Though most kudos events are competitive, the annual AFI Awards, honoring 21 film and TV works, proved communal. Sarah Polley chatted with Michelle Williams, Jerry Bruckheimer was deep in conversation with James Cameron, the “Better Call Saul” talent huddled with “Reservation Dogs” and Steven Spielberg enthused about “The Bear” to the show’s team and FX’s John Landgraf. 

The luncheon Jan. 13 at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills was filled with 250 industry heavy-hitters, but the scene-stealer was someone who had no attachment to any of the honored works: Al Pacino, who closed the event with a 10-minute speech that seemed rambling and hilarious, but proved to be pointed and concluded with a bang. 

Stephanie Hsu, Daniel Scheinert and Mike White at the AFI Awards 2022.
Michael Buckner for Variety

Before the event started, Universal Pictures chairwoman Donna Langley praised the annual gathering to Variety, saying: “It reminds us of the dignity and elegance of the industry as we gather here to celebrate artistry.”

In December, AFI announced its honorees for “notable achievements” in 2022. Films cited were “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Elvis,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “The Fabelmans,” “Nope,” “She Said,” “Tar,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “The Woman King” and “Women Talking.” For TV: “Abbott Elementary,” “The Bear,” “Better Call Saul,” “Hacks,” “Mo,” “Pachinko,” “Reservation Dogs,” “Severance,” “Somebody Somewhere” and “The White Lotus.” “The Banshees of Inisherin” received an AFI Special Award, since the traditional honors — chosen by two juries, for film and for TV —  only go to American works.

After the salmon was served, the program began as AFI prez-CEO Bob Gazzale asked for a moment of silence for some of the honorees who had experienced a recent loss. He didn’t mention “Elvis” or the Jan. 12 death of Lisa Marie Presley; he didn’t have to. He said “This event was founded in community, not competition” and he wanted the team “to feel we are here for them.”

David Zaslav and Baz Luhrmann at the AFI Awards 2022.
Michael Buckner for Variety

The format has been the same since 2003. One of the judges reads the “rationale” for each honoree (i.e., the reason it was selected) followed by a one-minute clip. Rationales on Friday were read by TV jury head Rich Frank and film jury member Ann Hornaday. Sometimes the crowd reactions offer a surprising insight into industry favorites in the Oscar race, but the applause seemed evenly split.

The event traditionally ends with a benediction — a solemn toast — but Pacino rewrote the rule book. He was there to observe the 50th anniversary of “The Godfather.” He said he had prepared remarks, but after watching all the clips and thinking about the great work, he was throwing those remarks out. “What I have to say is so weird… I’m shaking, look at my hands!” What followed were observations and anecdotes about being a nominee and going through “the stages of grief” when he was Oscar-nominated for “Serpico.” His speech seemed ad-libbed and formless, though consistently hilarious and entertaining, and he wrapped with the idea that artists are not hard-wired for competition.  

Sarah Polley, Carey Mulligan and Seth Rogen at the AFI Awards 2022.
Michael Buckner for Variety

Nick Meyer from Sierra/Infinity told Variety “This is my favorite event of the year,” while Warner Bros. Pictures CEO Mike De Luca said “There’s no competition, just recognition of great work,” and that the event was a chance to reconnect with people you hadn’t seen in awhile.

Among the notables in attendance were former AFI director-CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg, Gail Berman, Todd Field (one of 30 AFI alums there), Vince Gilligan, Baz Luhrmann, Martin McDonagh, Jordan Peele, Ted Sarandos, Ben Stiller and Mike White.

Steven Spielberg and Quinta Brunson at the AFI Awards 2022.
Michael Buckner for Variety

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