By Andrew MARSZAL
Steven Spielberg praised a stellar year for cinema as Oscars rivals gathered in a packed Beverly Hills ballroom for the Academy’s annual nominee luncheon Monday.
The event brought together A-list stars, directors, producers and behind-the-scenes artists, offering them a chance to meet the competition and charm a few voters over champagne and canapes ahead of next month’s awards.
“Oppenheimer” is widely thought to be leading the race for best picture at the Academy Awards on March 10, but Spielberg — a producer on rival movie “Maestro” — said it had also been a banner year beyond Christopher Nolan’s atomic age drama.
“This has been a great and eclectic year for films — one of the best years in terms of high quality, in my opinion, of the past decade,” he told AFP.
“Maestro,” Bradley Cooper’s biopic of legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, “is Bradley’s triumph,” said Spielberg.
The two movies are part of a widely acclaimed and wildly diverse best picture shortlist, spanning from the $1 billion-grossing “Barbie” to festival hits such as “American Fiction,” “The Holdovers,” “Past Lives” and “The Zone of Interest.”
Any potential hostilities or tensions between rivals were absent at the gala on Monday.
Emma Stone and Lily Gladstone — the two frontrunners for best actress with “Poor Things” and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” respectively, who have both been campaigning hard for months — shared a long private chat and emotional hug before heading off to mingle.
Robert Downey Jr, the best supporting actor favorite for “Oppenheimer,” kept his fellow nominees entertained with a joke while a giant “class photo” of the hundreds of nominees had to be retaken.
And while Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig may have been “snubbed,” according to some, in the Oscars’ best actress and best director categories, both attended on behalf of the blockbuster movie anyway.
Gerwig received perhaps the loudest cheer of the day as her nomination for writing the film’s screenplay was announced, while pink-clad Robbie — a producer of “Barbie” — was a popular figure in the center of the group photo.
“It can be hectic,” joked Billie Eilish, a best song nominee for “Barbie,” speaking to AFP as she was immediately swarmed with requests for selfies upon entering an already star-packed gala.
Though not technically nominated, among the most in-demand actors was Messi, the loyal and adorable canine star of French best picture contender “Anatomy of a Fall,” whose director and writer Justine Triet also attended.
Praising “an amazing year for cinema,” Academy president Janet Yang noted the highly “global” makeup of this year’s nominees, who were selected by voting members from 93 different countries.
Particularly noticeable in the room was Bobi Wine, the Ugandan pop star-turned-politician, who sported a bright red beret along with his black tuxedo.
Wine’s 2021 bid for Uganda’s presidency was met with a violent crackdown, and is the subject of nominated documentary “Bobi Wine: The People’s President.”
In a recent interview, he told AFP the upcoming Oscars could be “a game changer” for his country, as the West “will no longer have the luxury to pretend that they don’t see what is happening in Uganda.”
Wine’s film is up for best documentary against “20 Days in Mariupol,” whose director took a break from making two more films about Russia’s invasion of his home country Ukraine to attend the luncheon.
“It’s not enough to just make films and survive. It’s important to speak about this,” Mstyslav Chernov told AFP.
“Almost no one” is still paying attention to Ukraine, he added.