AFI AWARDS 2009 – American Film Institute

AFI Awards

Honoring a year of excellence.




is a theological shaggy dog story that could only spring from the miraculous minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. The film marks the 25th anniversary of moviemaking for these American masters, and from its audacious Yiddish-language prologue to its apocalyptic conclusion, A SERIOUS MAN grapples with themes of temptation and divine retribution in a world only the Coen brothers could create. Midwestern isolation and Jewish angst are the frame for Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik, the film’s Job-like protagonist who finds comfort in the certainty of physics as the uncertainty of his own life threatens to destroy him while he fiddles with the antennae on his suburban roof. Read the AFI Catalog entry


marks the singular and stylish debut of writer-director Tom Ford, whose astoundingly assured transition from fashion to film — from the human body to the human spirit — is a perfect fit for Christopher Isherwood’s story of love and loss. As a heartbroken college professor and his lovelorn compatriot, Colin Firth and Julianne Moore offer achingly honest performances that inhabit a perfectly realized 1962 Los Angeles. A SINGLE MAN is a meditation on grief, a sensuous lament, a memento mori that reminds us to love well, to cherish the human encounters that color our lives and to be aware, in the end, that everything is as it should be. Read the AFI Catalog entry


is a heart-stopping, stop-motion nightmare for the child lost in all of us. Written and directed by Henry Selick, this haunting new creation is a needle-sharp display of animated filmmaking — literate, subtle and sophisticated. The film is a gorgeous translation of Neil Gaiman’s novel and a daring marriage of darkness and light, where a young girl’s dream world takes her to a place where childhood is seen through a new and unique set of eyes. Read the AFI Catalog entry


will have you rubbing your head in the morning and wishing you hadn’t had so much fun. Director Todd Phillips and screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have created an anthem to arrested male adolescence that is unashamed, unapologetic and unbelievably funny. Though what happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, THE HANGOVER brought laughter to a world when it needed it most and deserves a toast for its mastery of the comedic form, one of filmmaking’s most challenging feats. Read the AFI Catalog entry


is a cinematic explosion that drops audiences inside the chaos of the war in Iraq and into the minds of American soldiers who defuse bombs with equal parts anxiety and adrenaline. Marked by the bravura direction of Kathryn Bigelow and grounded in Mark Boal’s taut, unsentimental script, this grippingly real story detonates an emotional portrait of combat and camaraderie abroad, and alienation at home. An outstanding ensemble cast is led by Jeremy Renner, whose tour of duty is a tour de force. Read the AFI Catalog entry


is an emotional minefield where a knock at the door informs us all of the cost of war. Writer/director Oren Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon paint a series of deeply personal portraits that bring to light the mounting toll of the conflict in Iraq. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster deliver riveting performances as soldiers on this “sacred mission” — and in their wake, a new trail of tears for the American war movie. Read the AFI Catalog entry


is the celebration of a life lived against all odds. Director Lee Daniels and writer Geoffrey Fletcher bring the spirit of Sapphire’s novel to the screen in this movie about a person passed each day, whose story has never made it to the movies. Gabourey Sidibe blossoms in the title role, and Mo’Nique’s monstrous turn as her mother achieves the seemingly impossible by making audiences understand her as she understands herself. Together, they lead a powerful ensemble cast in a film that offers no false hope or happy ending, but instead commands us to look in the mirror and celebrate the image that smiles back, because in that reflection, we are all precious. Read the AFI Catalog entry


shines a bright light on the American dream through the cheers and jeers heaped upon those who embody its national pastime. Writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have shaped a screenplay as elegant as a well-turned double play and assembled a remarkable lineup of acting talent led by rookie Algenis Perez Soto. SUGAR is as ambitious as it is intimate, allowing audiences a clear-eyed look at the immigrant experience while celebrating both the trials and triumphs of swinging for the fences — and reaching for an ideal. Read the AFI Catalog entry


is a magical tale of life’s journey. Writer/directors Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and their team of high-flying technical artists have created a storytelling experience both uplifting and uproarious as they explore new territories for animation. With outstanding vocal performances from an ensemble led by Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer, the film travels — with childhood in tow — through a deeply emotional adventure of love, loss and letting go. UP takes us all on the balloon-ride of our lives, powered by imagination and filled with equal parts helium and heart. Read the AFI Catalog entry


is a triumphant tale for our turbulent times. With the clarity of perspective that comes from a window seat at 30,000 feet, Jason Reitman proves again to soar among the art form’s finest storytellers. Together, with co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner, he has taken the words from Walter Kirn’s novel and given them flight in a film that both harkens back to the glory of Hollywood past and assures audiences that smart, witty and painfully human stories are here for the future. This sentiment is best embodied in George Clooney, an American treasure who captivates again with his signature alchemy of gentleman and jester, charmer and chump. The film is also a showcase for two of the most original female characters of the year, played with grace and gusto by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. UP IN THE AIR is a film that defines the challenges of a generation — to consider what one truly values in life — and where we call home. Read the AFI Catalog entry



explodes with laughter week after week proving life still springs from the multi-camera sitcom. This valentine to science geekdom is both funny and smart, embodied in the virtuoso performance of Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper. Here the familiar is fresh, with an extraordinary ensemble whose characters may lack social graces, but live in a show that celebrates them with finesse and panache. Creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady have mined an old field to find new treasure, and in this third season, have polished it into a brilliant gem.


embraces religion, politics and rural life in such an ambitious way that to watch it grow and prosper only further adds to its delicious appeal. Particularly in this pivotal season, creators Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer and their expansive creative ensemble paint an epic portrait of a family and present it through a fractured prism. In this light, the role of women is integrated in unexpected and complicated ways, as is the darker side of being different in one nation under God.


goes deep, always, and scores again this year. The show remains true to its game plan, capturing the essence of small town America with honest performances and an outstanding ensemble that audiences cheer for with more emotion each passing season. Particularly this year, when Peter Berg’s show found a second life on a satellite cable service, the theme of the “underdog” became even stronger for the people of Dillon, Texas, where life is lived in the margins, where silence speaks eloquently of dreams deferred and where victory isn’t necessarily winning the game — it’s just being able to play.


is an explosion of joy that brings a powerful new voice to network television. Created by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, GLEE is a wink and a smile to the musicals of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, but also a spin and a step that sing of what it is to be gay, pregnant, disabled — different. The show is extraordinarily in tune with America’s musical lexicon, and the inspired creative ensemble is a singing, dancing sensation — one that has struck a chord with a nation eager to find joy in our differences.


continued to fulfill its ambitious promise in this third and transformative season. As creator Matt Weiner’s compelling period drama charts its grand narrative between the idealistic days of Eisenhower and the chaos of the 1960s, audiences must look in the mirror to consider the transitions in today’s America. MAD MEN remains the most stylish show on television, its perfectly designed past a foil to the dissolution of a man and his marriage. Jon Hamm and January Jones lead an elegant ensemble while placing the Drapers, despite their despair, in the pantheon of television’s married couples.


celebrates the function of dysfunction in the American family by bringing together three odd couples in a giant, slaphappy group hug. With writing as heartfelt as it is hip, creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd have married the mockumentary and family sitcom in sophisticated harmony, showering each of their vast and varied characters with affection and establishing sincerity as the hallmark of the new avant-garde. Amidst the chaos of the clan, MODERN FAMILY honors an array of life choices within the funny and fallible framework of love.


takes audiences to Africa in the year’s best example of the transportive nature of television. Inspired by the stories of Alexander McCall Smith, the show’s gentle and genuine tales are captured on location with immersive imagery, music and an international cast that anchors each episode in authenticity. Here “simple” is not “simplistic,” and this wonderfully well-realized storytelling not only delivers as entertainment, but plants the seeds for the acceptance of a greater global perspective.


is addictive television. This compassionate, yet unsentimental portrait of a caregiver driven to medicate herself is brought to life through the fearless performance of Edie Falco, who consistently has her finger on the pulse of great American drama. As created by Liz Brixius, Evan Dunsky and Linda Wallem, NURSE JACKIE transfuses black humor and subtle, unpredictable storytelling to find its place among television’s great tragic comedies, ultimately examining the desire to care for others and the demands of caring for oneself.


is television’s best-kept secret. Creators John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, Paul Rudd and Rob Thomas have combined their creative talents to tell a wickedly funny tale of a catering company run by a smorgasbord of LA actor wannabes. This clever conceit has the show’s devoted audience cheering for a collection of characters that flub their way through life, each depicted with real affection and an aching authenticity. PARTY DOWN knows its world and mocks it with authority, though at its significant heart, the show is a celebration of the joy and despair of aspiring to something that may never come to pass.


takes flight from the razor’s edge between camp and classic. Creator Alan Ball’s vampire drama is Southern Gothic gone wild, feeding on the popular obsession with the supernatural while creating its own rich world through a knowing, seductive concoction of sex, violence and soap opera. Michelle Forbes’ brilliant performance as Maryann Forrester is the magnetic center of an audacious and orgiastic season that not only unleashes the ids in its audience, but also asks penetrating questions about what it is to be human — to desire, to discriminate and to dig deep into the delights of television.



James Cameron’s pioneering effort to unleash the human imagination was fully realized in 2009 with the release of AVATAR, a film that firmly established itself as a landmark in the way stories are told.

With an army of technological wizards at his side, writer/director/producer/co-editor Cameron called upon the forces of art and technology to create new tools for storytelling that are groundbreaking in both scope and scale.

The magic of the motion picture — and the transfer of its power to television and now video games — has always found its truest power in its immersive qualities, and with Cameron’s advances in CGI (computer-generated images) and 3-D, AVATAR enters AFI’s almanac as an achievement that will have profound effects on the future of the art form.


Twitter, the Internet platform for messages of up to 140 characters, has become a powerful force in the worlds of film and television. It has long been proven that the most effective way to attract an audience is through “word of mouth,” and Twitter allows for these influential conversations to be immediate and international.

Twitter has also created new and direct channels of communication for artists to speak directly to their fan base. Most notably, in 2009, Ashton Kutcher enlisted over one million followers to his “tweets.”

In marketing terms, Twitter and other forms of social networking have allowed motion pictures and television programs the opportunity to both expand and unite their audiences. For example, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY became a cultural sensation in 2009 for mastering “word of mouth” marketing via social networks, in addition to telling a terrifying tale very well. In television, Twitter helped to ensure “appointment television” by creating venues for viewers to comment on shows as they aired. For example, GLEE employed Twitter to broaden its fan base of “Gleeks.”


On September 14, 2009, NBC premiered THE JAY LENO SHOW, a reformatted version of THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO, to run Monday through Friday at 10:00 p.m.

As a result, five hours traditionally reserved for episodic drama were dropped from the broadcast television landscape. The move had a harsh effect in job losses for the creative ensembles whose stories were told at that time, and also among national affiliate stations whose ratings for 11:00 p.m. local news programs dropped significantly.

This experiment can be viewed as another chapter in the evolution of television to less expensive programming, which began in force with the emergence of reality television. However, audiences have found quality dramas moving in force to cable and pay cable television, and the world awaits the first breakout drama scripted for the Internet.


Reality television crossed a line in 2009 as the cultural craving for celebrity moved in a dangerous new direction. Most significantly, the “characters” now referred to as “Balloon Boy” and “Octomom,” in addition to a couple who allegedly infiltrated the White House to attend a state dinner, have marked the year as one in which the health and welfare of our citizens should be considered before the standards and practices of television.


On June 12, 2009, analog television switched off, and the digital revolution saw a new day. This moment is mostly symbolic, but signaled further change across many former television traditions:

• Several long-running soap operas were cancelled in 2009. GUIDING LIGHT, the longest-running drama in television and radio history, aired its final episode on September 18, 2009. The program began in 1937, during the second Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was also announced that AS THE WORLD TURNS, a daytime staple since 1956, would air its last episode on September 10, 2010.

The demise of the soap opera can be linked to the omnipresent melodrama presented in news, reality and other programs that are now available instantaneously, around the clock and on many platforms.

• Long-form television became more scarce in 2009. While excellent programs like GREY GARDENS, INTO THE STORM and PRAYERS FOR BOBBY proved there was still quality work being done in the field, the fragmentation of the television audience strained the economics of the old business model for TV movies and mini-series.

Other notable moments in the sea of change include Comcast’s bid to acquire NBC Universal to ensure content for distribution to its more than 23 million subscribers, as well as the continued rise in the reliance of DVRs (digital video recorders) so that audiences have shows when and where they wish to view them.


Though animation has been a genre of great impact since the dawn of the moving image, 2009 marked a year that saw a dazzling explosion of noteworthy work from many of the nation’s finest artists, and in forms vast and varied — from classic hand-drawn stories like THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG; to stop-motion splendors like CORALINE and FANTASTIC MR. FOX; to computer-generated creations like UP, 9, CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS, ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS and MONSTERS VS. ALIENS.


Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009. One of the most influential entertainers in modern day, Jackson’s death was met with a worldwide expression of grief.

In the months that followed his death, Jackson’s talents were celebrated on-line, with a renewed interest in the musical and video gifts he had given the world over five decades; on television, as millions tuned in for his memorial and funeral services; and, most notably, in theatres, with the film THIS IS IT, a documentary crafted from the rehearsal footage for an upcoming concert tour. The film proved an unprecedented global eulogy for fans and friends of the “King of Pop.”


Just as Americans flocked to musicals and screwball comedies during the Great Depression of the 1930s, audiences in 2009 escaped their worries by going to the movies. Though total admissions do not compare, it is worthy to note that in the world’s darkest economic time since the Depression, American films grossed more money than any time in the history of the art form. Aliens, vampires and wizards may have replaced Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on the silver screen, but the movies still provide joy and refuge in a story well told.