AFI Awards: 2019's Top Films, TV Programs Honored as Mel Brooks Praises "Terrific" 'Jojo Rabbit'

At the annual gathering, Brooks, who directed the 1967 Hitler satire 'The Producers,' went off-script to call Taika Waititi's film an "eloquent and beautiful picture."
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI
Mel Brooks

Brad Pitt gushed over Parasite supporting actor Song Kang Ho and Richard Jewell lead actor Paul Walter Hauser before being pulled into a photo op by his Once Upon a Time in Hollywood co-star Leonardo DiCaprio. Little Women director Greta Gerwig and Marriage Story director Noah Baumbach, a couple, sat together. Jewell helmer Clint Eastwood and supporting actress Kathy Bates hugged it out. Netflix chief Ted Sarandos and The Irishman lead actor Robert De Niro huddled with Bradley Cooper, a Joker producer, as The Irishman director Martin Scorsese and Joker helmer Todd Philips snuck in just before the lights went down. 

There aren't many rooms like this one over the course of an awards season, but the AFI Awards — a celebration of the year's top 10 films and top 10 TV programs made in America, as determined by a jury assembled by the American Film Institute — always delivers a star-studded gathering and its 20th edition, which took place Friday afternoon at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, was no exception.

The pre-announced film honorees were Universal's 1917, A24's The Farewell, Netflix's The Irishman, Fox Searchlight's Jojo Rabbit, Warner Bros.' Joker, Lionsgate's Knives Out, Sony's Little Women, Netflix's Marriage Story, Sony's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Warners' Richard Jewell. A special award also was bestowed on Neon's Korean film Parasite.

The top 10 TV programs were HBO's Chernobyl, Netflix's The Crown, FX's Fosse/Verdon, HBO's Game of Thrones, FX's Pose, HBO's Succession, Netflix's Unbelievable, HBO's Veep, HBO's Watchmen and Netflix's When They See Us. The special award in this category was given to Amazon and the BBC's British series Fleabag.

As always, the festivities kicked off with a montage assembled by AFI's Chris Merrill, highlighting films and TV programs made at the end of each decade, among them Broken Blossoms (1919), Piccadilly (1929), Stagecoach (1939), Adam’s Rib (1949), Ben-Hur (1959), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Norma Rae (1979), Do the Right Thing (1989), The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Hangover (2009). It then cut to President Donald Trump and other politicians screaming at each other before Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in a scene from Veep, declares, "I honestly think I might be in hell!” Then came moments of each of 2019's honorees playing over the tune, "There’s No Business Like Show Business."

AFI chief Bob Gazzale welcomed everyone and then introduced a special guest to tout the organization's work in promoting female filmmakers: Mel Brooks, who received a standing ovation before cracking, "It's almost a pleasure to be here," and then thanked AFI for supporting his late wife Anne Bancroft's work on the 1972 film Fatso.

In a major win for Jojo Rabbit, Brooks then went off-script to give a shout-out to that film, which, like Brooks' own 1967 classic The Producers, is a satire about Hitler. "Taika Waititi [Jojo's writer/director] did not ask my permission to use Hitler — neither did Quentin [Tarantino, who was in the room as the writer/director of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood] in [the 2009 film] Inglourious Basterds," Brooks joked before turning serious. "But I want to say, I just saw Jojo Rabbit, and it's really a terrific and eloquent and beautiful picture. Taika, where are you? Well, you did a great job. Even as an actor, you were good, which is hard!"

Rich Frank, the vice chair of the AFI board of trustees and a member of the jury that selected the TV honorees, then introduced each of those programs by reading the entry about them that will be entered into the AFI almanac, interspersed with clips of each. The loudest applause greeted Veep (people LOL'd at Timothy Simons' Jonah saying, "Jesus fucking Christ, alright, I’ll be Vice President!") and Succession, as well as Fleabag (more LOLs when Phoebe Waller-Bridge's titular character tells her shrink, "I'm very horny, and your little scarf isn't helping"). The audience seemed less sure what to make of HBO's Watchmen, but undoubtedly many are still catching up with it.

Film critic Ann Hornaday, a member of the jury that selected the film honorees, introduced the movies of the year. Here, the biggest applause went to Parasite (LOLs at the coughing up blood scene) and The Irishman (De Niro and Al Pacino's characters "It is what it is" scene), while big laughs also went to Knives Out and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (young Julia Butters stealing a scene from DiCaprio).

The afternoon's unofficial MVP was Sam Rockwell, who appeared in three honorees — Jojo Rabbit, Richard Jewell and Fosse/Verdon. Runners-up included De Niro (The Irishman and Joker), Olivia Colman (The Crown and Fleabag), Laura Dern (Little Women and Marriage Story) and Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Fosse/Verdon).

The ceremony closed with a benediction by legend Rita Moreno, who received a big standing ovation before speaking about her love for the movies.