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
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 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 second 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 that film and my thoughts. Certain selections are linked to my reviews.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Love Is Strange
My Vote: Selma
My Thoughts: The months that led to and included the marches from Selma to Montgomery, championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and done in the name of voting rights equality, mark a pivotal point in our nation’s timeline. This film captures that piece of history like few historical films I’ve seen before.
Damian Chazelle, Whiplash
Ava DuVernay, Selma
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
David Zellner, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
My Vote: Ava DuVernay, Selma
My Thoughts: While I have respect for the other directors and their technical efforts, DuVernay commands with her storytelling skills above all else. She masterfully constructs the story of one defining moment by using a collection of smaller, more intimate tales – tales ranging from the political to the marital – to arrive there. The film is never about one person – not even Dr. King – and yet it’s about all of them. To tell this story that way is a gift.
BEST FEMALE LEAD
Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant
Rinko Kikuchi, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Jenny Slate, Obvious Child
Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive
My Vote: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
My Thoughts: The gap between the quality of the film Still Alice and the quality of the performance by its lead, Julianne Moore, is so great, it’s as if Moore is in another better film contained within this lesser one. Without her work here, this film never finds a theater.
BEST MALE LEAD
André Benjamin, Jimi: All Is By My Side
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton, Birdman
John Lithgow, Love Is Strange
David Oyelowo, Selma
My Vote: Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
My Thoughts: As a two-bit thief who devolves into a raging sociopath, Gyllenhall manages to devour every scene without looking like a glutton. He has the all the memorable attributes of a great character performance with the confidence and heft of a lead.
Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, Big Eyes
J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year
Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
Jim Jaramusch, Only Lovers Left Alive
Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias, Love Is Strange
My Vote: Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
My Thoughts: The might of the story is just as formidable, if not more so, than its contemporaries, but its smaller moments are as memorable as its larger ones, it drips neo-noir, and if you tweak a few details here and there, it plays just as well as a Corporate America tale as it does a local TV news one.
BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
Carmen Ejogo, Selma
Andrea Suarez Paz, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
Emma Stone, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
My Vote: Emma Stone, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
My Thoughts: It’s easy to forget how good an actress Emma Stone is because she is immeasurably adorable as one of those celebrities who “gets it” and never takes herself too seriously. Then she dazzles with her performance as the young daughter/personal assistant tasked with managing the business and emotions of an actor looking to feed his ego by recapturing his past glory and sooth his soul by repairing his reputation. She also goes toe-to-toe with the great Edward Norton and never flinches.
BEST SUPPORTING MALE
Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Alfred Molina, Love Is Strange
Edward Norton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
My Vote: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
My Thoughts: Whatever the opposite of anthropomorphism is, Simmons delivers it. His performance is one of human-as-cobra: lithe and sinewy, slithering around the room and around his musicians, and perhaps most fearsome when he is still because you never know what will set him off or who he will strike. (Click HERE for my full SoF review.)
BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY
Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior
Sara Colangelo, Little Accidents
Justin Lader, The One I Love
Anja Marquardt, She’s Lost Control
Justin Simien, Dear White People
My Vote: Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior
My Thoughts: Each of the screenplays nominated is about, or deals with, relationships. Akhavan’s first effort, though, is the only one that feels natural, that feels real. The others, all varying degrees of good, feel like stories intended to be made into movies; Appropriate Behavior feels like a story intended to be a story that happened to be made into a film.
Darius Khondji, The Immigrant
Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Sean Porter, It Felt Like Love
Lyle Vincent, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Bradford Young, Selma
My Vote: Bradford Young, Selma
My Thoughts: This was probably the toughest category to vote on, but in the end, Young’s cinematography manages to simultaneously set and capture the tenor of each scene to such an amazing degree, you can watch this film with no sound and at least understand the mood of the moment.
Sandra Adair, Boyhood
Tom Cross, Whiplash
John Gilroy, Nightcrawler
Ron Patane, A Most Violent Year
Adam Wingard, The Guest
My Vote: Tom Cross, Whiplash
My Thoughts: Tom Cross’ editing is as important to the success of Whiplash as every other aspect of the film. Without his precision cuts, the film fails. (Click HERE for my full SoF review.)
20,000 Days on Earth, Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, Producers: Dan Bowen, James Wilson
Citizenfour, Director/Producer: Laura Poitras, Producers: Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutzky
The Salt of the Earth, Directors: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders, Producer: David Rosier
Stray Dog, Director: Debra Granik, Producer: Anne Rosellini
Virunga, Director/Producer: Orlando von Einsiedel, Producer: Joanna Natasegara
My Vote: Virunga, Director/Producer: Orlando von Einsiedel, Producer: Joanna Natasegara
My Thoughts: This riveting documentary finds itself at the intersection of three tremendous competing forces: animal poachers, political rebels, a greedy corporation. Documenting life, war, and money in a part of the world most of us know little-to-nothing about, Virunga is the only doc to grab you by the lapels and refuse to let you go.
BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM
Force Majeure (Sweden)
Norte, The End of History (Philippines)
Under the Skin (United Kingdom)
My Vote: Ida (Poland)
My Thoughts: Pawel Pawlikowski’s devastating drama is not only my choice for Best International film, it’s my overall #1 film of 2014. Click HERE for my SoF review.
BEST FIRST FEATURE
Dear White People, Director/Producer: Justin Simien, Producers: Effie T. Brown, Ann Le, Julia Lebedev, Angel Lopez, Lena Waithe
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Director: Ana Lily Amirpour, Producers: Justin Begnaud, Sina Sayyah
Nightcrawler, Director: Dan Gilroy, Producers: Jennifer Fox, Tony Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak
Obvious Child, Director: Gillian Robespierre, Producer: Elisabeth Holm
She’s Lost Control, Director/Producer: Anja Marquardt, Producers: Mollye Asher, Kiara C. Jones
My Vote: Nightcrawler, Director: Dan Gilroy, Producers: Jennifer Fox, Tony Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak
My Thoughts: Completely without gimmick and loaded with gritty confidence, Nightcrawler keeps you riveted despite trying to make you look away with its unflinching look at the depths of one man’s depravity. You will never watch your local news in the morning – hell, at any time of day – the same way again.