leviathanThough the documentary Leviathan unfolds on a fishing vessel on the tumultuous high seas, this is far from the cinematic version of “the Deadliest Catch.” Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel have created a constantly shifting, entrancing piece of abstract art. The media they use just happens to be mobile cameras, an 80-foot fishing vessel and its inhabitants going about their work with the slimy creatures of the deep, mostly set against a dark pre-dawn, cloudy morning. 

Leviathan features little bias in its depiction of its giant shipping vessel off the coast of New England, the territory where Herman Melville spun his famous tale of that other leviathan Moby Dick. But the elusive, great white whale is a mere ghost of ancient history in this film whose narrative the directors allow to flow as wild and freely as the ocean waves that surround the ship’s hull. The film has no voice-overs or interviews across its hour-and-a-half run time. The only narrative conceit arrives early on, when the filmmakers open their movie with quotations from the Book of Job 41, which clearly inspired the film’s title (read it here).

Beyond the biblical reference, the directors seem to say something rather ambivalent about harvesting the ocean’s sea life, though they employ some rather breathtaking imagery. With specially designed cameras that hang from masts and roll around on the ship’s deck,1350625625-leviathan1 the pictures captured by these cameras are born from the same randomness as the nature that created life in the primordial pool of the ocean. Sometimes it takes a while for scenes to take shape because you just do not know what you’re looking at. The human factor of control from the directors only comes in the selection of edits and how they decide to string the images together over lengthy scenes. The associative cuts arrive slow and languorous. They sometimes feel like harsh shifts, as scenes change from exterior to interior or aerial to submerged. But sometimes the scenes feel so abstract and mesmerizing that they melt almost imperceptibly from the ship’s deck to below the waves.

The key to getting these scenes under the viewer’s skin come from the long, if ever-swaying, shots. It allows the viewer to engage on a level that can feel as entrancing as the ebb and flow of the ocean itself. Besides the cuts in the footage, the directors do not manipulate the scenes at all. In fact, they never seem to use a view-finder, as impossible angles come from the randomness of letting chance direct these mobile cameras. 1920_leviathan-4Some viewers might find themselves feeling seasick with not only the motion inside the frame but also the close-ups of the bloody prepping of the dead or dying fish. The directors allow their mobile cameras to roll around the ship’s deck with fish carcasses, giving you the POV of the lamentable sea critters, as you stare into the gray eyes of the beheaded remains left on deck after a harvest.

In a cinematic world that rewards concrete narratives, some may feel frustrated by Leviathan, but if you arrive with an open mind and a curiosity for some of the most unique views of a fishing crew in action, you may find yourself properly riveted. The filmmakers do not make it easy, though. At one point they place a camera in the ship’s mess hall where one exhausted fisherman gradually dozes off to a TV showing “The Deadliest Catch.” leviathan_04The camera lingers only on his face as his eyelids gradually begin to fall to a voice-over creating drama for the unseen images of the Discovery Channel’s “reality” show. By isolating the voice-over narrator from the TV show, the filmmakers call attention to how manipulative shows like that feel compared to the purist quality of Leviathan. There’s a cut to a couple of commercials on the TV, including one about constipation, and then a return to the show’s over-the-top drama, but by then, the fisherman has checked out. It’s a witty little statement against the stagey quality of so-called reality TV and the superficiality of narratives. Leviathan is about the visceral, and you can practically smell the grotesque oozing off the screen.

But beyond the gruesome quality of the images of the reaping of sea life, the film also presents many scenes of awe-inspiring beauty. Cameras seem to somehow even make it below fishing nets as they are hauled up to the surface. Starfish trickle down and past the lenses, like some surreal interstellar trip. leviathan-stillSeagulls also harvest fish, and the cameras do not forget to capture those creatures in action alongside the men at work, creating some amazing shots of the birds fluttering for as close a view as you could ever imagine. The images throughout Leviathan will indeed hypnotize those open to film beyond literal interpretation, all the way until its final frame, beyond the closing credits, which does not forget to acknowledge the participation of the sea creatures and the moon, in addition to the fishermen.

Hans Morgenstern

Leviathan runs 87 minutes and is not rated (expect some close-up fresh catch prep). It opened in South Florida at this year’s  Miami International Film Festival, during which an early version of this review first ran. Leviathan begins a limited engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, April 19, and plays there for only three days through Sunday, April 21. It then opens in Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso, in Fort Lauderdale on Friday, April 26, where it will play four days only through May 2. It may also be playing elsewhere nationwide; visit the movie’s homepage to see other screening dates.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

vincentmoon_by_NinaMouritzen_copenhagen2-620_originalFrench filmmaker Vincent Moon has nearly 700 films under his belt. Despite subjects as diverse as music videos for popular bands like REM or a vérité documentary about a “maestra” of natural medicine in Peru, a certain style shines through. His work is patient but still dynamic. He’s very active behind the camera, yet he makes films of raw intimacy. Asked what he tells his subjects before he starts rolling his digital camera, he says, “Nothing. I really trust in the energy of the moment. That’s where it happens, and before is not the right time. I’m not a director in the sense that I tell people to do this or that. That’s something I really don’t like. I just love to leave people as free as possible.”

He has no concern with “breaking the fourth wall” or calling attention to the fact the camera is present. “I would not even say to them, ‘Do not look at the camera.’ I just think that all these interactions between the camera and the musicians and the moment it goes without words in a sense. There are some energies in the air, and you are asked to find the same ones as the people you are recording, and that’s really, really exciting. I love that. I love this momentum of shooting because I come from this huge love of improvised music.”

His camera often moves around to create relationships between images rather than rely on edits. And a dark palette seems to permeate his work, whether he’s working in black and white or color. He does not come from any traditional school of filmmaking. Responding to a query about his influences, he states:  “I came late to films, and my influences are just so diverse … I opened a DVD store 10 years ago to do that, watch all the films possible. But a few names, very diverse and important to me are Chris Marker, Peter Watkins, Guy Debord, Robert Gardner, Peter Mettler, Philippe Grandrieux, Antoine d’Agate, Vittorio de Seta and Peter Tscherkassky.”

He never thought of becoming a filmmaker, or that he would make a career of it. Instead, he had thoughts about the possibility of a filmmaker who existed without a base, who just adopted technologies and locations to keep working. He never thought he would become that filmmaker. “I’m just a complete outsider, and that’s good,” he says with a laugh. “I like that. I just wanted to try things my way, and so I’ve been travelling all those years.”

Though he has been credited for revitalizing the music video (check out this New York Times article), Moon does not want to be known as a music video director. He relates more with the genre of ethnographic film. “We are living in a very interesting moment, this kind of like big truth of the anthropological studies and so on,” he says. “I think we are regaining like a certain in-between, a sort of like interesting balance from an ethnographic type of cinema and a much more poetic, experimental approach, and there’s a few filmmakers exploring those things right now, and that’s really, really exciting.”

The extremely opinionated Moon is curious to explore these ethnographic films, which also include Manakamana and the Oscar-nominated and IndieEthos-championed The Act of Killing. However, though Leviathan has been celebrated on IndieEthos and Film Comment, to Moon, Leviathan is a poor example of execution. “I really, really don’t like this film at all,” he reveals. “It’s very poor actually, in terms of experimental research and everything. I don’t like the images. I hate the sounds. I think the mix is terrible … I mean the idea is interesting, but that’s all. I’m very surprised, actually, it’s had a lot of success for what it is. A lot of people have been talking about it. I’m just wondering if that’s really because of its complete lack of such cinema, that such a film, which is completely outrageous, in my opinion, in terms of its research, in terms of experimenting with tools. There is so much more. But that it has such success, maybe it shows there is definitely not much there that is interesting to see.”

Moving one to his talents, he has had many years and examples to fine tune his skills. Making these films is like an addiction for Moon, and there’s no sign of him slowing down. “It’s a sickness,” he admits. “I did 60 films last year, which are not even only short films. There are a few feature-length films, and that’s just ridiculous, completely ridiculous. I’m trying to do this all, and I have to work all the time on those edits and prepare my next project in Brazil, but it’s too much. That’s why I always want to slow down. I think that technology in a sense, obviously, offers you that easiness of work … It’s very easy to film, to record the sound, to edit, to make the phone calls before, to send the emails after. So you do everything yourself, and it can look really great. You don’t need a team or anything working with you these days, and that’s an incredible thing.”

He has made all his films free to view on his Vimeo page and calls it empowering to anyone else who might aspire to become a filmmaker outside the mainstream of the cinema scene. “It’s very, very powerful,” he declares. “We just have to question this, what it means really because I do not think that the film industry is very much excited about such news.” He pauses to laugh. “They are definitely reluctant about such terms, obviously,” he adds about the commercial film industry.

* * *

This is Part 2 of a 2-part interview. Read the first story here:

Filmmaker Vincent Moon talks about the influence of music and rootlessness in his craft, Part 1

Plus, a different article with a focus on his visit to Miami can be found at the Miami New Times art and culture blog Cultist, jump to that article through this headline:

Indie Filmmaker Vincent Moon To Host Retrospective, Seek “Richness of Miami”

Hans Morgenstern

The Vincent Moon retrospective and conversation takes place Thursday, July 24, 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. at The Screening Room, 2626 NW Second Ave., Miami. Free. Indie Film Club Miami has set up an intimate 2-day workshop with Moon on July 26 and 27. Visit www.film-gate.org for more information.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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Filmmaker Vincent Moon is a man without a home, and as a rootless traveler, he has shot brief but transcendent films that capture the essence of people in places like Peru, Russia and Malaysia, mostly featuring musicians. His filmography almost reaches 700 films— several almost feature-length— and there’s no sign of him stopping, as he seems to be only scratching at an essence that has drawn him to music and film. Having shot many famous bands like The Fleet Foxes, Phoenix and Yo La Tengo for the French on-line video channel La Blogothèque, Moon’s interest in music is actually beyond fame and celebrity. He is much more interested in how people commune with the music on a fundamental and elusive level.

During a phone conversation from Rio de Janeiro covering his many subjects, which also includes Sufis entranced in a musical chant and Peruvians slipping into song under the influence of Ayahuasca, Moon shares an incident that opened his mind to the power of music as a spiritual experience. “I think, like three or four years ago, something happened to me, and I ended up in a ritual in Cairo one night, very sacred, a very sacred ritual, and I knew this because of the way people were playing the music. I never expected that … I didn’t make any research or anything between music and spirituality, let’s say, or rhythms and trance, and when I saw this, it completely changed my way of thinking about this all, and since then I’ve been pursuing this quest of how people live with music.”

Moon brings up the book Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations Between Music and Possession by Gilbert Rouget. “It’s a very thick book about how tribes would use music to communicate with the spiritual, and there is not one answer to this,” he says.

He notes that as much as he tries to document a variety of musical experiences, not only are no two the same, from region to region and country to country, but they will infinitely vary once they are repeated without his camera present. His search to even try to document it all is impossible, and he has no pretense that he has the ability to create such a comprehensive survey even if he produced 700 million films. “This is not some archival project of any kind,” he says, “just a very localized experience. It happens there, at the specific moment, probably the next day it will not be the same. I do not try to say:  This is how it is.”

Moon left Paris in 2008,but he’s not even sure of the exact date. “I think it was six years ago. I just went traveling. I just wanted to change my surroundings.” He has not had a fixed home since.

Recently the Indie Film Club in Miami, who are the people behind Filmgate Interactive, invited him to its home base. They have presented his work in the past and have set up a talk with the filmmaker as well as a two-day workshop for other filmmakers to spend a lengthy amount of time picking the brain of this prolific auteur. Miami may as well be Singapore to him and will also most likely present a musical opportunity for him to document the city. He notes that the only time he has visited Miami was as a child on his way to Disney World. “So that really doesn’t count,” he says.

As a world traveler, Moon has experience putting biased expectations aside and wants to remain open to the city. As far as what band or subject he may shoot for his project “Petites Planètes,” the output of which can be found on his Vimeo page, he remains open-minded. “If you don’t make any research in advance, you have no expectation,” he says. “That’s the key for me to make such films … So really when I go to a shoot, I only have like two or three ideas before but nothing else. I really don’t want to think about the final result, the length of whatever film and so on. We just make a film and see what happens, and then we are all surprised in the best way possible because we have no idea,” adds with a laugh.

You can read more about Moon in my article for Cultist, the arts and culture blog for the Miami New Times:

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Also this interview continues in a second blog post, which covers Moon’s influences, his method and why he hates Leviathan. Read it here:

Filmmaker Vincent Moon talks about the influence of music and rootlessness in his craft, Part 2

Hans Morgenstern

The Vincent Moon retrospective and conversation takes place Thursday, July 24, 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. at The Screening Room, 2626 NW Second Ave., Miami. Free. Indie Film Club Miami has set up an intimate 2-day workshop with Moon on July 26 and 27. Visit www.film-gate.org for more information.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

MIFF2014_posterToday is the day tickets for films at the 31st Miami International Film Festival go on sale to the general public. The opening night was about a month away, when I called up the festival’s director, Jaie Laplante. He had just finalized the line-up with three major, late additions to the program, bringing the total number of feature films at this year’s festival to 97. They included the new thriller Open Windows, by Spanish director Nacho Vigalondostarring Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey. It will have its world premiere only a few days before MIFF at South By Southwest. There was also An Unbreakable Bond, a documentary by Emilio and Gloria Estefan about Marc Buoniconti, a man who turned a tragic injury into a triumph. Finally, he mentioned Kid Cannabis, a world premiere from actor-turned-director John Stockwell. Tickets to these films and the rest of the program can be found here.

We spoke for about 20 minutes that day. Laplante even gave up the names of some of his personal favorites. You can find out what some of those are, by jumping through the link to the art and culture blog “Cultist,” at the “Miami New Times,” below:

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During our chat he mentioned one other favorite that I too am very excited about:  Locations: Looking for Rusty James, a film about one of Francis Ford Coppola’s more underrated films, Rumble Fish (My personal favorite film: ‘Rumble Fish;’ read my ode to Coppola’s underrated masterpiece in AFI), and it’s influence on young people in Chile when it was released in the early 1980s. Laplante called Locations, “a very different kind of documentary. It’s not so narrative-driven … It’s more of a personal essay type of film, extraordinarily moving, but a different type of film for us in the documentary competition.”

I only left his mention of Locations out of the “Cultist” interview of his favorites because I had already gushed about it at the end of an earlier post  in “Cultist,” which can be found here. 15_BAFICI_LOCACIONES-2It will make those who are already fans of Rumble Fish swoon and those unfamiliar with the source of inspiration for Locations will surely want to seek it out once they experience this special film essay by Chilean director Alberto Fuguet. Here’s a handy link to purchase the U.S. DVD and support Independent Ethos at the same time: check out Rumble Fish.

My interest in films at MIFF has always been the more experimental works, so we also talked about one of my favorite categories of the festival: Visions, which featured a pair of favorite films from last year’s festival, Leviathan and Post Tenebras Lux. However, this year, that section has been toned down a bit. “It’s much smaller than last year,” noted Laplante, “but we have two films in there. One of them is Ari Folman’s The Congress. The other one is a German film called Wetlands, which was just in Sundance. Both of those are programmed by Andres Castillo [Managing Director & Senior Programmer of MIFF].”

But those looking for interesting experimental cinema need not look further than Miami’s own backyard. Local filmmakers took the spotlight at the press conference announcing this year’s line-up. Click through the image below of some of these filmmakers on stage with Laplante at Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson campus to hear a little from them:

Local_filmmakers

You can watch the complete (uncensored) press conference below:

Finally, there’s a more focused article on local filmmakers that will be available in this month’s issue of “Pure Honey,” a ‘zine that can be found at hip independent shops and cafes across the Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County area. Or you can read the article, by jumping through the “Pure Honey” logo below:

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Of course, MIFF is also about getting the stars down to Miami. Though some big ones have already been booked, including what some would consider “living legends,” when Laplante and I spoke, he was still working on inviting a few more. Here’s Laplante on some of the festival guests that will walk the red carpet this year: “We’re still confirming a lot of our guests, but Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer are attending our opening night gala presentation [for Elsa & Fred], as well as director Michael Radford. We have Andy Garcia and Raymond de Filitta confirmed for our award night film Rob the Mob, a world premiere. We have, of course, John Turturro, who we are paying tribute to. He will be here to accept the tribute award in person. Shep Gordon is going to be coming and speaking about his experiences making the movie [Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon] with Mike Myers. Most, if not all, the directors in the competition will be here, as well as the directors from the Lexus Opera Prima Competition and we’re still, as I said, working on other guests, but those are some names I can tell you are confirmed now.”

The Miami International Film Festival runs March 7 – March 16 and takes place in several venues across Miami-Dade. For tickets and more info visit miamifilmfestival.com.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

This year proved quite fruitful for worthwhile cinema experiences for this writer. So much so, I want to vary up my year-end list. There were so many amazing documentaries, I have decided to rank those separately because, quite honestly, some of those could dethrone several of my top feature films (stay tuned for a top 20 in February). I have also decided to rank separately some of the great sentimental films that pulled me by the heartstrings despite their contrivances.

All lists below are ranked from descending to ascending order. There are links to reviews or interviews, if applicable. All the large, bold, italicized titles under the posters link to the home video releases on Amazon. If you follow that link and purchase them, a percentage of the sale goes back to support this blog.

First, some might call the following guilty pleasures. I call them sentimental favorites, where I swooned along with everyone else who wanted to escape for just a pleasant night at the movies, be they action-adventure or idealized depictions of true stories:

movies_saving-mr-banks-poster5. Saving Mr. Banks

There’s something a bit surreal and somewhat incestuous about Disney dramatizing the true story behind bringing Mary Poppins to the big screen. Though much of the hype surrounding the film came from a not-always-flattering portrait of Mr. Disney (big deal, you get to see him sneak a cigarette), the real skeletons depicted come from the traumatic childhood of the book’s author. The film spends a great amount of time flashing back to the past of author P. L. Travers who proved stubbornly uncooperative in the adaptation of her novel on the Disney studios lot. There’s much talk of Emma Thompson in the role of the author and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. However, Colin Farrell offers the film’s most tangibly tragic performance as the father who cannot seem to rise to task during the author’s childhood. He’s the heartbreaking glue that explains all the trauma, escapism and defensiveness of Travers.

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4. The Book Thief

More childhood trauma in real-life. This time, it’s a little girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Director Brian Percival, he of the stirring Downton Abbey series, brings his romantic eye to a place not often treated with romance. However, this is a child’s coming of age, so a hint of rose-colored lenses may be forgiven. Also, personal bias, my father survived living through Nazi Germany after he was drafted to fight for Hitler at the ripe age of 16. To add some more bias, I had a chance to speak to Percival, the film’s star (Sophie Nélisse) and the original book’s author, Markus Zusak, a conversation that began with sharing my dad’s journals during the war … which are still looking for a serious translator (read my interviews).

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3. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

While the first Hobbit film felt like an overdose of effects and Rube Goldberg-like action sequences, things finally came together with the second part of this trilogy. There was time to get more intimate with the characters, as the film slowed down for some substantial moments between them. It also had a brisk pace and sense of adventure that harkened back to the great epic action films director Peter Jackson so much loves, like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

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2. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

I had no idea I would like this film as much as I did. I think its message that celebrates experiencing life without the escapism, ironically enough, touched me. It’s funny how a film so anti-escapism can also feel escapist. It started with obvious, overly stylized, stagey fantasies by the title character and ended with him out-growing them. (Read my link to my review here).

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1. Star Trek: Into Darkness

This movie was just the greatest thrill that had it all. The sentimentality on screen overwhelmed as stakes ran high, including a bromantic exchange of affection in the face of death between Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto). Even the evil Khan (a scene-stealing Benedict Cumberbatch) shed a tear for his cause, though it meant the extermination of humanity. It gives you high hopes for what director J.J. Abrams has planned for his series of Star Wars films under the ownership of Disney (Read my review).

* * *

Some of the most extraordinary documentaries I saw included these, again in bottom to top order. I reviewed all of these, so I shall spare additional commentary; click on the link below the poster art to read my reviews and the titles to purchase from Amazon and support the Independent Ethos:

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5. Beware of Mr. Baker

(read my review)

leviathan

4. Leviathan

(read my review)

The-act-if-killing-poster

3. The Act of Killing

(read my interview)

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2. Stories We Tell

(read my review)

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1. Cutie and the Boxer

(read my review)

* * *

Finally, the 10 best feature films I saw in 2013. I was surprised by my own ranking. Though consistency of tone, acting, cinematography, pacing and complexity of story all play a factor, I determined the ranking by considering  how strongly the films drew me in and then delivered their message and punch line. As usual, ambitious foreigners often win this list, but there was also a strong showing by a pair of American indie directors and one pair of directors who are given free-reign in the Hollywood machine. Again, click on the link below the poster art to read my reviews; the titles all link to product listings on Amazon, which supports the Independent Ethos:

thegreatbeauty_poster10. The Great Beauty

(Read my review)

Poster art9. Laurence Anyways

(Read my review)

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8. Museum Hours

(Read my review)

computer_chess_poster7. Computer Chess

(Read my review)

inside-llewyn-davis-poster6. Inside Llewyn Davis

 (Read my review)

frances-ha-poster 5. Frances Ha

(Read my review)

BLUEITWC_Poster_1080x16004. Blue is the Warmest Color

(Read my review)

apres3. Something in the Air (Après mai)

(Read my review)

la_noche_de_enfrente_xlg2. Night Across the Street

(Read my review)

beyond-the-hills-movie-poster-21. Beyond the Hills

(Read my review)

I think the Wolf of Wall Street, probably the biggest disappointment of the year for this writer, had some influence in my number one choice. Beyond the Hills indeed looked at some despicable people, but threw the lambs among them for a sense of dynamism that was missing from Wolf. It also had a similar ending that gave a shocking twist in perspective regarding the power of a leader who has led many astray that was well-earned over an extravagant run-time of two-and-a-half-hours. Because of that, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu proves himself a stronger director than Martin Scorsese is now.

Of course all these films, from sentimental faves, documentaries and features could be mixed for a top 10, or as in many previous years, a top 20, which I plan to prepare in February, when more late-coming foreign titles will see release (Miami has yet to see Mexico’s entry to the Oscars, the harrowing Heli arrive in theaters, and only now the multi-award-winning Wadjda is seeing release in indie art houses).

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Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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Today, the Florida Film Critics Circle announced its awards for the best of the best in cinema in 2013. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave received the most recognition. It’s a dark, powerful film that is backed by the artistry of a fine craftsman of a director. It also won for best adapted screenplay. There were many awards for the actors in the film, deservedly so, as McQueen knows how to let the camera roll and allow an actor to act. Therefore, Chiwetel Ejiofor won for best actor, Lupita Nyong’o won for supporting actress and breakthrough role. Michael Fassbender was a runner up in supporting actor.

Other awards of note has to begin with Miami Beach Cinematheque director Dana Keith, who won the Golden Orange. He’s special to us here at Indie Ethos, as he was the first to take our reviews seriously. We’re kindred spirits in indie, foreign and art films. He’s also a great supporter of local film criticism, which will soon be more pronounced after he won a Knight Foundation grant for a program called “Speaking In Cinema” that will include the participation of many local film critics.

Gravity got some big technical wins that it deserved (my review of the film). I also nominated Blue Is the Warmest Color in many categories (my review), so I was happy to see it win foreign film. Apparently it just edged out the rather cruel film the Hunt, whose drama relies on dramatic irony as a ploy that many critics have fallen for (my review).

But I can’t say I’m much disappointed with this list, except that Michael B. Jordan did not win for breakout role for his work in Fruitvale Station (my review), as he missed it by two points, and Nyong’o had already won for supporting actress. I pushed for that because I thought it would mean something coming from the state where Trayvon Martin lost his life to profiling.

The other night, with the help of my cohort at Independent Ethos, Ana Morgenstern, I filled in my ballot (I was stuck many times, though I tried not to over-think my nominees). This task features a lot of strategy, some precociousness and a bit of bias toward the oft-misunderstood Blue Is the Warmest Color. My only regret, when I turned in the ballot, was not including Ejiofor. He really was amazing, but he feels like such a given to win so many awards this season. In the end, it was no surprise when he won (though I felt a little relief). But then, runner-up was Joaquin Phoenix, who I wanted for best actor last year (see that year’s list of winners).

Here’s the full press release from the FFCC:

FFCC Winners Announcement – 2013

December 18 -– With five major wins, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, Steve McQueen’s riveting “12 Years a Slave” swept the 2013 Florida Film Critic Circle Awards, beating out such highly touted contenders as “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Alfonso Cuoron’s “Gravity” was the only other multiple winner, earning top marks for its cinematography and special effects.

McQueen, himself a winner for director, helped Chiwetel Ejiofor earn the group’s top honor as Best Actor for his stirring work as former freeman turned plantation “property” Solomon Northup, while Jared Leto stepped away from his rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars to win the Best Supporting Actor award for his touching turn as an AIDS patient in “The Dallas Buyers Club.”

Woody Allen again proved his skill with actresses, as Cate Blanchett won Best Actress for “Blue Jasmine” while newcomer Lupita Nyong’o walked away with the prize for Best Supporting Actress for her devastating work as Patsey in “Slave “. She was additionally acknowledged by the group, winning the prestigious Pauline Kael Breakout Award.

As stated before, Cuarón’s hit sci-fi thriller brought a Best Cinematography win for Emmanuel Lubezki as well as for its mind blowing F/X. Spike Jonze’s whimsical meditation on life, love and technology, “Her,” earned him the Best Original Screenplay award while John Ridley was honored with Best Adapted Screenplay for his efforts in bringing “Slave” to the screen.

In other awards, Cannes favorite “Blue is the Warmest Color” won a close race over “The Hunt” for Foreign Language Film, while “Frozen” narrowly defeated Hayao Miyazaki’s final effort, “The Wind Rises” for Animated Film. “The Act of Killing” edged out “Blackfish” for Best Documentary, while “The Great Gatsby” was touted for its Art Direction and Production Design.

The Golden Orange Award, given for outstanding contribution to film, went to Miami Beach Cinematheque director Dana Keith, a tireless champion of foreign, independent and alternative film for more than 20 years. He has consistently programmed some of the most daring films to make the art house circuit and has played host to a variety of film festivals, big and small.

Founded in 1996, the Florida Film Critics Circle is comprised of 21 writers from state publications. Bill Gibron of PopMatters.com and FilmRacket.com has served as chairman since March 2013. For more information on the FFCC, visit: www.floridafilmcritics.com.

Complete list of winners:

Picture: 12 Years a Slave

Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, The Dallas Buyers Club

Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave

Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, Her

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity

Visual Effects: Gravity

Art Direction/Production Design: Damien Drew et.al. and Catherine Martin et.al., The Great Gatsby

Foreign Language: Blue is the Warmest Color

Animated: Frozen

Documentary: The Act of Killing

Breakout: Lupita Nyong’O, 12 Years a Slave

Golden Orange: Dana Keith

* * *

And here’s how it broke down from our end, including rankings, at Independent Ethos:

Oscar Isaac winter in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

BEST PICTURE

1.  Inside Llewyn Davis
2.  Frances Ha
3.  12 Years a Slave

BEST ACTOR

1.  Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station
2.  Christian Bale – American Hustle
3.  Bruce Dern – Nebraska

BEST ACTRESS

1.  Cate Blanchette – Blue Jasmine
2.  Meryl Streep – August: Osage County
3.  Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha

SUPPORTING ACTOR

1.  Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave
2.  Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
3.  Benedict Cumberbatch – Star Trek Into Darkness

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

1.  Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years A Slave
2.  Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
3.  June Squibb – Nebraska

DIRECTOR

1. Coen Brothers – Inside Llewyn Davis
2. Noah Baumbach – Frances Ha
3. Abdellatif Kechiche – Blue Is the Warmest Color

SCREENPLAY (ADAPTED)

1.  12 Years A Slave
2.  The Butler
3.  August: Osage County

SCREENPLAY (ORIGINAL)

1. Frances Ha
2. Her
3. Blue Jasmine

CINEMATOGRAPHY

1. Inside Llewyn Davis
2. Rush
3. Leviathan

VISUAL EFFECTS

1. Gravity
2. Star Trek Into Darkness
3. The Conjuring

ART DIRECTION/PRODUCTION DESIGN

1. Blue is the Warmest Color
2. 12 Years A Slave
3. Her

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

1.  Blue is the Warmest Color
2.  Something in the Air
3.  Beyond the Hills

ANIMATED FEATURE

1.  The Wind Rises
2.  Frozen
3.  Monsters University

DOCUMENTARY

1.  Cutie and the Boxer
2.  The Act of Killing
3.  Stories We Tell

BREAKOUT AWARD

1.  Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station
2.  Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
3.  Adèle Exarchopoulos – Blue is the Warmest Color

GOLDEN ORANGE

1.  Dana Keith – Miami Beach Cinematheque (for his adventurous programming and support of local critics)
2.  Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis (He was a local Miami musician, who “arrived” with this film in Hollywood)
3.  Jillian Mayer – #PostModem (She starred in and co-directed the short with Lucas Leyva, which went on to SXSW. Here’s the trailer:

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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The last weekend of the Miami International Film Festival ended on a much stronger note than it began. I caught up with a strange, gruesome film that was not without merit. I saw a brave choice for the award bestowed by the Miami Future Cinema Critics. I attended a second career tribute ceremony to another important director who had his start on the world cinema stage thanks to MIFF. After a closing night and awards party on Saturday night, I rushed out for one last day of screenings with daylight savings suddenly in effect. The pair of marine life-themed films were by turns powerful and poetic.

As this post goes up, so does my report for the “Miami New Times” on the festival’s tribute to Spanish director Fernando Trueba, Friday night. You can read that portion of my weekend by jumping through the publication’s logo for its arts and culture blog “Cultist”:

cultist banner

Halley

The following weekend began with the intimate but creepy home viewing of a film that had been recommended to me by both my colleague at “the Miami Herald,” Rene Rodriguez and the festival’s director, Jaie Laplante. Mexican director Sebastian Hofmann explores some twisted subject matter both thematically and viscerally in his feature debut, Halley. Halley04Shot in Mexico City, the film follows a security guard aching to quit his job at a local gym where everyone from body building professionals to obese elderly types work on their various physiques. The guard, Alberto (Alberto Trujillo), seems quite ill, as revealed early in the film. He tends to huge, festering wounds on his body that never seem to heal and even plucks maggots burrowing just below his skin.

The debut feature by Hofmann dwells on a man trying to deal with the fact he is a living corpse. He allows the camera to linger for long moments, as Alberto tries to keep everything as neat as possible in his apartment, including polishing his silverware and dusting every nook of a model train. He also allows the camera to hover on some of the most grotesque wounds the viewer might care to have to stare at on the big screen.

The film gives no explanation for Alberto’s disease, only focuses on his drive to carry on despite his rotting body.halley By not concerning himself with exposition as much as juxtapositions with society moving along with ignorant non-concern, save for a sympathetic and solitary morgue worker (Hugo Albores), the film elevates its concept beyond cruel, indulgent gore to social statement. I heard from someone who grew up in Mexico City that walking past a collapsing man in the subway with nary a reaction is commonplace, lest you believe the director is exaggerating.

Hofmann wants to work beyond pure horror for horror’s sake and rattle the complacency out of the viewer. Instead of trivializing the zombie medium, he is working it back to its social origins and the shell-shocked, post-Vietnam world of the creators behind such watershed zombie movies by George Romero. Forget Warm Bodies, this might be the most human zombie movie ever created.

Beijing Flickers and awards night

As publicized by MIFF, the awards broke down as such, which were announced at a ceremony in Downtown Miami’s historic Freedom Tower:

KNIGHT IBERO-AMERICAN COMPETITION AWARDS

Knight Grand Jury Prize: So Much Water (Tanta agua), produced by CTRL Z FILMS, Uruguay, by Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge (Uruguay/Mexico/Netherlands), will receive $15,000 awarded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Double award winner Ana Guevara. Photo courtesy of MIFFIf the film’s sales agent, Alpha Violet of France sells the film to a US distributor within 30 days, that US distributor will also receive $15,000.   If not, the additional $15,000 will be added to CTRL Z FILMS’ prize.

Grand Jury Best Performance: The cast of A Gun in Each Hand (Una pistola en cada mano), by Cèsc Gay (Spain)
$5,000 awarded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Grand Jury Best Director: Ana Piterbarg of Everybody Has a Plan (Todos tenemos un plan)(Spain/Argentina /Germany)
$5,000 awarded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

JORDAN ALEXANDER RESSLER SCREENWRITING AWARD
Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge for So Much Water (Tanta agua) by Ana Guevara andLeticia Jorge (Uruguay/Mexico/Netherlands)
$5,000 USD cash prize awarded by the Jordan Alexander Ressler Charitable Fund

KNIGHT DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Knight Grand Jury Prize:

Gideon’s Army, by Dawn Porter (USA)gideons_army

$10,000 awarded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
LEXUS IBERO-AMERICAN OPERA PRIMA COMPETITION (tie):
Solo, by Guillermo Rocamora (Uruguay / Argentina / Netherlands / France)
$2,500 USD cash prize sponsored by Lexus, official automotive sponsor of MIFF
The Swimming Pool (La piscina), by Carlos Machado Quintela (Cuba/Venezuela)
A $2,500 USD cash prize sponsored by Lexus, official automotive sponsor of MIFF
Special recognition by the jury goes to Villegas, by Gonzalo Tobal (Argentina/Netherlands/France)

UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI SHORTS COMPETITION:
Best Short Film: “Anna and Jerome”, by Mélanie Delloye (France)
$2,500 USD cash prize awarded by the University of Miami

MIAMI FUTURE CINEMA CRITICS AWARD:
Beijing Flickers (You-Zhong), by Zhang Yuan (China)

LEXUS AUDIENCE AWARD
There were two grand winners of this year’s Lexus Audience Award voted on by festivalgoers throughout the Festival:
7 Boxes (7 cajas) by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori (Paraguay)

Gideon’s Army, by Dawn Porter (USA).

* * *

Beijing Flickers-thumb-630xauto-36171

Of these winners, the only one I saw during the festival was Beijing Flickers, a movie about a ragtag group of social misfits in Beijing who become friends over their shortcomings. I applaud the group of young critics who wanted to pass the award to something else beyond a too-easy nominee like, the Oscar-nominated No, which remains a fine film, as well. I had a great time mentoring Justin James of the group (read more about the program here, an article by Miami Art Zine writer Michelle Solomon).

I was supposed to catch After Lucia later that night, but it had sold out. I will be placed in contact with that film’s director, so I do not miss it. So far it has not secured U.S. distribution.

Blackfish and Leviathan

Sunday was the true last day of the festival and included a pair of movies I had heard good things about. Blackfish trains its lens on killer whales in captivity and the cover-up of tragedies involved in maintaining their display at aquariums for entertainment. blackfish stillSeveral former trainers recount their own naiveté and firsthand encounters with tragic or near tragic interactions with the animals at sea parks, as the film builds to the most current incident: the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010 at Sea World Orlando.

The film introduces these men and women as they freely admit their own ignorance to the dangers of these animals, even though they were hired to swim with them. None have any education in marine biology. As the viewer learns more about the animals in the film, you have to wonder whether anyone who knows more about these whales than these trainers would ever enter a tiny pool with these beasts, which can weigh upwards of four tons.

No working trainer would comment in the film, much less Sea World or its spokesperson. 000_shamooThose who do comment are the ex-trainers who sometimes speak tearfully of the tragedies that changed their minds about their former jobs. Then there is the testimony of a man who actually hunted whales for captivity in the 1970s. He also breaks down in tears over the horrors he and his crew committed to capture young whales and rip them from their families. A spokesperson for OSHA, the worker’s rights group who sued Sea World in order to keep trainers safe, offers the most sober testimony against the logic of placing trainers in the water with these whales.

Balance is hard to find as no one currently working with whales comes on camera to speak in favor of these shows. But the silence of the opposing voice, depicted in a single intertitle at the end that states Sea World refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this documentary, speaks volumes. KillerWhalesBLACKFISHAs this is a co-production with CNN, one hopes the story will spread beyond the film festival.

Though some science feels missing, the film makes a strong case against the display of these wild animals for entertainment purposes. It’s easy to not look behind the bliss in the smiles and laughter of a crowd enjoying orca shows, but at what cost to not only these beasts, but to the men and women who risk their lives to “play” with them? As one talking head in the film notes, one can only hope that at some point in the future these shows will disappear as a sign of our former barbarism.

My last day at the festival ended with another marine life documentary of a very different sort: Leviathan. 1350625625-leviathan1It featured little bias in its depiction of a giant shipping vessel, as its narrative was allowed to flow as wild as the ocean waves that surrounded the ship’s hull. There were no voice overs or interviews. The only narrative conceit was establishing the film with quotations from the Book of Job 41, which clearly inspired the film’s title (read it here).

Beyond the biblical reference, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel seem to say something rather ambivalent about harvesting the ocean’s sea life, though using breathtaking imagery. With specially designed cameras that hang from masts and roll around on the ship’s deck, the images captured by these cameras are born from the same randomness as the nature that created life in the primordial pool of the ocean. The human factor comes in the selection of edits and how they are strung together. Its associative cuts came slow and languorous. They sometimes feel harsh, from exterior to interior changes in setting, or almost imperceptibly smooth, from the ship’s deck to below the waves.

The key is to hold long shots so as not to manipulate the scenes too much and allow the viewer to engage on a level that can feel as entrancing as the ebb and flow of the ocean itself. Some viewers might find themselves a bit seasick with not only the motions but also the close-ups of the bloody prepping of the dead or dying fish. 1920_leviathan-4The directors allow their mobile cameras to roll around the ship’s deck with fish carcasses, giving you the POV of the lamentable critters, as you stare into the gray eyes of the bloated corpses.

In a cinematic world that rewards concrete narratives, some may be frustrated by Leviathan, but if you arrive with an open mind and a curiosity for some of the most unique views of a fishing crew in action, you may find yourself properly riveted. The filmmakers do not make it easy, though. At one point they place a camera in the ship’s mess hall where one fisherman gradually dozes off to a TV showing “The Deadliest Catch.” The camera lingers only on his face as his eyes gradually close to a voice over fishing for drama on the Discovery Channel’s “reality” show. leviathanThere’s a cut to a couple of commercials and a return to the drama, but by then the fisherman has checked out. It’s a witty little statement against the stagey quality of so-called reality TV and the superficiality of narratives. Leviathan is about the visceral, and you can practically smell the grotesque oozing off the screen.

There were some walkouts during the screening and others seemed glad to leave when the credits rolled. Still, a handful could not seem to get enough and remained to the very last of the film’s 87 minutes, when, after the credits and dedications, a night scene of a barely visible flock of gulls over the dark waves gave a reprise of the film’s listless quality.

leviathan_04

With that, the festival ended on a high note for this viewer. Some of these films will return to South Florida, and I shall provide a head’s up on this blog, as they see release in South Florida and distribution to other part of the US or the world. Thanks to MIFF for inviting me to attend the festival and experience these screenings on them, not to mention the chance to meet several great filmmakers, some of whom expressed an interest to return to this blog for individual profiles.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)