Chris Rock called Licorice Pizza “probably the best movie I saw this year,” introducing his friend the director Paul Thomas Anderson at the National Board of Review gala. “I only saw about four movies.”
The MGM film took NBR’s Best Picture and Anderson best director at awards announced late last year and celebrated with gusto at Cipriani 42nd Street in NYC last night after skipping last year due to Covid.
Anderson is “a person who has never cast me in sh-t. Nothing,” said Rock, scanning the room for star wattage. “No Spielberg? Did Will Smith show up?” (no and yes). “Sean Penn? Who I know has something to do with this war. I know he’s mixed up in it. Sean Penn is being water-boarded as we speak.” Penn (not present) had been on the ground in Ukraine shooting a documentary for Vice Studios about the Russian invasion.
References to ongoing violence were sprinkled throughout the evening but winners and presenters focused on their craft and deep connection to the films being honored.
Will Smith described the leap of faith required to play a real person. “You get to know them, you talk to their family and you hope that one day the magic thing will happen,” he said. “With Richard Williams, it was taking longer.”
He won the NBR Best Actor award playing the father to tennis greats Venus and Serena in King Richard. The role clicked, he said, when he put on the red, tight sports shorts William always wore. “He had a vision of himself. He was trying to play a role for the world in order to be recognized for that thing he felt inside of him, that he felt he deserved a certain amount of respect.” He couldn’t get it, “but dreamed of for his children.”
“I can’t even concentrate, he’s so beautiful,” Smith interrupted himself, noting Bradley Cooper at a table near the stage.
Trevor Noah, who introduced Smith, said, “You make people feel something.” In Times Square, “I’ve been shouting ‘Will Smith!’ and pointing in a random direction. And, every time, you should people’s faces. They feel. They turn. WHERE? Everyone turns. They feel something. They were disappointed afterwards. But they felt something.”
Cooper, who played Jon Peters in Licorice Pizza, presented Breakthrough Performance winners Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman whose unusual relationship carried the pic in the first film role for both.
Spike Lee teed up Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson whose Summer of Soul,
about a landmark but forgotten music festival, took Best Documentary. “I had never hear of that concert. I lived in Brooklyn but Harlem wasn’t that far away,” marveled Lee. Questlove revealed that early Spike Lee Levis ad had helped jumpstart The Roots.
Lee was a theme, Chef/restaurant impresario Marcus Samuelsson, introducing Michael Sarnoski, who won Best Directorial Debut for Pig, said he was born in a hut in Ethiopia, relocated to Sweden and ultimately moved to America because of Lee and his movies. “If Black filmmaking was possible in the U.S.,” he said he figured being a Black chef was too.
Kenneth Branagh introduced Ciaran Hinds, Best Supporting Actor winner for playing the grandfather – a version of Branagh’s own — in Belfast. Reading the script, said the actor, whose roots are also in Northern Ireland, “You know where you are. You’re back home. You can read the landscape of that city of Belfast, where I’m from. You can recognize the characters, the colors, the heart and soul and humor of the Belfast people, and you are transported back in time to your roots, to you own parents and grandparents cousins… And there’s nowhere in the world that you would rather be.”
The self-annointed “sober pill for the night” was actress and activist Morena Baccarin, an ambassador for the International Rescue Committee (IRS) who introduced Flee. The animated documentary by Jonas Poher Rasmussen about a gay Afghan refugee boy attempting to find safely took the NBR Freedom of Expression Award. Baccarin said there were a record 26 million refugees worldwide at the start of the year, a figure now being swelled by fleeing Ukrainians. “It cannot be ignored.”
Said Rasmussen: “The footage that we are seeing out of Ukraine today is a reminder that refugees, whether from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria or Myanmar, are our friends, our neighbors, ordinary people living their lives, who are suddenly struck by the grave misfortune of having to flee their homes in order to stay alive.”
The NBR gala had originally be set for Jan. 11 but was postponed due to a Covid spike.