AFI Awards: Everyone's a Winner as Contenders Kick Off Globes Weekend

Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale were among the A-listers on hand to celebrate the year's top 10 films and top 10 TV shows, according to American Film Institute juries.
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Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams at the AFI Awards luncheon

Until next Thursday, when the Oscar nominations — for which voting closed yesterday at 5 p.m. — are announced, every contender still feels like they're in the game. That may have something to do with why Friday's 16th annual AFI Awards luncheon, which was held at Beverly Hills' Four Seasons hotel in celebration of the AFI's top 10 films and top 10 TV shows of the prior year, drew such a great turnout from the creme de la creme of this year's contenders (among them Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling) and execs (including Bob Iger, Ted Sarandos, Harvey Weinstein, Brad Grey, Donna Langley and Tom Ortenberg).

This year's AFI Awards honorees were announced later than usual — on Dec. 16 — since voting was held open in order to consider Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The luncheon kicked off with a montage of clips of great films from years ending in '5' — ranging from The Birth of a Nation (1915) to Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to 2015's AFI-celebrated works — after which 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 pay for a table. "Fair warning: This is a campaign-free zone," he said. "You don't have to thank anybody. We're here to thank you."

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 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.

The 10 were The Americans, which "turns up the heat" this season; "masterful" and "hilarious" Better Call Saul; "stellar" Black-ish; Empire, for its "pure entertainment"; Fargo, for its "white-knuckle suspense"; Game of Thrones, for its depiction of "true horror"; Homeland, "a beacon of the times"; Master of None, made by "a jack of all talents" [Aziz Ansari]; "mesmerizing" Mr. Robot; and the "great television" of Unreal.

The outgoing show Mad Men was presented with a special award for its "landmark run," during which it became "a true cultural touchstone."

The focus then turned to the film honorees, the rationales for which were read by former Universal chief Tom Pollock.

They included the "whip-smart satire" The Big Short; Bridge of Spies, which provides "history written in moving images"; the "restorative cocktail" Carol, with its "luminous performances" [by Blanchett and Rooney Mara]; Inside Out, "an introspective adventure unlike any other"; Mad Max: Fury Road, a "poetic" film from a "visionary director" [George Miller]; The Martian, with its "singular performance" by Matt Damon; Room, with its "tenacious performances"; "measure[d]" Spotlight; Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a "timeless gift to everyone who loves the movies"; and Straight Outta Compton, "an American anthem" and "a raging tonic to troubled times."

The ceremony ended following a closing "benediction" by the legendary screenwriter Robert Towne, 81.

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."

Only five of this year's 16 film jurors are members of the Academy (film and/or TV) — jury chair Pollock (executives branch), Marshall Herskovitz (producers branch), Bennett Miller (directors branch), John Ridley (writers branch) and Emma Thomas (producers branch) — and none, notably, are representatives of below-the-line branches.

The AFI Awards kick off a jam-packed weekend of awards-related activity, including Saturday night's Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards and Sunday's Golden Globe Awards, with many parties and Q&As wedged in-between.