A weekly column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit

There was much anticipation surrounding today’s release of the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Movies Of The Year list, as it has often come close to what eventually is picked by Oscar voters — even though the Academy rarely matches AFI’s number, so inevitably titles are not always perfectly correlated. The biggest surprise snub for me was the very American and very moving Loving, which I thought would be right in the AFI’s wheelhouse. (It wasn’t a completely bad day for the Jeff Nichols film, which was announced as the winner of the Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild Of America.

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Focus Features, which released that film and another not chosen, Nocturnal Animals, can take heart and look at last year’s AFI list which was one of the worst in terms of matching Oscar, with only six films in common. The Revenant, which won three Oscars including Best Director, and Brooklyn, (which wasn’t eligible due to its foreign roots) were nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture prize without making the AFI list. The Weinstein Company’s Lion would be another potential Best Pic Oscar nominee (it just received awards in Paris and London in the past 24 hours) that was ineligible for AFI, as was Fox Searchlight’s Jackie which was directed by Chilean Pablo Larrain. Still I would say AFI’s annual list, which they also do for television, is on a par in terms of importance with the Guild nominations in terms of predicting which way the Oscar winds may be blowing.

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If that becomes the case this time around it certainly was a very good year for Paramount and Lionsgate, both thought to be holding hot hands this season with several possibilities each – and they didn’t disappoint. Paramount is repped by Arrival, Fences, and Martin Scorsese’s late breaking Silence. Lionsgate had La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge and Hell Or High Water, the latter film they distribute for CBS Films. That is six movies out of ten for just two distributors, not leaving much for the rest. In addition to Paramount, only Warner Bros with Sully and Disney with their animated Zootopia were holding the flag for the major studios this time around.

Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Michael Buckner/Deadline

It was inevitable two other Oscar front runners would make this list for the indies and that was Amazon Studios’ first time cracking the list with Manchester By The Sea, distributed by Roadside Attractions, and A24’s much lauded Moonlight making the cut for the little-indie-distrib-that-could, which had Room in the running last year. What this list also confirms is that Mel Gibson is firmly back in Hollywood’s good graces as his impressive directorial achievement
Hacksaw Ridge made the cut to help erase doubts that anti-Mel sentiment that could harm awards chances for this terrific and inspirational war movie might still be out there. Interestingly it was a big day for someone who truly is a Hollywood pariah as the AFI electors named the Emmy winning The People Vs. O J Simpson as one of their top 10 TV programs of the year, and voted a special award for the TV/Movie hybrid seven-plus hour ESPN and ABC documentary series, O.J.: Made In America. I look forward to the AFI annual luncheon in January, always a highlight of the season as the chosen movies and shows are all regarded as winners and there are no acceptance speeches, just good vibes all around.

LA LA INVADES THE REAL LA LA LAND

After what has seemed to be a never-ending journey on the fall film festival circuit, at least since Venice over three months ago, one of those AFI honorees, La La Land, finally had its “official” premiere Tuesday night in the city for which it was named, even though last month it also played AFI Fest in Hollywood. Nevertheless the reception at the Westwood Village theatre was said to be euphoric, which I could definitely tell by just trying to make my way through the imposing crush of humanity fighting to get into the W Hotel after party. Security was keeping some revelers at bay, saying the fire marshall (standing just outside the entrances) was ready to shut it down if they let anyone else in. The film’s awards consultant practically had to beg them to let Emma Stone’s family (including mom and grandma) back into the room at one point. Stone and Ryan Gosling were practically crushed against the walls with well-wishers on the eve of a joint hand and footprint ceremony at the Chinese Theatre that was scheduled for Wednesday morning.

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Lionsgate

I asked Gosling what he thought about the honor of getting his digits in cement at the Hollywood Blvd landmark. “I just hope I don’t get arrested for vandalism,” he cracked. He didn’t. It all made for one of those magical movie dreams, the kind La La Land celebrates in its own way. Gosling has been off in europe making Blade Runner 2049 which he said they just finally finished. Director of that film, Denis Villeneuve, is also in town this week making up for lost time on the awards beat, doing Q&As for his hit, Arrival. He had to miss all of that film’s premieres, even the first one in Venice.

31 year old La La wunderkind Writer/Director Damien Chazelle told me he used to live in Westwood, so he was thrilled to actually see his movie premiere there. L.A. native that I am, I told this fellow movie nerd the very first film I ever saw was at the Village, Disney’s Lady And The Tramp, which was originally billed as the first animated movie ever presented in CinemaScope, the wide screen process that gets an hommage right in the first few frames of La La Land. Chazelle started waxing rhapsodic about the songs in that movie, while noting his first ever cinematic experience was another Disney animated offering, Cinderella. He was mobbed by the way, as you might expect, including by Lionsgate top execs Jon Feltheimer and Patrick Wachsberger, who both look like the cat who swallowed the canary thanks to the reception so far to their holiday release and hot contender which finally opens tomorrow, with the filmmakers and stars doing personal appearances at in-theatre Q&As all weekend long.

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I was really pleased to meet La La lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who both look like they could still be in their teens but are in the envious position of conquering Broadway and Hollywood at the same moment, since their critically acclaimed Off-Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen  just had a smash Broadway opening on Sunday (they are bookending Evan book writer Steven Levenson in photo on left). They hopped a plane and hit the West Coast for their smash La La opening on Tuesday.  You  can’t write these kinds of show biz success stories.  Turns out they are Deadline fans as well. Among those seeing the film for a second (or is it third time) was Patricia Kelly, widow of  musical legend Gene Kelly whose MGM musicals were part of the key inspiration for this very contemporary take on the form.  She gets a ‘thank you’ credit at the end of the film because she says she let the filmmakers, including Gosling , come over to her house to look through her large Kelly memorabailia collection.

MANCHESTER BY THE AMAZON

Not to be outdone – or outgunned – by its competition another one of those AFI Top 10, plus a movie cleaning up on the early critics awards circuit, Manchester By The Sea was the centerpiece of a Saturday night party thrown by Amazon founder and chief Jeff Bezos, who decided to celebrate Amazon’s major entrance into the film world with a big bash at his Beverly Hills home. He tented part of the backyard (the part not taken up by the big pool and tennis court), and invited some friends and colleagues who just happened to be a real gathering of A-listers including Oscar winners like Faye Dunaway and Diane Keaton, and many other notables like Maria Shriver.

Jeff Bezos and Matt Damon's "Manchester By The Sea" Holiday Party
Amazon Studios

Matt Damon, a producer of Manchester, was hanging out by the bar for much of the night talking to the tony crowd that included Megan Mullally, who happens to be co-starring as Bryan Cranston’s wife in the upcoming Christmas comedy, Why Him?. I had just seen it and had to rave about the hilarious bedroom scene she pulls off in that movie, a scene she said wasn’t even in the original script. It’s an instant classic. “Are you kidding,” laughed Damon. “She’s been standing here telling me how great she is in this new film I haven’t heard of for the past ten minutes.” I guess I confirmed it for Mullally. “See I told you,” she said to Damon.

Among the many others also there was director Whit Stillman and star Kate Beckinsale from another Amazon indie hit, Love & Friendship which has been drawing Golden Globe Comedy buzz. Bezos, whom Wikipedia notes is the third richest person in the world at $72 billion, clearly has the cash to afford to throw this little party for his new found Hollywood friends. I was going to ask him if he could get me free shipping but I chickened out. He was really accessible to everyone who came up to him. Amazon looks to be a big new player in the Oscar game, and judging from the talk in the room Manchester By The Sea is every bit the contender its pedigree since its Sundance Film Festival debut has suggested it was.

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Claire Folger

Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan and stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams were among those from the film accepting congratulations from this particular group of industry heavyweights. But I have to say, without question, the biggest star in this room, at least right now, was not an actor or filmmaker at all, but rather a Bezos acquaintance from the political world (did I forget to say he also owns the Washington Post?), MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell who was holding court with this left-leaning Hollywood crowd still crushed by the election results. O’Donnell is one of the most respected commentators on the political scene and more than one person came up asking the post-Trump query, “are we going to be alright?” His answer, unfortunately, was “no”. Ouch. Still it was a fun night, and one of the most impressive this season.

NOCTURNAL CHOW-DOWN

Finally, earlier today, Focus Features decided to invite what seemed like the entire Hollywood press corps, including the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, to a luncheon for their Nocturnal Animals director Tom Ford at Mr. Chows in Beverly Hills.

The Contenders 2016: Presented by Deadline, Los Angeles, USA - 05 Nov 2016
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Everyone was packed compactly into five big tables in the side room of the landmark chinese restaurant as Ford, and two of his supporting stars Aaron Taylor Johnson and Armie Hammer, were shuffled between tables for conversations between dishes served up by the wait staff. Of course this is crunch time in more than just a food sense. Voting is going on for Critics Choice Awards winners happening this Sunday (I got my ballot this morning and it is due back tomorrow by 6pm), as well as Golden Globes which announce their nominees on Monday morning. It was no accident Focus timed this lunch when they did. It is also good to be front of mind when balloting is going on, and the personable and friendly Ford is someone who couldn’t be better at this. After he hit all the tables where the press was gathered, I suggested he might go out to the rest of the restaurant and just start talking to the real customers as they eat. Who knows? You never know where you might find a guild or Academy member! The event also brought out the Focus brain trust including Chairman Peter Kujawksi and COO Abhijay Prakash among others. ‘Tis the season.