Thursday, November 26, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Nominations

By now this is incredibly stale news but I couldn't let the week go by without acknowledging this year's nominations for the 2015 Independent Spirit Awards. Indeed, as the big studios have all but abandoned the low to mid-budget dramas (aka "Oscar bait"), the Indie Spirits continue to have increased relevance to the Oscar race. That's therefore good news for "Carol" and "Beasts of No Nation" as they lead the field with 6 and 5 nominations each. Not far behind was "Spotlight", with 4 nods to go along with the Robert Artman ensemble prize it already won. Overall, it was a strong lineup of films this year, including my personal faves "Tangerine" and "Embrace of the Serpent". Both films will surely be in serious contention when I submit my own ballots for these awards come February 2015.

Here's the full list of nominees:

Best Feature
Beasts of No Nation

Best Director
Cary Joji Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation
Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, Anomalisa
David Robert Mitchell, It Follows
Sean Baker, Tangerine
Todd Haynes, Carol
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Best Male Lead
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Christopher Abbott, James White
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Kudos Seihon, Mediterranea

Best Female Lead
Bel Powley, Diary of a Teenage Girl
Brie Larson, Room
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine
Rooney Mara, Carol

Best Supporting Male
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Kevin Corrigan, Results
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk

Best Supporting Female
Cynthia Nixon, James White
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anomalisa
Marin Ireland, Glass Chin
Mya Taylor, Tangerine
Robin Bartlett, H.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

REVIEW: 600 Miles

Drug wars have been a hot topic in entertainment lately, from films like "Sicario" and "Cartel Land", to the Netflix series "Narcos". It can therefore feel like we've exhausted all angles of the issue and audiences become fatigued. With his debut feature "600 Miles" however, Mexican filmmaker Gabriel Ripstein brings another fresh perspective on the US-Mexico relations involved in the war on drugs and guns.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, November 23, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Jafar Panahi's Taxi

Back in December 2010, Iran's rebel filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to 6 years in jail and banned from making movies for the foreseeable future. Since then, he has directed 3 films in secrecy to universal acclaim, the latest of them being "Taxi", my pick for Movie of the Week. In this Golden Bear winner from the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, Panahi once again proves that when you're a creative genius, sometimes the rules don't apply.

As resourceful as ever, Panahi took to the streets for "Taxi", posing as a cab driver to stage a series of documentary-like conversations with the various people who make up the city of Tehran. As he makes his way through the capital, he paints a clear portrait of Iranian society that is incisive and thoroughly engrossing. And he accomplishes all this with a simple camera on the dashboard and rarely ever leaving the confines of his car.

Indeed, within moments of the film's opening, the first thought that came to my mind was "how clever!" What initially feels like a documentary soon reveals itself to be an exercise in unorthodox narrative filmmaking. The first passengers are a man and woman who get into an argument over the disturbing practice of using of extreme measures (i.e. executions) in the punishment of small crimes. And as they trade their opinions back and forth, a clear picture of the nation's ideological divide (tradition vs modernity) comes into focus. Soon, Panahi proceeds to drop them off at their separate destinations and another passenger acknowledges that the scene was staged with actors.

This transparency in Panahi's approach turns out to be one of the film's greatest virtues. By crafting a structured narrative, he is able to openly express his own personal perspective without contradicting the sense of "realism". Though the various characters he encounters come from different walks of life, we are fully aware that they reflect his own voice.

The result is a film that acts as a subversive protest of the sociocultural conditions which lead to his present predicament. Panahi's screenplay covers a wide range of topics, challenging even anti-piracy sentiments by extolling the importance of such bootleg copies in fostering cinephilia among the populace. But "Taxi" is far removed from the agitprop tradition, conveying its message instead with delicate humor and wit. As you can even see from the poster, Panahi wears a smile throughout, which helps to make this such a pleasant, engaging watch.

"Taxi" features no camera tricks, no epic score, no flashy costumes or sets. It is pure, elemental cinema from a genius who is clearly at the top of his game. Indeed, having only seen this film from Panahi, I can already subscribe to the belief that his work is vital, enlightening and brilliant.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

REVIEW: The Summer of Sangaile

There are good films that have the whole package – strong direction, brilliant writing, compelling acting. And then there are other equally good films that sacrifice one aspect of the craft in favor of another. Alanté Kavaïté’s "The Summer of Sangaile" is an example of the latter, where skillful direction compensates for screenplay shortcomings in this intriguing Lithuanian coming-of-ager.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, November 21, 2015


We’ve come to our last group of submissions and they represent the largest and arguably the most formidable of them all – the European films. Indeed, Best Foreign Language Film has been notoriously Euro-centric over the years, with the last three Oscars going to European countries. And with the high quality of this year’s batch, we could easily see the continent extend it’s winning streak. Here’s a look at the films bidding to make it four in a row for Europe.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, November 20, 2015

INTERVIEW: Roar Uthaug

With a bona fide box office smash under his belt, his first selection as Norway’s representative for the Foreign Language Film Oscar and a US distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures, it’s safe to say that Roar Uthaug is having one of the best years of his filmmaking life. The reason for all of this success is his latest film "The Wave", a heartpounding disaster epic that beat the big studios at their own game. And Hollywood is certainly taking note. Since our recent interview, he has already been announced as the director of the Tomb Raider reboot. Indeed, this talented director has a bright future ahead.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Submitted by Georgia as their 2015 Foreign Language Oscar submission, Levan Tutberidze’s "Moira" will hope to appeal to AMPAS voters with its familiar design. The latest addition to the pantheon of family-related crime dramas, it has a tragic feel that explores the essence of crime and punishment. Despite its best efforts however, Tutberidze’s tale of fate and woe falls short of its Shakespearean ambitions.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, November 16, 2015


'Twas the night before Christmas and all through Los Angeles...Sin-Dee was on the hunt for Chester, the no-good pimp/boyfriend who cheated on her. So reads the very basic premise of Sean Baker's new film "Tangerine", the groundbreaking Sundance film that was shot on an iPhone. But that doesn't even begin to the tell the full story of this raucous Los Angeles romp, which is not only my "Movie of the Week", but the comedy of the year thus far.

"Tangerine" begins with Alexandra (Mya Taylor) breaking the unfortunate news of Chester's infidelity to best friend Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), who has just been released from a stint in prison. Both are working girls - notably of the transgender variety - and the offense is exacerbated by the fact that the other woman is a "fish", i.e. a cisgender female. Determined to reclaim what's hers, Sin-Dee thus sets out on a mission to find both Chester and the fish, in this nonstop tour through Tinseltown and its kaleidoscope of colorful characters.

In the ongoing fall season of "prestige" dramas, "Tangerine" offers a refreshing change of pace. Eschewing all the rules and constraints of period trappings and Oscar-baiting refinement, the film kicks the notion of "prestige" to the curb and gives you drama with a capital D. Indeed, this brilliant screenplay delivers laughs and surprises galore, introducing new characters at every turn, each more uniquely fascinating than the last. Populated with under-the-radar talent, each actor shines with their raw, genuine performances. In particular, leads Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor send a strong message to Hollywood that capable transgender actors do exist.

The authenticity which fuels the cast is truly the hallmark of "Tangerine", which shows a Los Angeles far removed from the images we've seen before. As one character says, "Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie". And indeed, the film goes to great lengths to show the truth of Hollywood as a place for hustlers of all kinds.

Of course, much has been made of the film's cinematography, namely the use of the iPhone 5s camera. In that regard, the "gimmick" pays off big time, completely suited to the brazen attitude that characterizes Baker's filmmaking. And the intimacy it creates allows for complete immersion in the action.

In summary, "Tangerine" is a wild ride that stands tall alongside more mainstream fare. It may not stimulate the mind like an "Ex Machina" and its leads won't be challenging the likes of Cate Blanchett any time soon, but on the sheer basis of originality and entertainment, "Tangerine" is one of 2015's defining films. Even as we may try to separate ourselves from some of the questionable behavior on display, its energy and innovation are as much a reflection of the zeitgeist as any other film this year.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

INTERVIEW: Tobias Lindholm and Pilou Asbæk

With 3 acclaimed film collaborations under their belt already, Tobias Lindholm and Pilou Asbæk have developed one of the most compelling director-muse relationships in Denmark and the world at large. It was therefore an honor for me to get on the phone to chat with these talented filmmakers about their latest project "A War", which has been submitted as Denmark’s Foreign Language Oscar submission this year. In our conversation we discussed the making of the film, the power of realism in cinema, and the excitement of Oscar season and international exposure. Below is an edited version of our interview.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, November 13, 2015


It’s no secret that Asian cinema has been significantly underrepresented among the yearly nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite consisting of some of the world’s most prominent film industries (India, China, Japan, South Korea), it’s not unusual to see Foreign Oscar nominations devoid of Asian films. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely to change this year, but hope springs eternal for these tales from the East.

Read more at The Awards Circuit