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.
All the President’s Men is an important film to me as it’s one of the first “serious films” I remember renting as a young teen, when more and more catalogue titles became available on VHS during the ascension of the home video market in the 1980s. That film is the reason why, to this day, when I buy an actual print newspaper that isn’t my hometown paper, I buy The Washington Post – it’s the newspaper of Watergate, and of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and of Ben Bradlee. Fast-forward thirty years and thousands of movie screenings later and I once again find myself enthralled by another film about real-life newspaper investigative journalism … and another Bradlee is involved.
That film is Spotlight, whose story opens in the summer of 2001 when editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), fresh from Miami, joins The Boston Globe and meets his editorial staff, including Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Robby is the leader of a special team on the paper known as “Spotlight.” Unlike other reporters, the members of the Spotlight team – Robby, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – perform longer and deeper investigations into much larger stories. Baron, who is expected to cut staff as a response to dwindling interest in print media (during the rise of the Internet), takes Spotlight off an existing story and directs them to look into allegations of sexual misconduct perpetrated against children by priests in the Boston Catholic community. What starts with allegations against one priest grows into an investigation of dozens of clergymen, as well as an examination of the Church’s knowledge of the atrocities and how those atrocities may have been covered up for decades by Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou). Robby and his team, with oversight by Robby’s immediate boss, editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), are stunned by what they find, which goes beyond the rape of innocent children.
As journalism-based procedurals go, Spotlight is superb thanks in large part to its phenomenal cast. While there is no single star in this ensemble, it’s hard not to call Ruffalo the MVP. He disappears into the role of a reporter who has great fire and passion, who has masterful investigative skills, and whose marriage is suffering because of it all. What’s evident early on is how excited Rezendes is to investigate the case. While others – all Boston born-and-raised – seem a little hesitant given the scope, and especially the complexity, of the case, Rezendes begs for the challenge. He’s a seasoned veteran with the enthusiasm of a cub reporter looking to make his mark.
Also excellent is Keaton as the leader of the team. His character is in a unique spot of having to manage down, manage up, and manage himself, as he has a tie to the story no one realizes (and it isn’t what you think). Sneaky-good, though, is Schreiber. In a film where each member of the cast has moments to shine, all of his moments are quiet and subdued, but so very impactful. If this cast were a band, everyone else would get their solos while Schreiber lays down a bass line that keeps them all anchored. Other great character actors with key roles include Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, and Paul Guilfoyle. From a casting perspective, it’s an embarrassment of riches.
The procedural aspect also shines thanks to director Tom McCarthy (who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer). It isn’t just the way the story gradually unfolds, with bits of information leading to greater bits of information until a big moment occurs, it’s the importance of the hard work McCarthy gives great attention to. In this, the Google era, watching people pull old newspapers clips, dig through musty old basement records, and transcribe data from books into what looks like Lotus 123, should be an absolute bore. But in McCarthy’s hands, it’s a fascinating study of a bygone era of roll-up-your-sleeves investigation performed by people whose passion for what they do shines in even the most mundane of tasks. Like Rezendes, McCarthy takes on this challenge directly and eagerly, reveling in these scenes instead of offering some obligatory montage and moving on to (seemingly) more interesting things like beating the pavement and questioning people. There’s plenty of that, too, but to a well-measured degree.
While making research look sexy, McCarthy is also wise to avoid the temptation of sensationalism. For as deplorable as it is, child molestation, especially perpetrated by a collective that is held to a higher standard, can invite a late local news approach to storytelling. Not here. While the entire story sits on a foundation of horror, that horror is never exploited. McCarthy, (again) not unlike his journalist characters, presents the facts, deals with the dicier details maturely, and constructs his story accordingly.
Most impressive about McCarthy’s work here is how he is able to present a host of facets to the story and make it all so cohesive. Boston is a big city but the close-knit community makes it more like a small town, and either you belong (Spotlight’s core staff are Catholic and local to the city) or you don’t (Baron is not from Boston, has no ties to the city, and is Jewish). The influence of the Church over political, judicial, and yes, even journalistic interests is so strong, many people involved turn a blind eye to the church’s culpability (at best), or deny it (at worst), with several doing so behind the shield of “I was doing my job.” (The importance of the Catholic Church to Boston is by far the strongest theme in the film). It even looks hard at the Globe‘s unknowing involvement in the years prior to this investigation.
At the end of Spotlight, I cried. A small part of that is probably because, as a Catholic, I carry the burden of being affiliated with an organization that systematically covered up, and in the process enabled the continuation of, heinous crimes against children. But I think the larger part of my breakdown was born of the storytelling itself. The film demands – and earns – such an emotional investment, once the Sunday edition carrying the front-page, above-the-fold story hits the streets at the end of the film, there is an overwhelming sense of relief that makes a strong emotional response unstoppable. That’s five-star filmmaking.