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Mid-year, I teased my working lists of The best films of 2015 … so far. It’s finalized. Four films had their premieres at either Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival or its mid-season Gems event. I had the chance to catch up with one of these films (Flowers) thanks to the Coral Gables Art Cinema booking it even without a distributor. It later became Spain’s entry to the Oscars and was picked up by Music Box Films. Another movie had its premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival. But I’m spoiling the suspense already…

Now, in reverse order and capped off with 10 honorable mentions with links to reviews where appropriate, are the 10 best movies I saw in 2015. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the link provided, you will be financially supporting this blog.

10. The Forbidden Room

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The only film in my top 10 I did not review. Suffice to say that The Forbidden Room is an incredible experience of dreams and primal desires infused with that indelible Guy Maddin sense of humor.

9. Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice poster

Read my review

8. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

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Read my review

7. Heart of a Dog

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Read my review

6. Flowers (Loreak)

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Read my review in The Miami New Times

5. Theeb

THEEB

Read my review

4. My Golden Days

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Read my capsule review in The Miami New Times (longer review to come)

3. Love & Mercy

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Read my review

2. The Assassin

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Read my review

1. Clouds of Sils Maria

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Read my review

My honorable mentions (or bottom 10 – 20) are as follows (titles either link to reviews or Amazon): Mr. Turner, The End of the Tour, The Look of Silence (review), Voice Over (review), Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, Spotlight, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (review), Brooklyn.

Next, Ana Morgenstern weighs in with her top 20.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

mad-max-fury-road-hardy-theronThe Florida Film Critics Circle, a critics group we have representation in, has announced the winners of this year’s contest for the best of 2015, and it’s a wild list. Mad Max: Fury Road, a film we loved (Overturning Patriarchy in the Post-apocalyptic World: Mad Max: Fury Road – A Film Review), took the several of the top prizes including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Effects. Carol, another excellent movie we were rooting for (Love in times of heterosexism — Carol, a film review) had led the nominations with eight to Max‘s seven, but it ended up winning only one category, that of art direction/production design. Though it’s sad to see Carol come up short in so many categories, it did get runner up for esteemed categories like director, adapted screenplay, cinematography and score.

Speaking of score, I was delighted to see Love & Mercy win for that category. It was also a winner in Best Actor for Paul Dano. The Brian Wilson biopic really came out of nowhere to win this writer over this year, as I initially approached it with skepticism. I watched it twice in theaters before reviewing it (Love & Mercy harnesses the music & madness of Brian Wilson), and had a chance to talk with the film’s director (Director of Beach Boys pic Love & Mercy talks about externalizing Brian Wilson’s musical madness and how to deal with the character of Mike Love). As the months went on, it stuck with me, and I don’t think I played Pet Sounds, Smile and “Surf’s Up” in my life much as I ever had these past few months. I really gained a new appreciation for The Beach Boys due to this movie and its performances. So kudos for that.

Dano’s win was the tip of the iceberg for the acting categories. The winners were amazing in how much they went against predicted/marketed contenders. First of all, we went against the Hollywood Foreign Press’s decision to consider his role a supporting role. Plus, there was no sign at all, during the nomination phase, of the Will Smith or Jennifer Lawrence vehicles, and though it was close, the sentimentality of Sly Stallone did not deter critics from voting for Oscar Isaac for Best Supporting Actor not for his high profile appearance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits nearly all the right notes with breezy, rich flair — a film review) but for his performance in Ex Machina (Ex Machina looks past AI to examine artificial sexuality — a film review). Then there was Kristen Stewart who won Best Supporting Actress for her work in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (Clouds of Sils Maria examines the layers of celebrity identity with powerful performances — a film review), a movie most have undeservedly forgotten — but not us.

This is probably the year where the most films and people I voted for to win actually won. Below you will find the nominees our group voted on. The winner is noted “WINNER” and my choices have an asterisk* by them. And below that you will find my ballot and nominees, which may hint at some of my favorite films of the year, but, as usual take it with a grain of salt. This is a political thing after all, and when participating in these things one should nominate and lobby for films that have a chance for recognition. My choices at least define a certain aesthetic that I feel no shame in celebrating.

Check out this link to see all the winners. In previous years that I have been a member (2012 and 2013) we ranked three choices in each category. Last year we tried something different. There are two rounds of voting. Each of the 30 voting members offers three choices in each category without ranking. Once all ballots were turned in, our chairman and vice chair tabulate the results return a new ballot of five choices (up from three last year) in each category. Everyone would pick one name or film in each category, and then the ones with the majority votes were declared winners. But if it was tight race, we would have a run off, and we had four this year. Plus we had five choices on the original ballot for each category because there were so many tight races to begin with.

OK, congrats to all the winners and here is the list:

BEST PICTURE

Carol*
WINNER: Mad Max: Fury Road
Spotlight
T
he Big Short
The Martian

BEST ACTOR

Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
WINNER: Paul Dano – Love and Mercy*
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett – Carol*
WINNER: Brie Larson – Room
Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

WINNER: Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina*
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon – 99 Homes
Sylvester Stallone – Creed

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Elizabeth Banks – Love and Mercy
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara – Carol
WINNER: Kristen Stewart – Clouds of Sils Maria*
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina

BEST DIRECTOR

Todd Haynes – Carol
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
WINNER: George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight*
Ridley Scott – The Martian

BEST ENSEMBLE

The Big Short
Mistress America
WINNER: Spotlight*
Straight Outta Compton
Tangerine

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Ex Machina
The Hateful Eight
Inside Out
Mistress America
WINNER: Spotlight*

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

WINNER: The Big Short
Brooklyn*
Carol
Room
Steve Jobs

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Carol*
WINNER: Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Sicario
Youth

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Ex Machina
WINNER: Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
Star Wars: The Force Awakens*
The Walk

BEST ART DIRECTION/ PRODUCTION DESIGN

Brooklyn
WINNER: Carol
Crimson Peak
Love & Mercy*
Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST SCORE

Carol
The Hateful Eight
WINNER: Love & Mercy*
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

BEST DOCUMENTARY

WINNER: Amy
Best of Enemies
Cartel Land
Heart of a Dog*
The Look of Silence

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

WINNER: The Assassin*
Mommy
Mustang
Phoenix
Son of Saul

BEST ANIMATED FILM

Anomalisa
WINNER: Inside Out*
The Good Dinosaur
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

FFCC BREAKOUT AWARD

Bel Powley – Diary of a Teenage Girl*
WINNER: Daisy Ridley – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez – Tangerine
Jacob Tremblay – Room
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina and The Danish Girl

My initial ballot of nominees is below. We had to nominate three were unranked choices. The ones that got the most mentions out of the group became a list of five choices that we had to pick from. All my choices are listed in no particular order and the picture corresponds with the film that got the most nominations:

Paul Dano in Love & Mercy

BEST PICTURE

  • Spotlight
  • Clouds of Sils Maria
  • Love & Mercy

BEST ACTOR

  • Paul Dano – Love & Mercy
  • Jason Segel – End of the Tour
  • Peter Sarsgaard – Experimenter

BEST ACTRESS

  • Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
  • Kristen Stewart – Clouds of Sils Maria
  • Cate Blanchett – Carol

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina
  • Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
  • Stanley Tucci – Spotlight

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Rooney Mara – Carol
  • Deanna Dunagan – The Visit
  • Kristen Wiig – Diary of a Teenage Girl

BEST ENSEMBLE

  • Spotlight
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • Mad Max Fury Road

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Olivier Assayas – Clouds of Sils Maria
  • Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
  • Bill Pohlad – Love & Mercy

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner – Love & Mercy
  • Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
  • Olivier Assayas – Clouds of Sils Maria

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  • Phyllis Nagy – Carol
  • Marielle Heller – Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • Nick Hornby – Brooklyn

CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Brooklyn
  • Mad Max Fury Road
  • It Follows

VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • Ex-Machina
  • Mad Max: Fury Road

ART DIRECTION/PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • Carol
  • Love & Mercy
  • Brooklyn

BEST SCORE

  • Atticus Ross – Love & Mercy
  • Cat’s Eyes – The Duke of Burgundy
  • Laurie Anderson – Heart of a Dog

BEST DOCUMENTARY

  • Heart of a Dog
  • The Look of Silence
  • Tales of the Grim Sleeper

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM

  • Theeb
  • The Assassin
  • Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

ANIMATED FEATURE

  • Inside Out
  • Shaun of the Sheep
  • Anomalisa

BREAKOUT AWARD

  • Bel Powley – The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • Lola Kirke – Mistress America
  • Daisy Ridley – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

posterIt has been almost 30 years since performance artist/musician Laurie Anderson directed a movie about herself. What a leap in perspective is Heart of a Dog, a cinematically poetic meditation on love, death, government surveillance, Buddhism and her own upbringing in a house of seven children.

Anderson recently endured some heavy losses in her life, her husband Lou Reed and her rat terrier Lolabelle. Death is a heavy thing and does not have meaning without life. Regrets, ghosts and Anderson’s upbringing as part of a large nuclear family with a mother she wasn’t sure really loved her, not to mention NSA surveillance, all thus heavily figure into this ingenious, free-associative documentary.

On her record albums, Anderson’s existential concerns have long been on display. On her 1982 avant-garde pop music debut, Big Science, song titles like, “Born, Never Asked” and lyrics like “You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling,” capture the simple but rich ideas Anderson has long experimented with. It may seem as though she has devoted her career to turning the big questions of life and experience into art. Her musings have grown much more sophisticated, even wittier over time but no less embracing of the great mystery of the ominous inexorable punctuation point to life and how these two notions weave together.

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As with her thoughts, Anderson’s distinctive sing/speak voice is also present in the film with all its soothing character, kicking the film off with thoughts like, “What are the very last things that you say in your life? What are the very last things that you say before you turn into dirt?” She composed her own score whose melodies come from cello and violin but also feature samples of nature and helicopter propellers mixed with quiet, synthesized drones. The opening titles feature a minor key melody but also a bright quality, reflexive of the dichotomy of exuberance of life and the sadness of loss.

Visually, there is a similar musical quality to Heart of a Dog. The film feels like a sprightly montage of Anderson’s paintings, photos and video of Lolabelle mixed with liberal images of beautiful plays on light through the filter of decayed, damaged film stock or images of rain-speckled sepia windows. The worn still film images of Lolabelle in happier times frolicking in the meadow or home video of Anderson’s siblings on decayed 16mm home movies, slowed down to highlight blurry figures of people, also represent mortality in the decay, similar to the films of avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison.

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Anderson’s voice, soft and clear in its delivery, over these expressive images feels like guided meditation. Anderson has always sung/spoken with a relaxed, staccato, even deadpan tone, but it has grown less antsy over the years. She also has an amazing sense of humor. Early in the film, she notes the notion that rat terriers are said to understand 500 words. After Sept. 11 — when the oppressive surveillance of Manhattan inspires Anderson to escape to seaside California meadows — she decides she will spend some time figuring out exactly what those 500 words are. Another fine example of Anderson’s humor uses a series of famous quotes by Ludwig Wittgenstein, where she turns the Austrian philosopher’s thoughts that experience is limited by language, into one of the biggest jokes of the movie. This, in turn, becomes a triumph for her chosen medium of film and visuals to explore life and death.

Some viewers may find the tangents to concerns of Sept. 11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the NSA rather oblique. But, as with anything by Anderson, everything is connected. There are inextricable links in the film’s perspective. The green and gray surveillance images are compared to how dogs see the world, linked to another sense: smell. Humans lost their acute sense of smell after learning to walk upright, notes Anderson. There is also a sense of humanity lost in the surveillance images, with their wide, all-seeing gaze on traffic. They take in so much information that is never processed as anything more than data, removed of the human experience that we filter through stories we tell, whose details, both chosen and ignored create false impressions. Both have detriments when taken on their own, but what if we were aware of both, could it make life and death easier to understand? Death matters. Images matter. Music matters. Stories matter. They are life and give death and love value.

Hans Morgenstern

Heart of a Dog runs 75 minutes and is not rated (it may have some rare cases of some salty language). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Dec. 11, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema; further north, in Broward County, it opens at the Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. It continues its run theatrically in South Florida on Dec. 18 at O Cinema Wynwood and the Lake Worth Playhouse. On Dec. 25 it begins its run at the Living Room Theater in Boca Raton. Finally, it opens Dec. 27 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For dates in other U.S. cities, visit this link.  All images courtesy of the film’s distributor, Abramorama. The Coral Gables Art Cinema provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)