AFI Awards: A Star-Studded Luncheon Celebrates 2016's Top Films and TV Shows

The AFI, celebrating its 50th birthday, drew the likes of Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Emma Stone and Denzel Washington to its annual toast to great American films and television programs.
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Clint Eastwood and Denzel Washington at the AFI Awards luncheon

A spotlight shone on some of the best films and TV shows of 2016 as the American Film Institute, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, today hosted its 17th annual AFI Awards luncheon at Beverly Hills' Four Seasons Hotel. The top 10 films and top 10 TV shows  as chosen by two AFI juries of artists, critics, scholars and AFI trustees  were celebrated, while O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman's landmark documentary, was recognized as the recipient of a rare "special award."

With Oscar voting having begun Jan. 5 and running through Jan. 13, few contenders associated with the films being honored passed up the chance to hobnob and be photographed in a room filled with Academy members. Among those in attendance: Arrival's Amy Adams, Fences' Denzel Washington, Hacksaw Ridge's Mel Gibson, Hell or High Water's Jeff Bridges, La La Land's Emma Stone, Manchester by the Sea's Michelle Williams, Moonlight's Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, Silence's Martin Scorsese and Sully's Clint Eastwood.

Proud executives on hand from the studios, which help to keep the AFI in business, included Paramount's Brad Grey (who faced the great problem of having to navigate between tables for three films that all were being honored: Arrival, Fences and Silence); Warner Bros.' Kevin Tsujihara and Sue Kroll; CBS' Leslie Moonves and Terry Press; and Roadside Attractions' Howard Cohen and Eric d'Arbeloff, among many others.

The gathering began, as always, with a beautiful montage of clips prepared by AFI's resident magician, Chris Merrill. It started with snippets from movies released during years ending in the same number as 2016, such as 1966's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (prompting applause for Eastwood), 1976's Network (the "mad as hell" clip evoked a knowing ovation) and 2006's The Departed (prompting applause for Scorsese) and Borat (the room exploded in laughter upon seeing the title character defecating in front of the Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York's Columbus Circle). The montage then transitioned to scenes from 2016's honorees, over which played a somber rendition of "America the Beautiful."

After that, AFI President Bob Gazzale welcomed guests — including past AFI chiefs George Stevens Jr. and Jean Picker Firstenberg — to the one awards show where the winners already know they have won and that does not ask their distributors to pay for a table. (The event's motto, Gazzale said, is, "No competition. Community.") He also proudly pointed out that 25 graduates of the AFI Conservatory are among those responsible for the 2016 works being honored.

Then Rich Frank, the vice chair of the AFI Board of Trustees and a former TV exec and president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, took the podium in his capacity as chair of the jury that determined this year's 10 TV honorees. He introduced each show with the passage that the jury prepared to accompany its name in the annual AFI Almanac, along with a clip.

The 10 shows were The Americans, which is "blessed with empathy"; Atlanta, for its "raw realism, social urgency and a perspective utterly unique"; Better Call Saul, for rising "to new heights" (its "squat-gobbler" scene brought the house down); The Crown, which "sparkles with epic ambition"; Game of Thrones, "a Shakespearean tragedy on a scale rarely envisioned"; "provocative" The Night Of; The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, for its "searing insight into our cultural obsession with celebrity"; "wholly original" Stranger Things; This Is Us, which "blossoms with uncynical sentiment"; and "urgently relevant" Veep. (If the AFI offered a MVP award, it could have gone to actor Sterling K. Brown, who has roles in both The People v. O.J. and This Is Us.)

The focus then turned to the film honorees, the rationales for which were read by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin.

The 10 films were Arrival, for its "cerebral celebration of communication"; Fences, for its "thunderous performances"; the "epic American war movie" Hacksaw Ridge; Hell or High Water, which "holds up the classic American Western to new heights"; "ode to storytellers" La La Land (a dance sequence from which screened in full); Manchester by the Sea, which "etches Kenneth Lonergan's name in stone alongside the great auteurs"); "poetic tour de force" Moonlight; Silence, "a booming testament to the passion of an American master"; Sully, the product of a collaboration between "two American treasures" [Eastwood and Tom Hanks]; and Zootopia, "a tale for our time and for all time." (On the film side, actor Andrew Garfield could claim MVP status, since he appears in both Hacksaw Ridge and Silence.)

The ceremony closed with a "benediction" by Fences director-star Washington, one of whose sons graduated from the AFI Conservatory last year and who was greeted with a lengthy standing ovation.

The AFI Awards kick off a jam-packed weekend of awards-related activity, leading up to Sunday's Golden Globe Awards.

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