12-years-a-slave still

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


1. Frances Ha
2. Her
3. Blue Jasmine


1. Inside Llewyn Davis
2. Rush
3. Leviathan


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.)

Fruitvale-Payoff-FINAL-jpg_162629-1Early this year, I noticed fervent statements on Twitter regarding the next “big” film out of Sundance: Fruitvale. Later re-titled Fruitvale Station, the film had been touted as the year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild by people like actor/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt. More than six months later, the film hasn’t lost any momentum, despite the fact that it’s no Beasts of the Southern Wild. Forgiving comparisons to a film that stands as one of the more transcendental works by an American indie filmmaker, Fruitvale still packs a potent punch, but its power comes from a more emotional place rather than spiritual.

Based on a true story, Fruitvale Station follows a young black father on his last day alive before a confrontation with police ends in his shooting death. As I have a job in the news industry, I remember this story as it unfolded. Oscar Grant was among a group of friends detained at a BART station in Oakland, California, early New Year’s Day 2010, following a fight on a transit train. During his detention by police, Grant lost his life after a transit officer shot him. Witnesses captured the moment on cell phone video. The officer later argued that he had confused his gun for his Taser when he shot the 22-year-old in the back while he resisted arrest.

Taking place over the course of only a day, the filmic account of this incident is all about setting up the tragedy of that night. It opens with the voices of a young couple sharing fanciful New Year’s resolutions against a black screen. The banter between the man and woman is full of humor and affection. Carbs are mentioned and so is Oprah. FRUITVALEThen, the first images we see is grainy cell phone video footage of four young black men sitting against a wall while three BART Police officers loom over them. This is actual footage recorded by a witness from a train car held at Fruitvale Station where police had responded to the fight. What happens next is chilling. It’s real-life foreshadowing into director Ryan Coogler’s re-creation of that day’s events with Michael B. Jordan taking on the lead role.

The fractured, associative narrative of the film’s introduction offers a minimalist sensation of the warmth and horror the director aims to set up for the duration of the rest of the film. It’s all about riling up emotions and sympathy for Oscar and his family. Though the majority of the drama shows Oscar having to deal with a troubled past that includes a bad temper, infidelity to his child’s mother and dealing marijuana, the film mostly offers up a man who is simpatico with strangers, family and even stray dogs.

Forgiving a few moments of over-contemplative slow-motion and two or three scenes too many establishing that Oscar has a heart, Coogler has some brilliant moments that highlight intimacy on a warm, cozy level that feels hard to deny. FRUITVALEIt happens on an almost subconscious level that transcends overt efforts to stir up sympathy. It involves the serendipitous culmination of the film’s various scenes and some choice instances of camera placement, including the amount of floor space shared by children during a sleepover and a glance from below an escalator as Oscar and his friends bunch together on a few steps and head out into the dark of New Year’s morning.

The film’s strength comes from these subtle, warm moments more than anywhere else. These scenes and instances— and there are others— where dialogue does not matter, offer a bridge to the humanity, life and hope that connects the viewer to these people not matter the racial makeup of either the audience or the on-screen characters. A low-key, yet sincere approach by the actors helps fuel these moments, a notable accomplishment of restraint for a first-time feature director. It does not hurt that the film also features another notable appearance by Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother Wanda.

But it’s Jordan who most makes this film. I entered with reserved expectations having first come to know the actor during his over-sincere performance as Alex on one of the great network television shows more people should be watching: “Parenthood.” But, here, Jordan embraces a much more complex role and dives into the nuances of a persona that must adapt to varied social environments and other characters, be they a drug dealer, his girlfriend, his mother or his friends. fv-sg-000_lgThe director also employs an inventive trick that reveals the complexity of this character by showing Oscar doing one thing with one person while texting something else depicted in a superimposed image representing exchanges with another person. Oscar is intriguingly complex, a man who would rather withhold information, even if it means trouble, which again adds to the intricacies of his interactions with others. It’s one thing to reveal a character through verbose dialogue, but it’s another to reveal him by what he does not say.

Some may complain that Fruitvale Station takes a one-sided approach to the incident, as the film leaves little room for humanizing the police officers (a menacing performance by Kevin Durand as a rather boisterous cop who may have played a hand in Oscar’s death could only serve to enhance any of those protestations). But one could also forgive it for focusing on the disenfranchised who often receive a raw deal in the judicial system (see the most recent protests against Stand Your Ground laws in many states). At the end of the movie, a few lines of text sum up the culmination of the events of that night, including the charges and sentence for the officer who pulled the trigger. It elicited a gasp from the audience during the preview screening this writer attended and someone in the audience shouted “Trayvon Martin,” in reference to the current debate on Stand Your Ground. The film, helmed by a black director, cannot be faulted for this approach, as it taps into a current, honest sense of disenfranchisement.

As I noted, I do remember this news story as it unfolded all the way to its trial. I cannot say the film changed my sense of sympathy for the victim and his family. To share some focus on the officer would only lend sympathy to a broken justice system that only continues to propagate divisions among classes and race. Coogler’s decision to only follow Oscar, however, illuminates the humanity at the core of the story. If it can prove as a reminder of the space we share as human beings, then Fruitvale Station should be seen and celebrated for what it is, and indeed, come awards season, an Oscar may serve this film well, as it stands as one of the most important films of 2013.

Hans Morgenstern

Fruitvale Station is Rated R and runs 90 min. It opens in wide release today. The Weinstein Company hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

Update: Fruitvale Station finally hits theaters in the UK and Ireland on June 6, 2014.

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