Hanks, McConaughey and more take stock of a great year for movies at Palm Springs awards gala

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The 25th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala was held Saturday night and a wide array of stars came out to fete and be feted. Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Jane Fonda, Matthew McConaughey, Gary Oldman, U2’s Bono, Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep were just a few on hand as the Oscar season dived headlong into the new year.

There was a theme of quality, particularly in true-life stories, that Chairman’s Award recipient Tom Hanks couldn’t help but comment upon after accepting his prize from friend and colleague Julia Roberts. Pointing to such films as “Dallas Buyers Club,” “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave” and his own “Captain Phillips” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” he took a moment to take stock of the profound non-fiction mined for entertainment this year. And he added, with levity, “‘Gravity’ – fake. But also real. Hasn’t happened but it could. ‘August: Osage County.’ I grew up in a family just like that. That dinner? Had one just like it two weeks ago.”

Desert Palm Achievement Award recipient Matthew McConaughey (introduced by Gary Oldman) also paused before accepting to account for the quality work on display this year. “We put out damned good product,” the “Dallas Buyers Club” star said of Hollywood’s 2013 crop. “A lot of films this year are two things: important and entertainment.” He called “Dallas” the “acting adventure” of his career, noting that “we didn’t have enough money; we shot it for under $5 million. We didn’t have enough time; we shot it in 28 days. We had enough food, but we couldn’t eat it!” Indeed, his weight loss for the role, as well as Jared Leto’s for his supporting turn, is an outward sign of the commitment the project demanded.

“Gravity” star Sandra Bullock was the actress recipient of the Desert Palm prize this year and after accepting from legendary actress Gena Rowlands, she won the audience over with a typically self-deprecating speech. She joked that she had Googled herself before the event and read through various comments sections, often to her horror. But that was just a device through which to illustrate what she’s learned and how she’s grown over the years. “I’ve sparred with Betty White and I’ve flown into space,” she said. “I’ve had a pretty good life.”

Bullock also commented on the level of quality this year, noting that when she looks across the wide spectrum of cinematic accomplishments in 2013, and specifically the historical accounts on display, “I know that one day I can show my son how far we’ve come.”

Career Achievement Award recipient Bruce Dern – who was introduced by his friend and two-time co-star Jane Fonda (“They Shoot Horses Don’t They?,” “Coming Home”) – noted that just 100 yards from the Palm Springs Convention Center that was playing host to the gala, he shot Roger Corman’s 1966 motorcycle film “The Wild Angels.” He continued the “little engine that could” narrative of his 2013 film “Nebraska,” again extending thanks to director Alexander Payne for giving him the role of a lifetime. Touched by what the season has meant to him so far, he said, “A bunch of you folks have gotten together and said Bruce can come out and play.”

U2’s Bono, in accepting the Visionary Award on behalf of his band, gave certainly the most meaningful speech of the evening (printed in full here), a consideration of the success of AIDS intervention programs around the world and particularly a salute to “the greatest activist of them all, Nelson Mandela.” In presenting the Ensemble Performance Award, David O. Russell introduced a great many of his “American Hustle” cast and, perhaps cluing into where his head is at as of late, called that film and his last two projects (“The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”) “stories of reinvention.” And Julia Roberts, in accepting the Spotlight Award, spoke briefly of the “scientific fact” that birds fly better in formation than they do alone, a nod to the collaborations of her career, not least of them being “August: Osage County.”

Few were so eloquent as “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen, however, recipient of the Director of the Year Award. “The only way I know how to live is to love,” he said. “And sometimes that’s painful.” It was a commentary on the harsh truths of his film that are nevertheless born out of deep love for the man, Solomon Northup, and something mirrored in actress Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance of the Breakthrough Performance Award: “Steve, you entrusted me with a role that required me to avail myself to great pain,” she said. “But I did not suffer.”

Others who received awards included “Saving Mr. Banks” composer Thomas Newman and “August: Osage County” star Meryl Streep, the first recipient of the Icon Award since Michael Douglas won it in 2011.

The 25th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival continues through Jan. 13.