Stars Come Out For AFI Awards
Bradley Cooper arrives at the 2019 AFI Awards at The Four Seasons on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
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The wine was flowing and the atmosphere relaxed Friday at the American Film Institute Awards, which brought out some of Hollywood’s brightest stars of the moment, from Emily Blunt to Michael B. Jordan, for a celebratory luncheon in Los Angeles.

It’s an entertainment industry anomaly when no one walks out of an awards show a “loser.” But that’s the deal at the annual AFI Awards, where the winners — 10 films and 10 television shows — have already been announced, no speeches are required and everyone turns up to have fun.

In a look around the star-studded room, you could see “BlacKkKlansman” director Spike Lee bee-lining to give “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler a big hug, Bradley Cooper greeting his “A Star Is Born” co-star Sam Elliott, “Roma” director Alfonso 
Cuaron chatting with “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk, and Blunt running between the tables for “Mary Poppins Returns” and “A Quiet Place,” both of which were honorees. (She sat next to husband John Krasinski, who directed “A Quiet Place.”)

“The game is, there is no game,” AFI President Bob Gazzale said. “You have won. And more importantly, you are one.”

Films recognized were “Black Panther,” ‘’BlacKkKlansman,” Eighth Grade,” ‘’The Favourite,” ‘’First Reformed,” ‘’Green Book,” ‘’If Beale Street Could Talk,” ‘’Mary Poppins Returns,” ‘’A Quiet Place” and “A Star Is Born,” (“Roma,” which was not considered an American film, was given a special honor). And television programs recognized were “The Americans,” ‘’The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” ‘’Atlanta,” ‘’Barry,” ‘’Better Call Saul,” ‘’The Kominsky Method,” ‘’The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” ‘’Pose,” ‘’Succession” and “This Is Us.”

Gazzale called out some of the AFI graduates in attendance, like “Black Panther” cinematographer Rachel Morrison, “A Star Is Born” cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and “First Reformed” writer and director Paul Schrader, who was in the film school’s first class in 1969. Schrader got a standing ovation from the room.

“I see Spike Lee is wearing his NYU hat,” Gazzale said.

Not missing a beat, Lee, who was indeed wearing a purple New York University baseball cap, stood up from his seat and shouted, “I applied to AFI! I didn’t get in!”

The afternoon, on the weekend of the Golden Globe Awards and numerous events and appearances, was as laid-back as a Hollywood event can be and conversations continued long after the program ended.

But perhaps special honoree Angela Lansbury summed it up best. The 93-year-old screen icon took the stage to a lengthy standing ovation to close out the program.

“As you leave here today and are invited to endure seemingly endless parades of programs that label you a winner or a loser, I’ve been there, I’ve done that,” Lansbury said. “Remember this room, remember this group, when we are all together as one.”


BLACK PANTHER roars with a power that shatters and reshapes cultural mythology.  Ryan Coogler’s super-heroic vision opens the world’s eyes to the wonders of Wakanda – creating a rich and revolutionary celebration of unprecedented empowerment. Chadwick Boseman stands every inch a king – leading a proud and powerful retinue that includes regal turns by Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Michael B. Jordan, who shines as one of today’s brightest stars. Wakanda forever!

BLACKKKLANSMAN raises a defiant fist against the racism and bigotry that defines modern day America.  Spike Lee’s masterful telling of this true tale leaves audiences breathless – both for its interplay of hope and hate – and the realization that the world we live in has not progressed far from the birth of our nation.  John David Washington and Adam Driver lead an extraordinary ensemble that transcends identity to shine a light in dark corners, exposing institutions that still allow intolerance to dim the dream of all power to all people.

EIGHTH GRADE opens a shoebox of emotion – exposing the crippling discomfort that arrives at a time few wish to remember.  Bo Burnham’s brilliant writing and directing produce wince-inducing insights into adolescence – the horrors of pool parties, indifferent peers and well-meaning parents all the more shame-filled in a world awash in the isolation of social media.  The beating heart of the film is embodied by Elsie Fisher, a transcendent talent whose performance opens old wounds while celebrating the triumph of facing one’s fears – and being yourself.

THE FAVOURITE ascends the throne by capturing the sumptuous insanity of life behind castle walls and then raising a scepter to smash each scene with wicked laughs, an air of erotica, revenge and rabbits. Yorgos Lanthimos’ brilliantly warped vision of history crowns a royal cast, including Olivia Colman’s towering take on the fickle and frail Queen Anne.  Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz leave a mark as cousins warring for the heart and hand of the queen, with audiences blissfully bloodied in the struggle between survival and a ravenous reach for power.

FIRST REFORMED asks no forgiveness as it embraces the most complex issues of our day in an exalted, explosive search for redemption.  Paul Schrader’s indelible influence on modern cinema continues its mighty reach with otherworldly ambition and equally ethereal achievement – bringing heart-pounding suspense to a film that asks, “Who can know the mind of God?”  At the center of his own tempest is Ethan Hawke, whose miraculous performance marries introspection and expression in a manner that affirms his place as one of the nation’s artistic treasures.

GREEN BOOK tears a page from American history and presents it as a moving picture of hope in the road ahead.  With Peter Farrelly at the wheel and all-in performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, the film crosses a divide that remains all too prevalent in the nation today, uniting viewers with a potent reminder that the seeds of empathy are planted in sharing the simple joys of life – a hand-written letter, music of all kinds and a drink between friends.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is a lush and lyrical ode to romance that soars amidst the dark clouds of an unjust America.  It’s a film that springs to life from Barry Jenkins’ symphonic mastery of emotion and inequality – adapted with affection and insight from the poetic words of James Baldwin.  Stand-out performances by KiKi Layne and Stephan James transcend the film’s time period and demand attention be paid today, with Regina King’s fiercely sympathetic embodiment of family and community reminding audiences “to trust love all the way.”

MARY POPPINS RETURNS descends from the cinematic heavens to serve up a joyously exuberant tonic for our times.  Embracing the challenge of creating a new musical by expanding upon a beloved classic, Rob Marshall’s candy-colored extravaganza soars with song and spirit that taps the power of film past to insist that the investment in a child’s imagination is our world’s most precious hope for the future.  Emily Blunt’s turn as the iconic nanny is indubitably extraordinary, Lin-Manuel Miranda glows with light and love, and an all-star cast makes this a treat as magical – and healing – as a spoonful of sugar.

A QUIET PLACE demands audiences stifle their natural instinct to scream – creating a tension so visceral that one can only wonder if there is any escape from the film’s silent terror.  John Krasinski masters the cinematic senses as actor and director in this intimate family saga that doubles as a desperate fight for survival.  In a world where the lightest footstep can herald instant death, the fears here are founded in the atavistic anxieties for the safety of loved ones – a truth personified in the strength and conviction of Emily Blunt’s indomitable maternal performance.  A QUIET PLACE may beg for silence, but it demands to be seen. 

A STAR IS BORN arrives a fully-evolved supernova – sparkling as a valentine to film history, while emanating a brilliance so bright that it shines as a stellar achievement in its own universe.  This timely take on the battle between dreams and addiction should be heralded on high for Bradley Cooper’s complete dedication to his roles as director, producer, writer, actor, singer and performer – as should the arrival of Lady Gaga on the big screen, as she etches her name in the firmament of Hollywood with the performance of a lifetime.


THE AMERICANS brings an iron curtain down on Joe Weisberg’s Cold War masterpiece with a finale so fitting that it stands as a monument to the power of serialized storytelling.  As this American epic unspools its taut thread of family, deception and the conflicting demands of patriotism, AFI says “Поздравляю!” to the stellar creative ensemble led by the dynamic duo of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys.

THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY fashions tragic events into an aria about America.  Ryan Murphy and his extraordinary collaborators tell a tale with both flamboyant grandeur and quiet restraint – one that masterfully travels back in time to expose the violent contortions of homophobia and the horrors of a culture unchecked in its addiction to fame.

ATLANTA proves the power of pushing the envelope and, in the process, elevates comedy to a savage art form. Donald Glover’s endlessly inventive storytelling creates subversive stories that simmer with cultural claustrophobia and the insight of unfiltered African American identity. What results is at turns stark, shocking, uncomfortable and laugh-out-loud funny – a combustive cocktail served up by one of the imperative voices of our times.

BARRY is killer entertainment – a brutally funny hit on the melancholies of an assassin and aspiring actor. Co-creators Bill Hader and Alec Berg take deadpan aim at the ever-moving target between isolation and ambition, while Hader’s transcendent turn as the year’s most deliriously distinctive anti-hero and the iconic presence of Henry Winkler fuse these worlds into one that “kills it” with each new episode.

BETTER CALL SAUL continues to soar as television’s most lovable low-life continues to fall. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould expertly imagine the endless trials of seeking validation as a bittersweet meditation on the perils of ambition without conscience.  The butt of this tragic joke is the slickest of shysters, played with a complexity beyond compare by the masterful Bob Odenkirk.

THE KOMINSKY METHOD shines a spotlight on the indignities of aging with razor wit and incomparable insights delivered by two American masters – Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin.  Their bravura performances bring a defiant energy to Chuck Lorre’s hilariously empathetic musings on the inevitabilities of life’s journey.

THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL takes the stage to herald that cultural revolution demands personal revelation.  Amy Sherman-Palladino’s rich and radiant 1950s time piece doubles as a timeless manifesto – that women will be heard.  In the spotlight of a dazzling creative ensemble, Rachel Brosnahan shines bright, effortlessly delivering bubbling banter that infuses the show with an uproarious spirit of reflection and rebellion.

POSE is a heart filled with love – and with each beat – music, dance and joy fill a house where all are embraced as family.  This rapturous triumph from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals stars a transcendent ensemble that brings electric life to late ‘80s New York and the enduring celebration of hope inherent in our individual sense of self.

SUCCESSION summons the spirit of Shakespeare to elevate this fusion of family and finances to a stage worthy of the globe.  Jesse Armstrong’s re-imagining of “King Lear” in a modern world is, itself, sharper than a serpent’s tooth, with Brian Cox howling at the center of the storm.  Here he commands this high-spirited look at money, power and humor that proves “In jest, there is truth.” 

THIS IS US takes audiences in its arms and offers a rich reminder that television – at its very best – is a portal to humanity.  Dan Fogelman’s affecting celebration of what connects us revels in the deepening tangles of its family ties – bonds brought to life by an all-star cast that often leaves viewers breathless in the balance between love, laughter and loss.

The organization gave a special award to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which did not fit the criteria for American films

ROMA is an ode to life, love and loss – a monument to the power of film to inspire empathy across the walls of geography, class and culture.  Alfonso Cuarón’s personal tour de force deftly captures the emotional balance of intimacy and opera – recalling the poetic power of Fellini and Buñuel while creating a film of striking originality and vaulting ambition.  Emblazoned in memory by its hypnotic cinematography and bravura sound design, with a heart that beats from Yalitza Aparicio’s radiant humanity, ROMA is a work of art so powerful that audiences will feel transported to a world they may have never visited, but have lived forever.


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