Newly knighted Sir Sam Mendes mixed with onscreen sovereigns (from “The Crown” and “Game of Thrones”) and Hollywood royalty (Ava DuVernay, Clint Eastwood, Brad Pitt, Martin Scorsese) at the 20th annual AFI Awards, presented Jan. 4 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Mendes was there representing “1917,” one of the 22 film and TV works saluted by the awards. Though the guest list was regal, the mood is always relaxed, since there are no TV cameras, no acceptance speeches, no pressure and no suspense: honorees were announced on Dec. 4.
Walt Disney Television’s Peter Rice schmoozed with Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, Billy Porter chatted with Kit Harington, and Laura Dern was deep in conversation with Pitt as other guests talked on subjects ranging from Iran to the accelerated Oscar schedule; all of them offered mutual congratulations for a year that was exception for both films and TV works.
Aside from “1917,” the chosen movies were “The Farewell,” “The Irishman,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Joker,” “Knives Out,” “Little Women,” “Marriage Story,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Richard Jewell.”
Aside from “The Crown” and “Game of Thrones,” AFI honored “Chernobyl,” “Fosse/Verdon,” “Pose,” “Succession,” “Unbelievable,” “Veep,” “Watchmen” and “When They See Us.”
Special awards went to the film “Parasite” and the TV show “Fleabag,” since the American Film Institute traditionally only salutes U.S. works.
AFI president-CEO Bob Gazzale said the event is intended as an oasis amid red-carpet events and press junkets: “At AFI, we do not sell, we celebrate.” He also introduced Mel Brooks, who spoke about AFI’s longstanding women’s directing project (of which his wife Anne Bancroft was a member). Brooks also praised Taika Waititi for “Jojo Rabbit,” though he deadpanned that the filmmaker “did not ask my permission to use Hitler,” a reference to his 1968 “The Producers.”
Gazzale pointed out that Brooks was one of four AFI Lifetime honorees in attendance, which also included Robert De Niro, Eastwood and Scorsese. AFI notables among the 250 guests were Jean Firstenberg and Robert Daly.
Behind-the-camera creatives in attendance included Alexandre Desplat, Thomas Newman, Len Amato, David Benioff, Casey Bloys, Jeb Brody, Toby Emmerich, Brad Falchuk, Steve Gilula, Alan Horn, Craig Hunegs, John Landgraf, Damon Lindelof, Craig Mazin, Ron Meyer, Andrew Miano, Daniele Tate Milia, Peter Morgan, Ryan Murphy, Amy Pascal, Terry Press, Billy Ray, Jane Rosenthal, Tom Rothman, Chuck Saftler, Bert Salke, Ann Sarnoff, Eric Schrier, Robin Swicord, D.B. Weiss, Chris Weitz and Irwin Winkler.
Directors included Bong Joon Ho, Noah Baumbach, Lisa Cholodenko, Greta Gerwig, Rian Johnson, Todd Phillips, Quentin Tarantino and Lulu Wang.
Other actors there were Awkwafina, Kathy Bates, Bradley Cooper, Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kaitlyn Dever, Adam Driver, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ana de Armas, Jon Hamm, Jared Harris, Paul Walter Hauser, Don Johnson, George MacKay, Thomasin McKenzie, Joaquin Phoenix, Margaret Qualley, Sam Rockwell, Ray Romano, Saoirse Ronan, Alan Ruck, Andrew Scott, Zhao Shuzhen, Song Kang Ho, Jeremy Strong and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
The setup for the luncheon, sponsored by Audi, was the same as in past years: Each cited work gets its own table. A clip was shown from each, as a judge read the reasons for the recognition of works that “define the art form and contribute to our rich cultural legacy.” All the scenes were well-received, but perhaps the most positive reactions were for the clips for films “Parasite” and “Knives Out,” and TV’s “Fleabag,” “Veep” and “When They See Us.”
AFI Awards are chosen by special committees of industry workers, journalists, and educators. They don’t have strict rules about eligibility for TV series: The committee judges on if the show had a notable year, whether it’s new or not. Repeats this year were “Pose” and “Succession.” But it’s not an example of judges being stuck in sameness: The juries change each year.
Rita Moreno, earning the afternoon’s second standing ovation (after Brooks) gave the “benediction,” a remembrance of moviegoing throughout her lifetime.