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
Watch enough new independent film releases in a year and creative trends can be spotted. I don’t mean the kinds of trends lamented by Film Twitter (too many superhero movies, too much found footage, etc.). I mean the kind of natural, organic trends that feel like filmmakers have found a new storytelling vein to tap. My first exposure to this (The Beginning) came in the form of a very good film that played at Hot Docs 2015: Chuck Norris vs. Communism. My next experience (The Coincidence) came in the form of a film I found on my own, the excellent Red Army. The former tells the story of how Romanian film lovers in the 1980s defied their oppressive government, smuggled into the country bootleg VHS tapes, and held secret movie parties. The latter documents the history of the mighty Russian national hockey team, its rise to global dominance, and its eventual fall.
If the common ground you guessed is “1980s-Based Soviet-Themed Documentaries,” go to the head of the class. The latest entry here, the entry that moves this entire cinematic experience away from The Coincidence an into The Trend, is The Russian Woodpecker, an astounding documentary from first-time filmmaker Chad Gracia.
In April 1986, when the Soviet Union was still in its Cold War existence and Ukraine was still a part of it, an unthinkable event occurred: an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant released massive amounts of radiation into the air, doing untold long-term damage to the people in the region and forcing the immediate evacuation of tens of thousands of people. One of those people … a child at the time … was Fedor Alexandrovich. Decades later, Fedor is something of a Renaissance Man; he’s a father, a pacifist, and an artist with skills in several media. He’s also a curious one—curious about why, to this day, there are still unanswered questions about the Chernobyl disaster. He’s also curious about an old Soviet map on which, near Chernobyl, is something labeled “Boy Scout Camp.” Guess what? It’s not a boy scout camp. What begins as one man’s trip to the past and quest for the truth turns into something that is the stuff of Cold War spy novels, but it’s all true … or at least it might be.
It isn’t just that the elements of The Russian Woodpecker are so compelling on their own. There is this divine convergence of them that creates a film simultaneously gripping, mystifying, horrifying, and, at times, emblematic of something my old high school history teacher used to say: “Many things are too strange to be believed but nothing is too strange to have happened.”
The setting and history are foremost critical to the story, not just because of the disaster of Chernobyl, but because that disaster took place in a country—Ukraine—that has with Russia a shocking pre-Chernobyl past and a terrible post-Orange Revolution present. This political backdrop and its decades-long existence (that brief period of independence be damned) is deftly summarized by Gracia along three main points on the timeline: Holodomor, the famine manufactured by Russia that claimed the lives of millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s; Chernobyl, where the single-worst nuclear power plant accident in history occurred in the 1980s; and Maidan, the main square in Kiev, where protests against Russian oppression happen today. Gracia punctuates these moments in time with chilling footage and photographs of victims of these atrocities.
With the stage set, Gracia establishes his key players. The hero is the Renaissance Man, the artist and pacifist who wants nothing more than to know who is to blame for his bones being radioactive. And it’s because he’s a Renaissance Man, always observing and examining and questioning, that he draws the conclusion he does. (It’s so shocking, I dare not whisper it here, lest I deprive you of one of the great moments of film in 2015.) The villain is the Old Soviet Guard; there are interviews with old school Soviet science and military guys, interviews almost exclusively conducted by Fedor that, when the questions he asks them wander into remotely accusatory (of the Soviet government) territory, turn to moments fraught with worry that if too much is said, even after all this time, there will be old school retribution. It’s a palpable fear, and what makes it so believable is that the fear doesn’t just come from the old school science and military guys. When Fedor’s parents consider his theory about what actually caused the Chernobyl event, they are genuinely frightened that the KGB will come for him and maybe them too.
With everything place, and with Fedor framed as a modern-day Ukrainian David slinging stones at a reborn Communist Goliath, all that remains is his present-day story. It’s spellbinding. Gracia takes all the passion, conviction, and pinpoint calculation of an attorney building his case and turns Fedor loose on that case. It’s the filmmaker’s masterstroke. Fedor is a child of Chernobyl, so his interest is vested. He is smart enough to know which questions to ask and of whom, yet brave(foolish) enough to actually ask them. And as an artist (and probably one who has struggled at some point in his life), he has a demeanor that disarms people (until he hits the with questions) combined with a tenacity to remain undaunted in the face of insurmountable challenges.
The great story of past and present, the great storyteller in Fedor, and the great storytelling by Gracia combine in that divine convergence to create a documentary of considerable historic consequence.
(Note: While the film’s title has something of a secret code-name ring to it, it’s actually the name of a device that is at the heart of Fedor’s quest for the truth, and the linchpin of his theory about Chernobyl.)
It is difficult to overstate how incredible writer/director Chad Gracia’s storytelling work is here. The Russian Woodpecker is a film that begs to be as confusing and cumbersome as possible, with competing dichotomies of past and present, Cold Warriors and pacifists, history and art, history-makers and artists, and science and conspiracy. Yet somehow Gracia not only makes sense of it all, he presents it in a way that rivals some of the best dramatic fiction out there.