The American Film Institute (AFI) celebrated the 2019 AFI Awards honorees at an invite-only luncheon in Beverly Hills. Unique in its celebration of the film and television arts’ collaborative nature, AFI Awards – now in its 20th year – is the only national program that honors creative teams as a whole.
During the event, AFI revealed its official rationales for all 22 honorees (below), providing the cultural and historic context for inclusion in the list of the year’s most outstanding film and television programs.
Mel Brooks, the 43rd AFI Life Achievement Award recipient, introduced the awards presentation by sharing a story about his late wife Anne Bancroft’s participation in the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. “It fills my heart that AFI was there to hear women’s voices.”
Closing the event, EGOT-winner Rita Moreno delivered the annual benediction in celebration of the honorees’ remarkable achievements in film and television. Moreno said to the audience of honorees, “I am filled with hope and love and excitement because times are changing, and I applaud it and I applaud you.”
Guests in attendance at the AFI AWARDS luncheon include: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Gillian Anderson, Awkwafina, Kathy Bates, Noah Baumbach, David Benioff, Dean-Charles Chapman, Lisa Cholodenko, Sian Clifford, Bradley Cooper, Brian Cox, Peter Cramer, Kieran Culkin, Jamie Lee Curtis, Roman Griffin Davis, Robert De Niro, Laura Dern, Alexandre Desplat, Kaitlyn Dever, Leonardo DiCaprio, Adam Driver, Ava DuVernay, Ana de Armas, Clint Eastwood, Brad Falchuk, Greta Gerwig, Susannah Grant, Jon Hamm, Kit Harington, Jared Harris, Paul Walter Hauser, Don Johnson, Rian Johnson, Bong Joon Ho, Song Kang Ho, Damon Lindelof, George MacKay, David Mandel, Craig Mazin, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Mendes, Kevin Messick, Ron Meyer, Peter Morgan, Ryan Murphy, Thomas Newman, Josh O’Connor, Amy Pascal, Todd Phillips, Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt, Billy Porter, Margaret Qualley, Billy Ray, Sam Rockwell, Ray Romano, Saoirse Ronan, Jane Rosenthal, Alan Ruck, Ted Sarandos, Martin Scorsese, Andrew Scott, Zhao Shuzhen, Jeremy Strong, Robin Swicord, Quentin Tarantino, Sarah Timberman, Taika Waititi, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Lulu Wang, D.B. Weiss, Merritt Wever and Irwin Winkler.
1917 marks a moment in the history of American cinema when the ever-evolving tools of the art form prove the perfect complement to the genius of its storytelling. Sam Mendes’ soaring tribute to heroism is both epic and intimate – a harrowing journey captured in the eyes of Roger Deakins’ single shot to immerse audiences like never before in a pulse-pounding experience. As the horrors of history recede in memory, it is experiences like this one that insist they not be forgotten.
THE FAREWELL embraces a clash of cultures in a modern family to celebrate the universal nature of our human experience. Writer/director Lulu Wang finds a rich vein of humor in the dark mines of mortality, a rare feat illuminated by the sparkling star turn of Awkwafina, whose performance looks to the future as a bond between East and West, comedy and drama, and generations young and old.
THE IRISHMAN appears as a miracle – confirming the canonization of Martin Scorsese as America’s cinematic saint. Timeless performances by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci carry the tradition of anti-heroes into modern day as the glorified lives of gangsters smash head-first into the melancholy memory of friendship and fatherhood. THE IRISHMAN is the collaboration of a lifetime and an essential experience for movie lovers.
JOJO RABBIT pulls itself out of a hat – a cinematic magic trick of miraculous tonal mayhem. Taika Waititi’s über-unique masterwork finds a bold new way to show the horrors of World War II in moments at once insane and insightful. Roman Griffin Davis’ affecting performance as Jojo captures the awakening of childish ignorance to understanding the evil around him, serving as stark warning to adults everywhere.
JOKER smiles while your heart is breaking. Todd Phillips’ intoxicating take on Gotham’s clown prince ignited a global following by inspiring audiences to consider the mask we wear to conceal the volcanic anxiety in the world today. Joaquin Phoenix’s bravura performance is one for the ages – on the outside, exploding beyond the screen in a metamorphosis of balletic contortions – and on the inside, begging empathy for a madman as he dances down the steps of darkness.
KNIVES OUT simply slays – a modern “whodunit” pulsing with Hitchcockian thrills in this stylish staging of murder most foul. Reflecting the strata of society in a mirror crack’d, Rian Johnson’s dialogue and direction are so sharp that the film’s incisive cultural commentary cuts deep without leaving a mark. Daniel Craig plays equal parts suspicious and silly, gleefully abetted by a murderer’s row of top talent, each clearly relishing their roles in this deliciously deadly game of cat-and-mouse.
LITTLE WOMEN infuses a literary classic with new life – adapting Louisa May Alcott’s immortal words into a tale for our times. Greta Gerwig’s mastery of the material allows for her vision to soar while never straying from Alcott’s self-stated themes – “domesticity, work and true love.” This monumental achievement is brought to life by a creative ensemble of infinite talent, but the story belongs to Saoirse Ronan’s Jo March – a character that rises from the pages of the past to stand tall as a heroine for all genders and generations.
MARRIAGE STORY captures the intimately human journey of a not-so-civil war. Director Noah Baumbach’s blindingly brilliant writing navigates this emotionally complex tale of the heartbreaking power dynamics in marriage. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver’s raw performances stand toe-to-toe among the year’s best as they share a child and haircuts and a mutual admiration for what is good in each other – before unleashing fury as prizefighters locked in a bruising battle that asks what is love and what is law.
ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD is a cinematic journey through time that underscores the undying power of “happily ever after.” Quentin Tarantino’s mastery of image, sound and teeth-gritting tension lead to an ending that catalyzes a cultural catharsis, one winningly illuminated by Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt exude brilliance at maximum wattage in turns that capture the bounds of friendship, an actor’s desperate fight for relevance and the confidence that comes with knowing you’re a star.
RICHARD JEWELL is a uniquely American achievement from a uniquely American master. Clint Eastwood’s 38th feature film in the director’s chair finds him taking on two of our nation’s most powerful institutions – the government and the media – by telling the tale of an American hero. Paul Walter Hauser inhabits the soul of a flawed but big-hearted man who falls victim to an intemperate rush to judgment, and Kathy Bates and Sam Rockwell bring humanity to the fore as the film shines a clear light on fidelity, bravery and integrity.
AFI SPECIAL AWARD
PARASITE embeds itself in the collective consciousness and proves the power of cinema to assert universal truths across cultural borders. Bong Joon Ho’s brilliant entry in his growing global canon submerges an intense class commentary on the faces of his brilliant cast as tensions and waters rise in the sewers of South Korea. With incomparable skill, this genre-busting narrative ingeniously layers comedy, horror and pathos as it compels audiences to consider who earns our empathy when a dream becomes a scheme.
CHERNOBYL turns one of mankind’s darkest disasters into one of television’s brightest achievements. Craig Mazin’s harrowing narrative illustrates the power of television to expose a story known by few to a global audience affected by its horrors. Set against the backdrop of a 1980s Soviet Union recreated with glowing precision, this cautionary tale warns how unchecked lies can lead to human fallout on an unprecedented scale.
THE CROWN continues to sparkle with brilliance in its third year. Now, even more, the power of Peter Morgan’s sumptuous series echoes beyond the singular Queen, inviting audiences to consider how the humanity of the Royal Family is stifled by tradition – an unsentimental approach brought into sharp relief through engaging historical detail and the regal performances of Olivia Colman and her noble entourage.
FOSSE/VERDON struts into the spotlight with pizzazz worthy of Broadway’s brightest stars. Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail’s insightful look at the personal and professional relationship of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon asks “who is master?” and “who is muse?” This emotionally complex dance is fully explored through extraordinary performances by Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, who dazzle in a brilliant pas de deux that spins between love and betrayal, creation, destruction…and all that jazz.
GAME OF THRONES marches into history in its fiery finale – leaving behind a storytelling landscape forever changed. Across the years, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss set new standards for the crafts of television, overseeing an army of artists that collaborated to create worlds heretofore unimaginable – and this year, earning a permanent place on the throne as a defining cultural milestone for our time and for all time.
POSE sparkles in the limelight of its second year – glowing even brighter, loving ever more – for the family found at center stage. Raising the bar as it raises the roof, this vibrant series from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals glitters with star turns from Billy Porter and a larger-than-life ensemble that celebrates the power of identity and the sanctity of self without excuses.
SUCCESSION calls upon the grand traditions of opera, Shakespeare and the tales of Olympus to expose today’s 1% as equal parts powerful and pathetic. Jesse Armstrong’s deliciously dark saga of family crackles with the clash of would-be titans, each stumbling to prove their killer instincts as they battle for their father’s approval. Brian Cox’s towering patriarch challenges audiences to cheer for his downfall – with a smile.
UNBELIEVABLE demands we believe. Susannah Grant’s complex procedural doubles as a primal scream on behalf of women whose stories of violation and assault have been ignored. Dogged detectives Toni Collette and Merritt Wever brilliantly embody the search for justice by casting doubt upon doubt, and Kaitlyn Dever’s bruising performance begs empathy for those caught in America’s shameful patterns of abuse.
VEEP exits the highest office of television comedy with an unimpeachable legacy – a brilliant, biting political satire and a maze of funhouse mirrors for today’s fractured politics. This tonic for our times is administered in rapid doses by an impeccable ensemble led by America’s first lady of comedy, the incomparable Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
WATCHMEN demonstrates the true superpower of modern mythologies – as masked heroes fight to expose ugly truths otherwise unrecognizable as American history. Damon Lindelof’s richly layered story tackles white supremacy with heroism that radically re-imagines right and wrong, while Regina King’s soaring presence as Sister Night is just the hero we’ve prayed for in a world gone mad.
WHEN THEY SEE US brings modern history to light – and demands it not repeat itself. Ava DuVernay’s epic chronicle of injustice digs deep beneath the headlines to illuminate the singularly human stories of the Central Park Five. In the eyes of this amazing acting ensemble, reflections of hope are lost in despair until exoneration years later. This is compelling, powerful storytelling that appeals to an American ideal of freedom for all.
AFI SPECIAL AWARD
FLEABAG smashes convention without a blush, inspiring lean-in laughter and lean-back gasps in equal measure. Rare is the moment to experience a supernova like creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose life-affirming confessional pulses with authenticity and an undeniable charisma that inspires audiences to embrace their own bawdy flaws and live vicariously through her broken, self-deprecating cool.