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.)

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterTwo years ago, I wrote about the expectations I had for J.J. Abrams taking the helm of the new Star Wars movie (Film Review: ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ proves J.J. Abrams a better director than George Lucas). With a little weird sense of doubt, I think he has delivered.

Regardless of what is written here, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is going to break all the records that pundits have been predicting. There are too many generations of Star Wars fans waiting for this movie to come out already. This writer is of the first generation. As such, the experience of watching the movie yesterday afternoon was something akin to religious. This is where it becomes difficult to separate the film critic from the man who still remembers seeing the original TV commercial for Star Wars and wanting my father to take me to see this movie, not to mention the actual theatrical experience, the behind-the-scenes specials on TV and yes, even the Holiday Special.

I took it all in with nothing but awe, all the way to Return of the Jedi and its finale featuring singing ewoks. That said, I never liked any of prequels, which felt like nothing more than digital cartoons serving to explicate too much of the Star Wars universe. Lucas had lost touch, and the need for new blood was ripe. As a fan of what he did with Star Trek and Super 8, I could see why Abrams would feel like the perfect fit by the film’s producers. And his ethos does work … for the most part.

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There’s no reason to spoil the plot of The Force Awakens, but as a new beginning for the franchise it balances old and new brilliantly. The story, written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (who also co-wrote the scripts of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt, features some smart self-referential moments with refreshing efforts to ground the characters deeper than ever into this faraway galaxy, from a long time ago, without forgetting a delightful dollop of humor. The action, backed by that familiar John Williams score, will amaze, but it’s also thankfully not as breathless as the Star Trek movies. There’s an awareness to the original tempo of the earlier Star Wars films. So though there are plenty of intense battle scenes, dogfights between spaceships and several one-on-one confrontations, there are also quieter moments thick with character development that never slow down the movie’s momentum.

Though it is great seeing old characters like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) return to the Star Wars universe, it’s a relief to note how exciting and vibrant the new young leads are, which bodes well for the continuation of this saga. Adam Driver has an immense presence as the villain Kylo Ren. Even behind the battered mask he exudes a malevolent pathos of an upstart tangling with the ep7_ia_38176_dj_0ee5e1e5shadow within that is the dark side of the Force. The highlight of the young additions, however, has to be the fun, flirtatious and sometimes tender chemistry between Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Our new heroes captivate throughout the film and really give The Force Awakens its heart and soul. The biggest surprise in the character development arena, however, comes in the filmmakers’ humanizing of the Stormtroopers (just watch for the small moments featuring everything from humor to menace, plus it’s kind of refreshing to hear female voices coming out through those helmets).

Despite all this praise and so much more hyperbole you are bound to hear from others, I could not help but feel a bit of trepidation about some decisions in the filmmaking that only slightly drained some of the magic from the movie. As great as it might seem for the writers to find the right places for lines like “I got a bad feeling about this,” it gets a bit trite. One would hope that these films will rise above their own tropes and not turn into a lumbering ball of self-referencing with little substance like the Jamesep7_ia_34101_ee8800f1 Bond series. Then there are two mechanical problems in the script that stood out as rather weak when they shouldn’t have been. As it’s not fair to spoil these plot points this late in the film’s non-release, all I will say is that it involves a bit of precious and heavy-handed exposition involving a long-winded private moment between Han and Leia (they deserve better), and another scene involving one of these key figures that many might see coming. It’s a moment that’s a bit too eerily reflective of another scene at the start of the first trilogy of these movies. Though the scene is supposed to be a climactic moment, it feels eerily hollow in its inevitability, like a loose end that long needed patching up.

In the end, does it deserve all this talk about awards? Though there are solar systems at stake, the urgency still doesn’t match that of Mad Max: Fury Road (Overturning Patriarchy in the Post-apocalyptic World:Mad Max: Fury Road – A Film Review) or even Spotlight. As they finally get their chance to mess around in this world, you never get the sense that Abrams and co. are trying to do anything more than make Star Wars fun again, and there are indeed plenty of occasions to make it fun, from crafty new uses of lightsabers to more tie fighters going through the ringer than I would have ever expected to see in one Star Wars movie. Thus, The Force Awakens does deserve its own hype as a Star Wars film. The cynic in me would say, please, let the hype stop at that, but there’s no denying this strange sense of reconnecting with my childhood and watching the sequel that I had always yearned to see for more than 30 years. That it does live up to that hype should be reason alone to say this is the film that indeed I had been waiting for.

Hans Morgenstern

Star Wars: The Force Awakens runs 135 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens pretty much everywhere on Thursday night with options to see it in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX. Disney Studios invited me to a 2-D preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images in this review are courtesy of www.starwars.com.

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