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Until next Thursday, when the Oscar nominations — for which voting closed on yesterday — are announced, everyone still feels like they’re in the game. That may have something to do with why Friday’s 15th annual AFI Awards luncheon, which was held at Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons hotel in celebration of the AFI’s top 10 films (actually 11 this year due to a tie) and top 10 TV shows of the prior year (announced on Dec. 8) got such a great turnout from the creme de la creme of this year’s contenders — Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey, Clint Eastwood and the list goes on.
Following a montage of clips of great films from years ending in 4 — among them It Happened One Night (1934), On the Waterfront (1954), The Godfather, Part II (1974) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) — leading up to and including 2014’s AFI-celebrated works, AFI president Bob Gazzale welcomed guests to the one awards show at which they already know they have won and which does not ask their distributors to buy a table. He also recognized the four AFI life achievement award recipients in the audience: Streep, Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and, in a surprise and rare appearance that was greeted with a standing ovation, 98-year-old Kirk Douglas. (Douglas delivered a few brief remarks announcing a new scholarship that he has created at the AFI Conservatory.)
Then Rich Frank, the vice chair of the AFI Board of Trustrees and a former TV exec and president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, took the podium in his capacity as chair of the jury that determined this year’s 10 TV honorees, each of which were introduced with the passage that the jury prepared to accompany their name in the annual AFI Almanac, as well as a clip. “I don’t think television has ever been better,” Frank said by way of introduction, noting that six new shows were among this year’s selections.
The ten were The Americans, a “superb suburban spy thriller”; Fargo, “an unholy spin-off of the Coen brothers’ classic”; Game of Thrones, with its “epic scope”; How to Get Away with Murder, “a deliciously devious master-class”; Jane the Virgin, “a modern melodrama from the telenovela mold”; The Knick, “a masterful personification” of an early 20th century doctor; Mad Men, which continues “surpassing the impossibly high standards” set by its early seasons; Orange Is the New Black, which “locked down its place in the pantheon” in its second season; Silicon Valley, episodes of which “fuse intellect and idiocy” (its irreverent clip got the biggest laugh); and Transparent, which “illuminates the role of television in changing global perceptions.”
The focus then turned to the film honorees, the rationales for which were read by veteran film critic Leonard Maltin, who served on the film jury and kicked things off by joking that the first selection “stars Seth Rogen and James Franco…”
The actual 11 were American Sniper, which “captures the conflict inside the man” at its center; Birdman, with its “brilliant creative ensemble”; Boyhood, which is “unique in the history of the art form”; Foxcatcher, which offers “proof of the power of stories”; The Imitation Game, featuring a character “brilliantly deciphered by Benedict Cumberbatch; Interstellar, a “singular creative vision” that embodies “cinema at its most ambitious” and is “awe-inspiring”; Into the Woods, a “spellbinding” musical; Nightcrawler, for its “pursuit of the dark side of the American dream”; Selma, “an inspired vision” of a film built around “a transcendent performance” (it got the loudest applause); Unbroken, “a monument to the American ideal”; and Whiplash, directed by 29-year-old Damien Chazelle “with both panache and restraint.”
The ceremony ended following a closing “benediction” by 92-year-old Norman Lear, who was greeted with a standing ovation and cracked, “There hasn’t been this much talent gathered in one place since Orson Welles dined alone at Ciro’s.” The TV legend invoked the recent terrorist attacks in Paris as “a threat to the creative spirit” that should be fought at every turn and urged the roomful of artists, “Keep on doing what you’re doing!”
The AFI is largely financed by the major studios and networks, which may or may not have something to do with how spread around its honors tend to be. AFI Awards selections are made “through an AFI jury process in which AFI trustees, scholars, film and television artists and critics determine the most outstanding achievements of the year.” It is unclear exactly how many of the jurors are also members of the Academy (film and/or TV), but it is understood that quite a few are, including this year’s film jury chair Tom Pollock (former vice chair of MCA and chair of Universal) and TV jury chair Frank, along with the likes of Vince Gilligan, Marshall Herskovitz, Patty Jenkins, Kasi Lemmons, Matty Libatique and Phylicia Rashad. That means that one cannot dismiss the relevance of their picks to the Oscar race.
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