Always, always one of the highlights of any awards season, today’s luncheon at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons hotel for the American Film Institute’s choices for top 10 movie and TV achievements of the year did not disappoint. As AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale noted everyone in this ballroom is a winner, and there are no acceptance speeches, just good vibes and great clips.
“Ladies and gentlemen who tell the stories of America, welcome,” Gazzale said. “Those of you who have been here before know exactly what is expected of you: nothing. Our role is simple and sincere. It is for you to feel peace, for you to feel proud. We gather you here as artists to embrace and applaud each other as artists.” And that’s exactly what they did, starting with an exquisite March of Time film montage set to the strains of “America the Beautiful.” It is so powerful in weaving the American themes of all of this year’s honorees into one stunning piece that I have included it on the link above for you to experience outside of that room because this show is not televised and features a very exclusive group of industry invitees. Most of them were connected with those films and TV shows, seated as usual at individual tables of 10 each.
The movies honored this year were Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Silence, Sully, Zootopia and a special award to the seven-hour documentary OJ: Made in America. The honored TV programs, the majority of them first timers, at this event were The Americans, Atlanta, Better Call Saul, The Crown, Game of Thrones, The Night Of, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Stranger Things, This Is Us and Veep, the latter almost literally bringing down the house with a clip in which star Julia Louis-Dreyfus doing a classic takedown of a pompous woman in a riotous scene that shows why that show is a consistent visitor to these AFI luncheons.
In terms of reception to the movies, it was hard to get a beat on what played best to this Oscar voter-rich crowd, with each getting nice applause. Perhaps it was a well-chosen Hudson River landing sequence from Sully that got the most vociferous response. Of course, director Clint Eastwood (seated with Warner Bros head Kevin Tsujihara) was right there in the room and, at 86, he has made an exceptional and exciting piece of work. It even prompted Leonard Maltin, who had the duty of introducing each film clip (Rich Frank, as usual, did it for TV), to say “It should be noted that Mr. Eastwood brought that all in under 90 minutes.”
It is interesting to note that the presence of studio heads was a little lighter than in the past, and that might be because most of the movies chosen were independent in nature, as one of Arrival’s producers, David Linde, pointed out to me. That film was released by Paramount but he says was completely independently made and picked up in a rich deal at Cannes by the studio, which did not develop it. In fact of the studio heads there, most noticeable was probably Paramount’s Brad Grey, with two other films (Silence and Fences) on the list in addition to Arrival. He told me he was very thankful for having such a great year with such significant movies that have turned into awards contenders, but he noted the high quality of all the AFI choices. Grey said he was really impressed by this year’s crop.
Perhaps the busiest actor in the room was one of those Silence stars, Andrew Garfield, who kept jumping from that table where Grey and director Martin Scorsese were seated, to the Hacksaw Ridge table, a movie in which he also stars, that was right next door with Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn and others. They had a seat for Garfield at both. “I am really torn about this,” he told me. “I feel so guilty going from one to another but to have this kind of experience is just so remarkable. I just don’t know what to do.” I suggested it was like being caught with two girlfriends in the same room. It’s the kind of problem every actor would kill for.
Certainly the turnout was impressive down the line. La La Land producer Marc Platt told me he was so honored to be back to the AFI lunch three years in a row, following 2014’s Into the Woods and 2015’s Bridge of Spies. Nice track record. At the La La table, director Damien Chazelle sat between stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine were there from Hell or High Water. CBS Films chief Terry Press told me every day this film just gets more pertinent. Certainly it will during the Trump era. When she bought it, she wasn’t so sure about the moral questions it raises but now says she is totally on the side of the bank robbers.
A24’s David Fenkel and Daniel Katz were beaming about being back again, this time with the much-lauded Moonlight, which brought along its remarkable ensemble cast. Producer Shawn Levy and his 21 Laps had the rare honor of both a movie (Arrival) and a TV show (Stranger Things) making both lists in the same year. Denzel Washington, there for Fences, also got the annual benediction spot at the end of the ceremony but largely just talked about the August Wilson-penned film that he directed and stars in.
No matter, this was a very special moment for everyone lucky enough to be included, a great way to start what Gazzale noted was AFI’s 50th year. And then there was that reel. Check it out above.