage and balletic brutality. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are the hardened heroes of this blockbuster bacchanal, breathing fearless purpose into chaos with steely, human resolve.

THE MARTIAN takes us to another planet to illustrate what it is to be human. This epic tale of survival is directed with cosmic wonder by Ridley Scott, who fills space with breathtaking spectacle but saves the film’s greatest wonderment for the mind of man. Matt Damon’s singular performance orbits all aspects of human emotion — embodying a united world’s boundless capacity for hope, sparked by the soaring power of science.

ROOM opens a window into a world of darkness — a harrowing nightmare for a mother and son held captive in unimaginable circumstances. Amidst the horror, Lenny Abrahamson creates an expansive space filled with wonder, and tenacious performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay illuminate the power of imagination and hope, while asking us to consider the cost of survival.

SPOTLIGHT puts the power of journalism on the front page. With measure befitting the investigative method, Tom McCarthy presents The Boston Globe’s inquiry into cardinal sins without tabloid sensationalism — creating tension around the team’s dauntless pursuit of truth. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams are the dogged journalists behind the story, standing for an age of integrity in the news media when no one was above question, including those asking the questions.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS stands as a cultural landmark for generations young and old. J.J. Abrams takes the helm of George Lucas’ beloved saga with this epic popcorn opera fueled by the combined power of myth and movie magic. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver join the indelible characters created by Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill — expanding the iconic galaxy far, far away with this timeless gift to all who love the movies.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is an American anthem to the explosive power of art. This potent, pulsing story of the rise and fall of N.W.A is a raging tonic for troubled times — and F. Gary Gray’s ode to the strength of street knowledge stands as a celebration of talent, courage and voices rising against injustice. O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell inhabit their iconic roles as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E with righteous attitude, honoring a rich legacy while expressing themselves to a new generation.


THE AMERICANS turns up the heat in its third year, as Joe Weisberg frames his Cold War thriller as an increasingly intimate family snapshot. With secrets uncovered by their daughter and facing fall-out from activities un-American, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys expertly fuse domestic drama with espionage — a tightening vice with dire consequences.

BETTER CALL SAUL makes its name on the bad breaks of its desperate shyster hero, deftly shifting tone from comedy to tragedy and back again. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould cast a glance back to imagine a past all new and equally undeniable, as Bob Odenkirk embodies the series’ slippery spirit with a masterful sad-sack performance, always looking for validation and an angle.

BLACK-ISH rejoices in the power of the sitcom to find what is funny in today’s issues of race and class. At the comedy’s core are insights into America’s everyday, as Kenya Barris and a stellar ensemble led by Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross strive to find balance between a family’s financial comfort and their collective discomfort with compromising their cultural identity.

EMPIRE roars with the power of pure entertainment. Lee Daniels and Danny Strong take a more-is-more approach to this Shakespearean tale of hip-hop sovereignty that revels in the Lyon dynasty’s audacious excess. Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson raise the roof with pitch perfect performances, firmly placing Lucious and Cookie in the pantheon of TV power couples.

FARGO paints a great American portrait of hell frozen over. Black comedy and white-knuckle suspense form an icy bond in the second year of Noah Hawley’s anthology series. Kirsten Dunst and Patrick Wilson lead a deliciously deadpan ensemble in an escalating bloodbath, where chills and Midwestern cheer fall like a quiet snow.

GAME OF THRONES unfurls its wings to even greater cinematic horizons. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss chart a course through the series’ fifth year by exposing even its most powerful players to atavistic atrocities. This emphasis on the inhumanity of humanity evokes empathy for the most Machiavellian of monsters, as well as true horror when the blood of beloved heroes is spilled in snow.

HOMELAND continues to shine as a beacon of the times, bringing the war on terror to television with breathtaking immediacy. This fifth year of Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon’s series expands its scope as an urgent lightning rod for global current events — from classified security leaks to the threat of ISIS. Hope is embodied by Carrie Mathison, the fractured force of nature played by the ever-extraordinary Claire Danes.

MASTER OF NONE heralds Aziz Ansari as a jack-of-all-talents — a first-generation American whose take on today gives new voice to a contemporary coming of age. Together with co-creator Alan Yang and a cast that includes his parents, Ansari presents this slice-of-life series with the comfortable irreverence of a conversation between friends — discussing commitment and love, race and family, and the millennial battle between ambition and obligation.

ROBOT is electrifying entertainment. Riding a current between activism and anarchy, Sam Esmail’s kinky cyber-thriller acts as a hallucinatory looking glass — where nihilism is inspired by Christian Slater’s mysterious “fsociety” and contemporary fears are reflected in the mesmerizing eyes of Rami Malek.

UNREAL turns an unblinking eye on the ugly reality of reality TV. This darkly comic meta-series from Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro leaves humanity for dead on the cutting room floor as Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer’s malicious masterminds manipulate bad behavior in service of great television.

AFI SPECIAL AWARD: MAD MEN taught the world to sing of television as an art form. With a monumental final episode to a landmark run spanning nine years, Matthew Weiner’s meticulously crafted series transcended the tube to become a true cultural touchstone. AFI offers a two-martini toast to an American masterpiece, brought to life by an incomparable creative ensemble.