Everyone's an A-Lister--and a Winner--at AFI Awards Luncheon (Analysis)

AFI Luncheon Adams Moss Hendricks - H 2014
Todd Williamson/Invision/AP

AFI Luncheon Adams Moss Hendricks - H 2014

Hollywood's busiest weekend of the year kicked off this afternoon with the AFI Awards luncheon at Beverly Hills' Four Seasons, which will soon be followed by the Independent Spirit Awards brunch, the BAFTA tea and a barrage of screenings, Q&As and parties both before and after Sunday night's Golden Globe Awards.

One thing that distinguishes the AFI lunch from virtually any other event, though, is the fact that it draws so many A-listers while allowing in only a very few members of the press. Among those in attendance were stars Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Emilia Clarke and Jon Hamm; directors/showrunners Martin Scorsese, Matthew Weiner, Steven Spielberg, Vince Gilligan, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, blue-haired Jenji Kohan and the brothers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; and a bunch of execs, including Sony's Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton, Disney's Alan Horn, Fox Searchlight's Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, Warner Bros.' Kevin Tsujihara, Fox's Jim Gianopoulos and CBS' Leslie Moonves, plus MPAA chief Chris Dodd. You literally couldn't turn around without bumping into someone interesting.

The big-names show up in droves because they are guaranteed to leave with a prize: the purpose of the luncheon is to fete the prior year's 10 best films and 10 best TV shows, as chosen by American Film Institute juries, and none is declared superior to others. Instead, each production is cheered after a short highlight reel is played and a member of the jury reads a declaration, to be printed in the AFI's annual almanac, that justifies the selection.

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The ceremony kicked off with a leisurely cocktail hour, during which the luminaries of film and television mixed and mingled; Captain Phillips' breakthrough actor Barkhad Abdi told me he was "excited but scared" for his first Globes; and Disney legend Richard Sherman told Thompson and others at the Saving Mr. Banks table, "We're all here -- me, my brother [the late Robert Sherman], [the late] Don DaGradi, [the late] Walt [Disney] -- and we all thank you for the most wonderful movie."

Then, a clip unspooled showing great movies that from the third year of every decade 1903 through 2013, after which AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale greeted guests, "Storytellers, welcome!" He then noted, to laughter, that the luncheon was one of the few awards ceremonies that doesn't charge its honorees to attend and doesn't make them worry about whether or not they will leave with a prize. "Relax," he said. "You have won."

(Gazzale also noted with great pride that the 20 productions being honored this year include, among their principal contributors, 30 alums of the AFI Conservatory. One, American Hustle film editor Jay Cassidy, later collected a special certificate on behalf of all of them.)

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Rich Frank, a former TV Academy president and current vice chair of the AFI board of trustees who chaired this year's AFI Awards TV jury, presented the 10 TV shows being honored: The Americans, a "new take on a nuclear family"; Breaking Bad, which "held the world captive" and earned an "undeniable place in the pantheon"; Game of Thrones, which left the world "gasping for breath"; The Good Wife, with its "spectacular ensemble led by Julianna Margulies"; House of Cards, "a monument to revenge"; Mad Men, for its "impeccably tailored sixth year"; Masters of Sex, "a richly produced period piece"; Orange Is the New Black, which "escaped conventional TV models"; Scandal, on which Kerry Washington was "operating on all cylinders"; and Veep, "second to none amongst today's television comedies."

Tom Pollack, a noted producer who chaired this year's AFI Awards film jury, presented the 10 films being honored: 12 Years a Slave, "a story amazing"; the "masterful period piece" American Hustle"; Captain Phillips, for "melding docu-realism with top-notch action filmmaking"; Fruitvale Station, which urges people "to understand and appreciate each other"; Gravity, for its "phenomenal ambition"; Her, "a profoundly relevant Valentine to today's world" that represents "art at its most powerful"; Inside Llewyn Davis, representing the Coens at the top of their game; Nebraska, "a darkly comic study of aging" highlighted by Bruce Dern's "million dollar performance"; Saving Mr. Banks, which features "icons as icons" and is "practically perfect in every way"; and The Wolf of Wall Street, "a cautionary tale administered like a dangerously addictive drug."

Since nobody from each production spoke, the level of applause that each production received was largely tied to the clip that was shown of it. (Clips were selected by the AFI, not studios and networks.) Some clips played extremely well, including those featuring Hamm's confessional pitch to Hershey's on Mad Men; Hanks' post-trauamtic scene in Captain Phillips; Uzo Aduba's ("Crazy Eyes") defense of her "wife" on Orange Is the New Black; and especially Julia Louis-Dreyfus' walking through a glass door on Veep. Others that were a little more questionable: a clip of Game of Thrones that consisted entirely of people being stabbed and having their throats slit and a clip from 12 Years a Slave in which Lupita Nyong'o is stripped and whipped (which is uncomfortable to watch under the best of circumstances, but especially so with Nyong'o just a few feet away).

Before wrapping things up, Gazzale called upon the legendary Shirley MacLaine to offer the annual "closing benediction." After a rousing standing ovation, MacLaine cracked, "That's the nicest reception I've had in 500,000 years!" More seriously, she continued, "Our business is our attempt to preserve our imagination against time." Reflecting on her own experience of watching the 2013 work being honored she said, "It has really been such agonizing fun," and toasted, "To all of us!"

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg