Late in 2013 I became a member of Film Independent. One of the great privileges of that membership is the opportunity to vote in the Film Independent Spirit Awards. This is my chance to support and celebrate the industry I so enjoy, and to be an active participant in a way writing reviews can never allow.
For the third straight year, I am publishing my votes (now that voting is closed). I do this because I am of the opinion that voting for this sort of thing should be transparent; besides, I’m vocal with my opinions on social media, so why wouldn’t I be equally so here?
Below are the categories and nominees. My votes are as indicated, along with an image from the nominee I voted for and my thoughts. Certain selections are linked to my reviews.
Beasts of No Nation
My Vote: Spotlight
My Thoughts: Tangerine might embody the spirit of independent filmmaking, and Carol and Anomalisa dazzle at times, but this category is no contest. There isn’t a nominee as well-constructed and well-executed as the story of the Boston Globe‘s uncovering of the Boston priest sex abuse atrocities. Spotlight isn’t just the best Spirit nominee for Best Feature, it’s the best film of 2015.
Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, Anomalisa
Cary Joji Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation
Todd Haynes, Carol
David Robert Mitchell, It Follows
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Sean Baker, Tangerine
My Vote: Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
My Thoughts: It’s no easy task handling this film’s story and finding the sweet spot that goes beyond made-for-TV fare and yet avoids a melodramatic tailspin. McCarthy handles it perfectly, and with a bench as deep as Spotlight‘s in terms of talent, he is a dream team head coach as much as he is a Hollywood director.
BEST FEMALE LEAD
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Rooney Mara, Carol
Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Brie Larson, Room
Kitana Kiki Rodriquez, Tangerine
My Vote: Brie Larson, Room
My Thoughts: I liked most of the nominees in this category, but among this group, Larson, playing prisoner, mother, daughter, and media curiosity, takes the award in a walk. If the Spirits they gave second place prizes, it’d be a toss-up between Blanchett and Powley.
BEST MALE LEAD
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Christopher Abbott, James White
Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
My Vote: Christopher Abbott, James White
My Thoughts: In a battle of actors playing characters battling addiction, this was one of the tougher choices to make. Mendelsohn is sensational as a down-on-his-luck gambler, but Abbott’s portrayal of a man spiraling in self-destructive addiction is breathtaking. (Also worthy of mention is Segel.)
Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa
S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk
Phyllis Nagy, Carol
Donald Margulies, The End of the Tour
Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer, Spotlight
My Vote: Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer, Spotlight
My Thoughts: This was a two-script race between Spotlight and Bone Tomahawk, with the latter’s strength found in mesmerizing dialogue. However, there’s more to a script than what the actors say, and it’s those parts of Bone‘s script that are the film’s undoing. Pound-for-pound, the Spotlight script is too much for the rest of the competition.
BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anomalisa
Marin Ireland, Glass Chin
Robin Bartlett, H.
Cynthia Nixon, James White
Mya Taylor, Tangerine
My Vote: Cynthia Nixon, James White
My Thoughts: Just as Larson owns her category, so too does Nixon in her tremendous supporting effort. As the cancer-riddled mother of her out-of-control title-character son, Nixon doesn’t just play exhaustion as 50/50 emotional/physical, she plays both at 100% each.
BEST SUPPORTING MALE
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk
Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Kevin Corrigan, Results
My Vote: Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
My Thoughts: Shannon is great as a property-flipper and Jenkins is worth the price of admission as on old cowboy, but Dano is transcendent playing troubled musical genius Brian Wilson. It’s a career performance.
BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY
Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Jesse Andrews, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Joseph Carpignano, Mediterranea
John Magary, Russell Harbaugh, Myna Joseph, The Mend
Emma Donoghue, Room
My Vote: Emma Donoghue, Room
My Thoughts: This is the category I found to have the most qualitative disparity. Donoghue’s script, however, would have risen above most other screenplays not nominated, too.
Cary Joji Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation
Ed Lachman, Carol
Michael Gioulakis, It Follows
Reed Morano, Meadowland
Joshua James Richards, Songs My Brothers Taught Me
My Vote: Michael Gioulakis, It Follows
My Thoughts: It Follows was the darling of the horror set in 2015, with its fresh premise and its clever “rules” around the thing that was chasing the young people. I thought those rules downshifted from clever to too clever by half as the film tried to find a way to close, so it wasn’t quite a darling of mine. That said, there is no denying the look of the film is a gorgeous and glowing throwback to some of the dreamy-looking horror films of the ’80s.
(T)error; Directors/Producers: Lyric R. Cabral & David Felix Sutcliffe / Producer: Christopher St. John
Best of Enemies; Directors/Producers: Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville
Heart of a Dog; Director/Producer: Laurie Anderson / Producer: Dan Janvey
The Look of Silence; Director: Joshua Oppenheimer / Producer: Signe Byrge Sørensen
Meru; Directors/Producers: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi / Producer: Shannon Ethridge
The Russian Woodpecker; Director/Producer: Chad Gracia / Producers: Ram Devineni, Mike Lerner
My Vote: The Russian Woodpecker
My Thoughts: This dazzling doc is set in Ukraine and has a Renaissance Man protagonist who is less interested in the Maidan of today and more interested in the Chernobyl of yesterday. That Chernobyl is where he lived (as a child) when disaster struck. The unanswered questions surrounding that tragedy have him digging for the truth, but at what cost?. Past and present, Cold Warriors and pacifists, history and art, history-makers and artists, and science and conspiracy all converge in a theory that will leave you speechless. This is the best doc of the year, full stop.
BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM
Embrace of the Serpent
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Son of Saul
My Vote: Mustang
My Thoughts: Five young Turkish sisters struggle against the confines of a repressive culture and a repressive family, and as more restrictions are placed on them, the more they yearn to break free. Each sister approaches this in her own way, sometimes to devastating ends, but they all have each other’s love and support. Just as Spotlight is the year’s best film overall, and The Russian Woodpecker the best documentary overall, Mustang is the best foreign film of the year overall.
BEST FIRST FEATURE
The Diary of a Teenage Girl; Director: Marielle Heller / Producers: Miranda Bailey, Anne Carey, Bert Hamelinck, Madeline Samit
James White; Director: Josh Mond / Producers: Max Born, Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, Melody Roscher, Eric Schultz
Manos Sucias; Director: Josef Kubota Wladyka / Producers: Elena Greenlee, Márcia Nunes
Director: Jonas Carpignano / Producers: Jason Michael Berman, Chris Columbus, Jon Mediterranea; Coplon, Christoph Daniel, Andrew Kortschak, John Lesher, Ryan Lough, Justin Nappi, Alain Peyrollaz, Gwyn Sannia, Marc Schmidheiny, Victor Shapiro, Ryan Zacarias
Songs My Brothers Taught Me; Director/Producer: Chloé Zhao / Producers: Mollye Asher, Nina Yang Bongiovi, Angela C. Lee, Forest Whitaker
My Vote: James White
My Thoughts: Each of the five nominees in this category comes to play, and while they each have their strengths and weaknesses, the film with the greatest strengths and the least weaknesses is the tale of the 20-something whose life is spiraling out of control, in ways he can and can’t control: James White. There is a raw intensity to the film that won’t let you walk away, and despite the fact it’s the first of the five nominees I saw (and therefor the “oldest” in my mind), it’s the one I can’t forget about.
It’s almost Oscar Sunday, aka my last “official” day to consider 2015 films for my Best Of list. (I extend the date to Oscar Sunday because many films are released late in a true calendar year, and then sometimes only in NY and LA, so it takes them time in the new year to screen closer to home.) I might still have a few days, but this list is locked down as far as I’m concerned. (Honorable mentions are listed alphabetically at the end).
Russell, Lawrence, and Cooper do it again, this time digging deep into what used to be known as the lower-middle-class. It’s not a tale of the American Dream achieved, it’s a tale of the American Fantasy realized.
9. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
This is the exact film the franchise needed. It taps into the nostalgia of the original films without getting mawkish, it introduces a diverse cast of incredibly charismatic characters, it looks back, it looks ahead, and the action is enthralling as hell.
7. THE BIG SHORT
McKay and company take an incredibly complex subject – the mortgage crisis of the late 2000s – and makes it as understandable and as entertaining as film based on that period in history can be. Oh, and it should come with a trigger warning.
A phenomenal entry in a legendary franchise. The reverence of the past is pitch-perfect, and the film is worthy of standing next to the 1976 film that started it all, Rocky. This is Michael B. Jordan’s franchise now.
6. DANCING ARABS (aka A BORROWED IDENTITY)
Two teens fall in love, but there’s a catch: he’s Arab, she’s Israeli. This os a sublime film about the glory of young love, the challenge of religious identity, the pressures of family, and the despair caused by an unforgiving geopolitical climate.
Five sisters struggle to break free of the confines of a repressive culture and a repressive family. They each handle it in their own way, sometimes to devastating ends. This is the best foreign film of the year.
4. THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER
It’s a documentary about a man with a stunning – and plausible – Chernobyl theory. A great story with a great storyteller and great storytelling divinely convergence to create a documentary of considerable historic consequence. It’s also the best doc of the year.
This is a magnificent coming-of-age story wrapped in an immigrant’s tale and soaked in romance. Star Saoirse Ronan is breathtaking.
2. EX MACHINA
This film is brilliant, drawing inspiration from the likes of Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Pinocchio, and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s also the flip side of the Iron Man coin in the most interesting of ways.
This film – about the uncovering of the Catholic priest sex scandal in Boston in the early 2000s – is tremendous. It never exploits the victimized and it balances well the complex issues of the time. There is no finer ensemble cast in 2015, anchored by MVP Mark Ruffalo.
Honorable Mentions: 45 Years | Amy | Ant-Man | Clouds of Sils Maria | Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem | Kumiko the Treasure Hunter | Mad Max: Fury Road | Man From Reno | Memories of the Sword | Mommy | Queen of Earth | Red Army | Room | Spring | The World of Kanako | Two Step | Unfriended | Winter On Fire | Youth
When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, I had it pretty good as a member of the upper-middle-class (a socioeconomic designation recognizable today only to those of a certain age, now that the present-day middle class is a singular, albeit dwindling, entity). It was a very nice way to grow up, but it wasn’t the only existence I’ve known. In my early 20s I resided, at least for a little while, at the other end of center: lower-middle-class. As much as I remember the privileges and benefits that came with being a member of the former, I also remember the worries and struggles of being confined to the latter. Writer/director David O. Russell taps deep into those latter worries and struggles in Joy, his latest collaboration with his muse, Jennifer Lawrence.
Lawrence plays the title role, a struggling divorced mother of two living the quintessential lower-middle-class life. She has a dead-end job that forces her to work third shift, she lives in a small home with an her mother (Virginia Madsen), her grandmother (Diane Ladd), and, in the basement, her ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez). When her father (Robert De Niro) is kicked out of his home by his girlfriend and sent to live with Joy et al, the young divorcee reaches her emotional breaking point. But a seemingly unfortunate mishap inspires Joy to invent the Miracle Mop, a mop that offers the cleanliness of hands-free wringing and the convenience of a re-washable mop head. It’s a device she thinks will revolutionize cleaning for housewives everywhere. With the help of a QVC executive (Bradley Cooper), Joy hopes to see her dream become a reality.
In a review of 2011’s Margin Call, one I wrote for a now-defunct film site, I noted just how well writer/director JC Chandor portrayed on screen not only the execution of a corporate layoff, but the emotions that come with one: “… the tension, the speculation, the wondering if your shoulder will be tapped next, the simultaneous feelings of relief and guilt that come with keeping your job.” I haven’t experienced that degree of realism in a film since … that is, until Joy. Unlike with his last two outings – the quirky-charactered Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and the groovy ’70s-themed American Hustle (2013) – here Russell, who cowrote the screenplay with Annie Mumolo, drives through the surface of his film and taps into something (in this case a socioeconomic class) in ways that go far deeper than character and clothing.
Russell marvelously presents the palpable hopelessness associated with being part of the lower-middle-class, but does so beyond the obvious (albeit ever-present) financial constraints of such an existence. Constructing characters who live under perfectly normal circumstances but giving them crippling apathy, Russell creates a sense of surrender in those characters that keeps them repressed and resigned to underwhelming existences. No one ever blames anyone else for their lots in life, no one ever says “poor me,” but no one does anything to improve their situations, either. Her parents, her half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm), and her ex-husband aren’t stuck in a rut, they’ve chosen to set up camp there because to not do so would take greater effort. Even her grandmother, the narrator of the story and the one with high hopes for Joy, does little beyond hoping.
Except Joy. Her backstory is wonderful. A child full of dreams with a knack for creating things is inspired by her grandmother, but ultimately she is repressed and smothered by the apathy of the rest of her kin until she becomes one of them. It’s familial subversion at its most awful and most accurate: they are not successful so she will not be successful. They suffer in their existence so she will suffer with them. Even when she is successful, her family is never really all-in. They support her, but there is always this unsettling combination of jealousy of her success and anticipation of her comeuppance that lingers in every scene.
When she is faced with an unexpected and devastating challenge, this lower-middle-class group of repressed people do not rally around Joy to show their support or lift her spirits; instead, they instinctively collaborate to drag her back down, their faces screaming “I told you so,” and going so far as to question why she should have dared to be successful anyway, when all that was bound to get her was failure. And that failure only gives them the resolve to remain apathetic. “See?” they think to themselves, “That’s what trying hard gets you – failure. We can’t fail if we do nothing, and not failing is almost like success, and that consolation prize will do, thank you ver much.” It’s weapons-grade passive-aggressive behavior seated around the Sunday dinner table.
What makes Joy’s ultimate success so interesting is that it isn’t the typical American Dream achieved, so much as it’s the typical American Fantasy realized. Joy gets all the credit in the world for wanting to break the cycle of negativity that has suffocated her since childhood, but hers isn’t that deliberate path of spending years to improve her life. She doesn’t climb a corporate ladder nor does she go to night school. She has a great idea, she takes a chance, and she makes it big. There is nothing wrong with this kind of success, but it certainly plays into the lower-middle-class fantasy of having problems solved by hitting the lottery, where hitting the lottery to solve problems is Plan A … and Joy’s lottery hit actually fuels her family’s cannibalistic fire. These are people who think they deserve what Joy has, despite the fact they’ve done nothing to get there, and quickly forgetting they were, at times, impediments to her success.
I have known people like this. It’s frightening how right Russell gets it.
In a collection of terrific performances, Lawrence is an exponentially brighter light than her costars. She loses herself in this role, and despite her Hollywood aura, J Law disappears in the opening scene and is forever Joy, even when glammed-up for an appearance on QVC. Cooper, in a smaller role than expected albeit a critical one, is also in top form. (And a quick positive shout-out to Melissa Rivers, playing the part of her mother, Joan Rivers, a woman as much an icon of televised shopping as an icon of comedy).
With Joy, Russell and Lawrence (and Cooper) ascend to another level as creative collaborators. Unlike their mixed previous efforts, this film transports the viewer to a destination that cannot be defined by tics, tunes, or tailors. It’s a destination that can only be measured by the trial, error, success, defeat, and perseverance it takes to survive there – a survival celebrated by the defiant display of the scars earned along the way.