From Cannes to Telluride

I saw three or four films in Cannes back in May that count as tectonic shifts where this year’s movie performances are concerned. One of the most surprising moments in Mad Max: Fury Road comes from the scene where Tom Hardy trudges through the sand towards the war rig. Up to now, we’ve only seen Charlize Theron as the driver of the rig, but once Hardy rounds the corner there emerge the women, the “breeders,” barely clothed in white gauzy material, washing themselves with fresh water. What a sight for Hardy’s Max, who can’t quite figure out what he’s seeing. But even more of a jolt is the way Furiosa approaches Max in this scene, attacking with one arm, then pulling back, then attacking again. Clearly this isn’t a woman who will be beaten. After all, she knows the passcode that enables the war rig to run. Theron as Furiosa owns Mad Max – both the film and the character, a power swap that caused a shift in how people regarded Mad Max the icon. Theron’s focuses her hold on Hardy as she battles him for the gun, all in defense of nothing any bigger than saving whatever humanity is left of the human race. When Max momentarily bests her and tries to leave (he can’t, she has the codes) her toughness flickers and briefly fades – but never much shakes her tough facade. It is a masterful, steady and ultimately brilliant performance by Theron.

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No one in my business has a crystal ball. No one really knows what they’re talking about even if we pretend we do. There are a few things worth noting, however, from today’s Film Independent nominations. The Spirits gave a big boost to two films that really could use it – Cary Fukunaga’s uncompromising, brilliant masterpiece Beasts of No Nation, and Charlie Kaufman/Duke Johnson’s equally brilliant, uncompromising masterpiece Anomalisa. Both films represent the very best in independent film because they represent the true independent spirit. Both were put together on a wing and a prayer – with Anomalisa raising much of its funds through Kickstarter and Beasts of No Nation finally getting picked up by Netflix after every studio in town passed on it.

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The Spirit Awards have leaked or simply are on their website prior to their announcement this morning. They have really redefined what film awards mean with these, honoring films that are experimental, trying different rollouts and all but helping the film industry thrive and adapt. Tangerine, Beasts of No Nation, along with Carol (two Best Actress performance nominations!).

Best Feature
Beasts of No Nation

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

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Something hit me while watching Creed, and in ruminating on the upcoming Star Wars movie. They’re bringing back 1970s nostalgia to remind us what movies once were. In thinking about these films I wondered why everything seems so different now. Movies aren’t really the culture quakes they used to be. In the science of evolution we know that with little competition a species can thrive and quickly evolve. With lots of competition that evolution is slower. Movies only have ever had one major thing competing with them and that was television. Now, there is much more competition. That competition is seeing its own golden age and it is starting to look like that golden age is about to leave the greatest generation of cinema behind.

In his November 19th column, Peter Bart theorizes as to why “Good Films Are Failing at the Box Office in Awards Season.” Bart wondered why a movie he enjoyed so much (it was Burnt) was failing at the box office. He offered up a few theories. But really, it’s this that we should all be paying attention to:

The current crop of movies seems somehow diminished by the media fixation on the present “golden age of television.” The water cooler conversation — online version — focuses on binge-watched digital shows, or even an evanescent YouTube act. During the summer, the kids put that all aside, and respond faithfully to their must-see Marvel Comics movie opening. But come fall, their parents aren’t as ready to leave the house.

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We’re barreling towards the last gasp here for the Best Picture race and a few questions remain.

1) Can The Martian win over enough industry voters to become the first “sci fi” film to win Best Picture?
2) Is Spotlight going to be the first film about journalists to win Best Picture?
3) Can the recent celebrity push for Beasts of No Nation make it the first film by the growing cinema pioneer Netflix to get in?
4) Can Inside Out be the first animated film to get nominated for Best Picture since the Academy shrunk its nominee ballot from 10 slots to 5?
5) Will the upcoming movies Joy, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight make it into the Best Picture race after they screen this coming week?
6) Will there be four films about women in the Best Picture race for the first time since 1977?
7) Will Star Wars do what it in 1977 and get in for Best Picture?
8) Will Creed manage to do what Rocky did in 1976 and get in for Best Picture?
9) Will Todd Haynes finally manage to earn much deserved praise from the Academy with Carol?
10) Is Steve Jobs still a lock for a nomination?

My answers to these questions are as follows:
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The first frame of the original Rocky, as the famous music comes up, the date: November 25, 1975. You probably had to live through the Rocky phenomenon to understand just how big that movie was, what it gave audiences, and why it won the Best Picture Oscar in 1976, besting All the President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory. What most people don’t realize about that year looking back was that Sylvester Stallone – the unlikely lottery winner of that year – never won an Oscar, even though he wrote the script for Rocky.

How could he have beaten William Goldman for All the President’s Men or Paddy Chayefsky for Network? He couldn’t have. Both of those films, and Taxi Driver, launched a thousand filmmakers. A generation of filmmakers wanted to make movies that good, that revered. People like me spent many hours lamenting Rocky’s Best Picture win over the other, presumably better movies. That it won was a thing that the movie forever had to live down.

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2015 is providing us with an odd awards season because there seem to be so many different narratives with no clear leaders in any aspect of the Oscar race. We are one week away from any serious voting or awards announcement and each new honor bestowed will change the direction of the race. Who could have predicted, for instance, that last year the critics would have turned the Best Actress fifth slot nomination into a backroom war between Jennifer Aniston (punished for having produced a film that would give her a role to really showcase her acting ability) and Marion Cotillard, deemed the queen of actresses by the critics, a martyr for the cause of The Immigrant’s lack of marketing. Cotillard was suddenly the only actress who mattered and Aniston was thrown under the bus. No one could have seen that coming because it was an organic mutation of a season.

We don’t yet know what the mutations of this season might be, like which actor or film will get thrown under the bus either for spending too much money on the campaign or for chasing Oscar.

Here is a quick example of marketing psychology.  Liberal consumers, especially younger ones, are some of the most easily manipulated, especially since they are driven by ideas driven by social media. The recent “controversy” over holiday Starbucks cups of undecorated neutral red generated some talk that it was a war on Christmas, hence war on Christians. Suddenly, the backlash was so strong that it briefly became a bigger story to online warriors than anything else happening in the world. Starbucks cups were flaunted everywhere. Think pieces sprouted up. Our Facebook and Twitter timelines were littered with images of our friends holding Starbucks cups like a badge of honor. A marketing ploy or a real story? It’s hard to know. Either way, it worked to sell Starbucks because suddenly people felt valiant buying Starbucks. No more worrying about the environment dealing with all of those pesky cups and lids and stirrers. No more worrying about where all of that dairy product comes from. Buying it makes you feel good and that’s all that matters.
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Kris Tapley at In Contention talks up Sylvester Stallone in Ryan Coogler’s upcoming Rocky redux, Creed. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense for a perfect storm. There isn’t exactly a strong best supporting actor frontrunner right now, though plenty of contenders, and some we haven’t seen yet – who knows what will come from Tom Hardy in The Revenant or anyone in Joy or The Hateful Eight. On the other hand, come on.

Tapley writes:

With the Ryan Coogler-directed film, Stallone has now taken on the role of Rocky Balboa seven times on the big screen. He was nominated at the outset for 1976’s “Rocky” and lost to Peter Finch for the late actor’s fierce “Network” performance. But the truth is he might be even better this time around. I would be tempted to call it his best on-screen work to date as he finds such subtle, unassuming textures in the performance that both deepen a character we’ve grown to love over the last 40 years, as well as present him in a whole new shade.
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I’ve been blogging about the Oscars so long I often forget that most people out there don’t really know as much about the Academy’s recent history as I do. Part of knowing that history is, in effect, shutting down. Bit by bit, year by year, loss by loss, one learns – or tries to learn – to stop caring. Or as my site’s tagline used to say, “The trick is not minding.”  One of the most curious things about Oscar season is how the cult of personality can sometimes overtake an Oscar season so that the win comes not from the most deserving but from the most likable at the moment – the Mr. Right Now instead of the Mr. Right. This year, there are many Mr. Rights, and Ian McKellen is among them. The trick will be for one of those Mr. Rights to also become a Mr. Right Now.

McKellen has been up for two Oscars – just two. I will say that his performance of Richard III is maybe the best thing I’ve ever seen an actor do – but most certainly the best thing I’ve ever seen an actor do doing Shakespeare. It was mind blowing. He did not, however, receive a nomination for it.

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This is going to be an #OscarsSoWhite year where black actresses – or any actresses of color — are concerned. Men will fare slightly better, maybe, with Will Smith and potentially Idris Elba in the mix. Women, though? I saw one actress of color in a supporting role – that would be Gugu Mbatha Raw in Concussion. They might have had her on the cover, I suppose, but they’re also missing Saoirse Ronan. Either way, it’s a catch-22 because these things are set up by publicists who essentially help keep The Hollywood Reporter (and this site) in business. Thus, they take their lead from the publicists who are putting forth their best contenders. Helen Mirren is in for, I take it, Woman in Gold?

THR tried to clear up the shitstorm before it hit with this piece.

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Some of the films that stand out as the year’s best, which we’ll be digging into soon, might not even get into the Best Picture race. Cary Fukunaga’s uncompromising masterpiece, Beasts of No Nation sits atop that list. Perhaps too “difficult” for a consensus group that really needs to feel good about what it’s voting for, Beasts will perhaps be set adrift in the collective consciousness, destined to appear in film discussions for years to come. All the same, it gets down to the horrors of war without imposing morality or bowing to sentimentality – refusing to ever let up on the viewer. Right up there are other less accessible films. Like Black Mass, which dares to paint the mob as it really is, in all of its ugliness. The Big Short might be too wonky and weird for some Oscar voters but it gets to something about the American psyche that no other film has touched this year.

Before the overall landscape of the race can be assessed, however, there are still three big films by three big directors as year draws to a close, and that’s not even counting the last minute entries Creed and In the Heart of the Sea. Our attention is instead drawn to Alejandro G. Inarritu’s eagerly anticipated wintry survival epic, The Revenant; Quentin Tarantino’s wintry western, The Hateful Eight; and David O. Russell’s first film centered entirely around a woman, Joy. All three films have passionate support heading into their debuts and the heat is on. The heat is not only on, the pressure could not be more intense.

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After Dreamworks pulled the hat trick in 1999, 2000, and 2001 with American Beauty, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind, the only major studio to win Best Picture has been Warner Bros., who did it three times over the past 13 years with Million Dollar Baby, The Departed and Argo. All three of these films were warmly received by the public and critics alike. All three made money. And all three represent the ideal scenario by which a film most often wins Best Picture – when it unites the industry and the public (nevermind the critics for now). It rarely happens that a film will hit all of the markers heading in: well received by critics, a box office draw, and released by a major studio. Even when such alignment occurs, it doesn’t often end with a Best Picture win – and sometimes it doesn’t even result in a nomination. Then there are other factors to be considered, like director cred, buzz and “gravitas.”

For most of the years when I’ve been covering the Oscar race, we’ve been dwelling in the “indie breakthrough” era where independent players crashed the Oscar party, namely Fox Searchlight, the boutique arm of 20th Century Fox, and most notably Miramax, which was absorbed in its entirety by Disney and then sprouted anew from Harvey’s hearty roots as The Weinstein Co.  In the 70 years before that revolution, the Oscars had almost always been dominated by the majors. Anne Thompson reminds us not to misuse the term “indie.” If it’s a film produced on a lot, or one of the lots, then it’s considered a studio movie. Once in a blue moon throughout Oscar history, a genuine indie maverick like Selznick or Goldwyn could crash the Big Five party. More recently when we talk about indies in the Oscar race, these production companies lack traditional studio real estate. In fact, we’re mostly talking about distributors, not production companies, though their functions can often overlap as financing is patched together. Who puts up the money, who buys the film’s rights and then stands to make money usually determines which individual producers can take credit when or if the film wins Best Picture. Continue reading…


The Oscar pundits are kind of like preachers in the old world standing on our pulpits and promising you we can hear the word of god and if you’ll just follow us we’ll lead you to the promised land. ‘Don’t listen to that person over there because they’re crazy. Listen to me because I have the power to hear God speak. He sends me messages from on high. Follow me! I will lead you to the promised land.’

Okay, so maybe it isn’t quite that dramatic but you get the idea. The truth is that nobody knows anything. We all know that we don’t know anything. We have voices whispering in our ears from strategists and publicists who need to sink those nominations because their bread and butter relies on it. We have fans who mobilize and become active members of the flock in hopes of seeing their own mini god rewarded with Oscar’s attention. We have various markers we count on – box office, reviews, that elusive “buzz” that may or may not exist. But mostly, we have experience. Or not.
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One of the hardest things about predicting the Oscars is predicting the backlash to the predictions.  Human beings are unpredictable because they don’t like being predictable. Level Two Chaos System refers to predictive models that break down because the very act of predicting them changes the course of events. That is also true of the Oscar race because the conversation doesn’t happen in a vacuum anymore. It isn’t even a small online bubble of Oscar pundits and their readers. It encompasses much more than that – film criticism (what’s left of it), box office analysis, and even gambling. Continue reading…


I remember when my dear friend David Carr, who was The Carpetbagger back then, was blogging about the Oscar race. He said to me “Best Picture is really where the heat is, isn’t it.” To him, and to me, that was true. The whole year came down to Best Picture. It was the best category. In some years, when Best Picture was decided very early and never wavered, the heat was in different categories that were more competitive. In a year like this one, however, with no surefire Best Picture frontrunner we can plainly see, Best Picture has the heat, all right.
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The Gotham awards used to come so early in the race no one paid much attention to them. Back then, the National Board of Review seemed too early. Now that the race is being covered by way too many people and the news media is hungry for any tidbit about anything that seems substantial, the focus on these early awards is even more intense. The National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics don’t even announce until December. These were sometimes deemed premature but what they can do is launch a film pretty nicely into the race. The New York Film Critics did that with American Hustle. The National Board of Review did that with American Sniper.

The Gothams, though, are a different ball of wax. They kind of orbit on their own planet that exists in the same universe as the Spirit Awards. The Spirit Awards, lately, are looking a lot more like Oscar. But the Gothams never really have. Still, this morning’s announcement does indicate a few key things.
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The Diary of a Teenage Girl Receives 4 Nominations Including Best Feature. Carol, Heaven Knows What, Spotlight, and Tangerine also Nominated for Best Feature. Spotlight Voted Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast. The Gotham Awards ceremony will be held on Monday, November 30th at Cipriani Wall Street.

The 2015 IFP Gotham Independent Film Award nominations are:

Best Feature

  • Carol – Todd Haynes, director; Elizabeth Karlsen, Tessa Ross, Christine Vachon, Stephen Woolley, producers (The Weinstein Company)
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Marielle Heller, director; Anne Carey, Bert Hamelinck, Madeline Samit, Miranda Bailey, producers (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Heaven Knows What – Josh and Benny Safdie, directors; Oscar Boyson, Sebastian Bear-McClard, producers (RADiUS)
  • Spotlight – Tom McCarthy, director; Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, Blye Pagan Faust, producers (Open Road Films)
  • Tangerine – Sean Baker, director; Darren Dean, Shih-Ching Tsou, Marcus Cox & Karrie Cox, producers (Magnolia Pictures)

Best Documentary

  • Approaching the Elephant – Amanda Rose Wilder, director; Jay Craven, Robert Greene, Amanda Rose Wilder, producers (Kingdom County Productions)
  • Cartel Land – Matthew Heineman, director; Matthew Heineman, Tom Yellin, producers (The Orchard and A&E IndieFilms)
  • Heart of a Dog – Laurie Anderson, director; Dan Janvey, Laurie Anderson, producers (Abramorama and HBO Documentary Films)
  • Listen to Me Marlon – Stevan Riley, director; John Battsek, RJ Cutler, George Chignell, producers (Showtime Documentary Films)
  • The Look of Silence – Joshua Oppenheimer, director; Signe Byrge Sørensen, producer (Drafthouse Films)

Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award

  • Desiree Akhavan for Appropriate Behavior (Gravitas Ventures)
  • Jonas Carpigano for Mediterranea (Sundance Selects)
  • Marielle Heller for The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • John Magary for The Mend (Cinelicious Pics)
  • Josh Mond for James White (The Film Arcade)

Best Screenplay

  • Carol, Phyllis Nagy (The Weinstein Company)
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Love & Mercy, Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner (Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate, and River Road Entertainment)
  • Spotlight, Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer (Open Road Films)
  • While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach (A24)

Best Actor*

  • Christopher Abbott in James White (The Film Arcade)
  • Kevin Corrigan in Results (Magnolia Pictures)
  • Paul Dano in Love & Mercy (Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate, and River Road Entertainment)
  • Peter Sarsgaard in Experimenter (Magnolia Pictures)
  • Michael Shannon in 99 Homes (Broad Green Pictures)

Best Actress*

  • Cate Blanchett in Carol (The Weinstein Company)
  • Blythe Danner in I’ll See You in My Dreams (Bleecker Street)
  • Brie Larson in Room (A24 Films)
  • Bel Powley in The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Lily Tomlin in Grandma (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Kristen Wiig in Welcome to Me (Alchemy)

Breakthrough Actor

  • Rory Culkin in Gabriel (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
  • Arielle Holmes in Heaven Knows What (RADiUS)
  • Lola Kirke in Mistress America (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
  • Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine (Magnolia Pictures)
  • Mya Taylor in Tangerine (Magnolia Pictures)

* The 2015 Best Actor/Best Actress nominating panel also voted to award a special Gotham Jury Award jointly to Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and Brian D’Arcy James for their ensemble work in Spotlight. (Open Road Films).

* * *

Twenty writers, critics and programmers participated in the nomination process. The Nominating Committees for the 2015 IFP Gotham Independent Film Awards were:

Nominating Committee for Best Feature and Breakthrough Director:

  • Ty Burr, Film Critic, The Boston Globe
  • Eric Kohn, Deputy Editor & Chief Film Critic, Indiewire
  • Christy Lemire, Film Critic, ChristyLemire.com and co-host, What the Flick?!
  • Andrew O’Hehir, Film Critic, Salon.com
  • Joshua Rothkopf, Film Editor, Time Out New York
  • Nominating Committee for Best Documentary:
  • Joanne Feinberg, Curator and Consultant, FeinFilm
  • Cynthia Fuchs, Film-TV Editor, PopMatters
  • Mike Maggiore, Programmer, Film Forum
  • Rachel Rosen, Director of Programming, San Francisco Film Society
  • David Wilson, Co-Conspirator, True/False Film Fest
  • Nominating Committee for Best Actor and Best Actress:
  • Bilge Ebiri, Film Critic, New York Magazine and Vulture
  • Mark Harris, Editor-at-Large, Entertainment Weekly
  • Ann Hornaday, Film Critic, The Washington Post
  • Amy Nicholson, Chief Film Critic, L.A. Weekly
  • Lisa Schwarzbaum, Freelance Journalist and Critic
  • Nominating Committee for Breakthrough Actor:
  • Florence Almozini, Associate Programmer, Film Society of Lincoln Center
  • Cara Cusumano, Senior Programmer, Tribeca Film Festival
  • David Ehrlich, Staff Writer, Rolling Stone
  • Rodrigo Perez, Founder and Editor, The Playlist
  • Ray Pride, Film Critic, Newcity; Editor, MovieCityNews.com; Contributing Editor, FILMMAKER.

New York, NY (October 22, 2015) – The Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP), the nation’s premier member organization of independent storytellers, announced today the nominees for the 25th Annual IFP Gotham Independent Film Awards. The Gotham Awards is one of the leading awards for independent film and signals the kick-off to the film awards season. For 2015, the eight competitive film awards include Best Feature, Best Documentary, Best Actor, Best Actress (presenting sponsor euphoria Calvin Klein), Breakthrough Actor, Best Screenplay, the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director award, and the Gotham Audience Award. In addition to the competitive awards, Gotham Award Tributes will be given to actors Helen Mirren and Robert Redford, director Todd Haynes, and Industry Tribute recipient producer Steve Golin.

As the first major awards ceremony of the film season, the IFP Gotham Independent Film Awards provide critical early recognition and media attention to worthy independent films. The awards are also unique for their ability to assist in catapulting award recipients prominently into national awards season attention. This year the Gotham Awards will also be presenting two new awards for serialized television and web content. Those nominations will be announced next week.

Twenty-five films received nominations this year. In addition, the nominating committee for the Best Actor and Best Actress categories category voted to award a Special Jury Award jointly to cast members Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and Brian D’Arcy James for their ensemble work in Spotlight. Beyond these individual actors, the committee cited the Spotlight cast as “an outstanding ensemble in which every performance, in every role, of every size, is beautifully realized.” In recognition of the strong work by female actors this year, the jury also chose to include six nominees for Best Actress.

“We congratulate this year’s nominated independent storytellers, who represent a richly diverse range of cinematic achievements that are bold, risk-taking, and beautifully crafted, ” said Joana Vicente, Executive Director of IFP and the Made in NY Media Center.

Nominees are selected by committees of film critics, journalists, festival programmers, and film curators. Separate juries of writers, directors, actors, producers, editors and others directly involved in making films will determine the final Gotham Award recipients.

The Gotham Audience Award nominees are comprised of the 14 films nominated for Best Feature, Best Documentary, and the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award. The winner will be selected by online voting of IFP members. Voting for that award begins November 18th at 12:01 AM EST.

Spotlight on Women Directors ‘Live the Dream’ Grant

For the sixth consecutive year, IFP is proud present the euphoria Calvin Klein Spotlight on Women Directors ‘Live the Dream’ grant, a $25,000 cash award for an alumna of IFP’s Independent Filmmaker Labs or IFP’s Screen Forward Lab. In 2015, Screen Forward Lab directors have been included in this opportunity for the first time. This grant aims to further the careers of emerging women directors by supporting the completion, distribution and audience engagement strategies of their first feature film or episodic series. The nominees are:

  • Claire Carré, director, Embers
  • Deb Shoval, director, AWOL
  • Chanelle Aponte Pearson, director, 195 Lewis

Gotham Independent Film Audience Award

IFP members will determine the 7th Annual Gotham Independent Film Audience Award with nominees comprised of the 15 nominated films in the Best Feature, Best Documentary, and Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award categories. All IFP current, active members at the Individual Level and above will be eligible to vote. Voting will take place online from November 18th at 12:01 AM EST and conclude on November 25th at 5:00 PM EST. In addition, IFP will be scheduling screenings of the nominated films for IFP members in the theater at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP in Brooklyn. These screenings will take place from November 4-11. The winner of the Audience Award will be announced at the Gotham Awards Ceremony on November 30, 2015.

Gotham Appreciation Award

A Gothams Appreciation Award will be given to Ellen Cotter for her contribution to theatrical distribution, including leadership of the Angelika Film Centers.


The Premier Sponsors of the 25th Anniversary IFP Gotham Independent Film Awards are Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and The New York Times, and the Platinum Sponsors are euphoria Calvin Klein and Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward Office of Film, Music and Entertainment. The Official Water Sponsor is FIJI Water and the Official Wine Partner is Line 39 by O’Neill. Additionally, the awards will be promoted nationally in an eight-page special advertising section in The New York Times in November 2015.


Hollywood is branching out in many different directions that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is simply not built to support, and definitely not evolving alongside. There is not much wiggle room in terms of where the Oscar race has been going up to this, its 88th year of handing out awards to the “highest achievements in film.” It supports what it supports – which is usually the traditionally drama, the handsomely mounted period piece, or a film that invests heavily in actors and character developments. Actors like to work and they like supporting films that showcase their work. They do not appreciate being “replaced” by CGI, nor superhero movies pretending to be real films. But. They are simply not keeping up with the continuously evolving film industry. They continue their message of “make movies we like, present them to us, and we will reward those.”

For some inexplicable reason the Academy only offered members ten nomination slots for two years, in 2009 and 2010. The thing that prevented them from keeping that tradition was the old-time Academy guard. If you’ve ever met one of those voters or spoken to one you would see how rigidly they hold on to the old way of doing things. Why pick ten? Ten only invites more mediocrity, one told me once. But ten actually saves them from themselves. How do we know this? It’s easy. Once they reduced the nomination slots for Best Picture back down to five their Best Picture lineup narrowed to exclude any kind of film that wasn’t “their” kind of movie. They allowed for more than five, those that narrowly missed the top five, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of 6,000 or so mostly middle-aged, mostly white males choosing their top five films of the year.

When you’re talking about top five, you’re talking about films people LOVED as opposed to films that were, perhaps, a little more challenging, a little more dark, too genre-y, animated, films about women, films directed by women, films about subjects that don’t appeal to white men like Fruitvale Station, or Nightcrawler, or Gone Girl, or even Foxcatcher. The slightest discomfort means it’s off their top five.

It isn’t working. No one thinks it’s working. Almost everyone thinks they should go back to a solid five or a solid ten and stop with this nonsense of pretending they have more nomination slots than they actually do. Their narrow-minded thinking is what is holding them back from embracing the new.

Probably no film will test the limits of this method of choosing “best” than Anomalisa (review forthcoming), one of the year’s standouts without a doubt, and a film that will likely be stuffed into the animated category where it will likely lose to Inside Out. Inside Out is the perfect film to win in the animated category – it does everything an animated film should do and more. Anomalisa is a different kind of thing entirely. It has full frontal puppet nudity – both male and female. It is deeply moving, and, like the other masterpiece that has dropped this year Beasts of No Nation, utterly uncompromising. Putting it, like so much of Charlie Kaufman’s work, into this sick little world of film awards greatly diminishes its magic because there is no place for it. There might be a place for it on the top five ballots but probably those five slots will go to more traditional, actor-driven pieces (the numbers in actors branch are almost double every other branch and dominates, in all ways).

With ten nominating slots, voters have more breathing room and flexibility to work against their own worst (and sometimes best) instincts – to vote with other organs besides the heart. Ten slots would mean they would say yes to an animated film like Anomalisa, maybe even alongside Inside Out, maybe Mad Max, maybe Star Wars, maybe Beasts of No Nation. They have room to expand past their own comfort zone and choose films that really do reflect the best of the year because the best of the year films that Academy members like best is an ever shrinking pile, that shrinks more and more as we start checking off what “they” won’t go for.

Why does it matter if the Academy chooses Anomalisa or Beasts of No Nation as the year’s best?

Because they are the year’s best. Anyone who gives Anomalisa a bad review is not to be trusted. It is not a matter of opinion, that film’s greatness. They can say they “didn’t like it.” They can be put off by the puppet sex but there is no one out there getting paid to write film reviews who can say that is not one of the year’s best films. 

Because it’s hard to get people to watch movies anymore. It’s hard for any movie that isn’t a tent pole or driven by a big name director to make any money at all. Film awards are one way to bring awareness to films people might not take a chance on. That is true of the best films of this year because they are unique. They defy “branding.” They stand apart and can’t be easily explained. They don’t feed the Academy voters what they crave: confirmation that they and they alone matter. They push the limits of what artists are allowed to do in film anymore. A vote for a film like Anomalisa or Beasts of No Nation or Inside Out even, or Mad Max says those films matter. Maybe they don’t make us feel warm and fuzzy and good about ourselves, but do we matter more than art? Do we? Let’s be honest about if that’s the case and change the name of “Best Picture” to “Best Mirror Mirror On the Wall.”

There is no use in saying it anymore. I really feel like they do themselves, the Academy, a great disservice by limiting the number of Best Picture nominees to five ballots. They do a great disservice to the artists out there who are trying to do something different with their work. They do a great disservice to us, the consumers, who are asked to be interested in their show and their choices every year. We, the consumers who are asked to pay big money to see what Hollywood puts out, big and small, in sickness and in health, til death do us part. We enter a contract with the Oscars and with Hollywood but we’re at a point where what we the consumers says doesn’t matter.

In other words, all I want for Christmas is a ten nomination ballot for voters. They can still pick five if they want but for those who have seen everything, give them a chance to pick ten. When one of our greatest talents in film, Charlie Kaufman, has a hard time getting anything made film awards can sometimes make the difference, or at least I hope they do.



If the Best Directior category this year is to fill up with big names, many of them won’t appear until the second half, after the AFI Film festival and the winter releases have screened. The four films that seem to have the most heat heading into the season, at least from a director’s standpoint, would be Steven Spielberg for Bridge of Spies, Ridley Scott for The Martian, Tom McCarthy for Spotlight, and Danny Boyle for Steve Jobs. Hovering next to those names, or on the fringe, would be Todd Haynes for Carol, Lenny Abramson for Room, Cary Fukunaga for Beasts of No Nation, Scott Cooper for Black Mass, Paolo Sorrentino for Youth, John Crowley for Brooklyn, Tom Hooper for The Danish Girl, and Adam McKay for The Big Short. The men currently claiming the four frontrunner slots will either maintain their position or else someone could be bumped by year’s end to make room for David O. Russell for Joy, or Alejandro G. Inarritu for The Revenant most likely. It’s still a wide open field because the story is only half told.

To say the race is about Steven Spielberg and everyone else is not to say Spielberg is headed for what would be another record with his third Best Director Oscar win. It isn’t even to say he’s a slam dunk to be nominated. It’s just to say that he’s a giant among directors right now, not slowing down or repeating himself, always working hard and challenging himself with each new film he delivers. His last two films were nominated for Best Picture and if Bridge of Spies becomes the next one he will become the only living filmmaker with that many Best Picture nominations. Does Bridge of Spies deserve to be nominated for Best Picture? You’re damn straight it does.

Spielberg is still a director whose name alone is a great indication of what audiences can expect to see. A Spielberg film is a specific world. That world is an accessible one. It’s an emotionally moving one. It’s a world that won’t leave many behind, except those who are uncomfortable with occasional shadings of sentimentality, a hallmark which has lessened over time to be replaced by more quiet, thoughtful ruminations on the human condition. He doesn’t get near enough the credit he deserves for being a builder of worlds, a maker of dreams.

Kenneth Turan put it best in his recent review of Bridge of Spies:

The professional would be Steven Spielberg, a director with more than 40 years of experience whose superior filmmaking skills have been with us for so long it’s tempting to take them for granted, which would be a mistake. Storytelling this proficient is never something we see every day.

In his brilliantly written essay examining Spielberg’s evolution from popcorn director to political director, Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri says of Spielberg:

“Even as Spielberg branched out into more difficult material, the criticism of his work as facile and childlike remained. Never mind that, with his 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Spielberg took a fairly daring novel about lesbianism, domestic violence, and race relations in the early 20th century, cast it with mostly unknown African-American leads (including Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in their feature acting debuts), and turned it into a huge financial and critical hit. To many, he had scrubbed the novel of its more risqué, subversive elements to create another Spielbergian tale of innocence lost, families reunited and returned, patriarchies redeemed.

Such criticism, of course, largely ignored the humanism of Spielberg’s films, and the generosity they demonstrated toward even the most debased characters. It also ignored the ways in which the director had started to break free of his comfort zone. Jim (Christian Bale), the young expat hero of Empire of the Sun (1987), is a Spielberg protagonist par excellence. As the Japanese invade China, and Jim is separated from his parents and winds up in a detention camp, the film becomes, yes, another tale of innocence lost. But along the way, Spielberg shows a willingness to consciously undermine his own, by-then-patented cinematic flights of fancy. There are even two “bright white light” scenes near the end: The first is a sharp lens flare that repeatedly overwhelms the screen as Jim tries (and fails) to revive a young, dead Japanese soldier accidentally killed by Americans; the second is what turns out to be the distant flash of an atom bomb, which Jim thinks is God.

Empire of the Sun wasn’t a big hit – one of Spielberg’s few financial disappointments – and the director didn’t attempt a more serious “prestige” film for some years. In the 1990s, however, he directed a series of historical dramas that surprised many of his earlier critics. When looked at together, something fascinating emerges from Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), and Saving Private Ryan (1998): They’re movies in which human lives are reduced to the level of what amounts to business negotiations.”

In a year when so many big names enter the race this early, it might be hard to figure out where this Spielberg/Bridge of Spies thing is going. If it wasn’t such a good movie, if it had not earned a solid A from Cinemascore, if it didn’t have such great performances throughout, and masterful execution from each branch of its building: cinematography, editing, costume, and yes, score – even without John Williams. If it didn’t hit the perfect sweet spot for the dominant generation of Academy voters, I might be more inclined to go with the naysayers who think Spielberg is played out with the Academy. Fact is, nobody knows. Some voters might figure “he’s been rewarded enough – let Hooper have another turn.”

Right behind Spielberg this year is another rebel graduate of the 1970s — Ridley Scott, who gets to be called the Comeback Kid this year with The Martian. Back in the 1970s and 1980s we had already been given starkly different visions of outer space on the big screen, from Kubrick to Lucas to Spielberg – and then came Ridley Scott. He was really the first to de-shine and cyberpunk the shit out of outer space, to make it look functional, industrial, gritty, and not so unlike the increasingly blighted planet we inhabit. As the two directors move into their 40th year in the business we see Ridley Scott turn carefree with The Martian while Spielberg becomes more somber, which is almost a flipflop from their beginnings. You don’t get much more brooding than Blade Runner, after all.

Bridge of Spies and the Martian might both be headed to the Oscars, although the story on this year is not yet completely told. The truth is, we don’t know where it’s going yet. We do know that these two are towering giants in the field of Best Director and to ignore that possibility might be a mistake.

The breakthrough directors this year are led by Cary Fukunaga’s astonishing Beasts of No Nation, a film that barely got made, was passed over by every major studio until Netflix picked it up, a film that now needs to be championed by actors because promoting it through standard channels has proven so difficult. It is a provocative work of art, of the kind that just doesn’t get made anymore. Though it would be great to see the directors acknowledge Fukunaga it’s such a crowded year that it might not happen. On the other hand, that the film is on Netflix makes it much, much easier for millions of people to see.

Tom McCarthy should also hit the big time with Spotlight, a carefully and meticulously directed film that shone so brightly after Telluride it was proclaimed the frontrunner to win Best Picture by Kyle Buchanan, among others. It’s hard to imagine the director race without McCarthy at this point – and perhaps one could say he’s the only “lock.”

There is an old school of thought that tells us that the big names almost always lead, especially when the DGA weigh in with their nominations. It isn’t just that they are revered the most. It’s also that their names carry cred that puts their screening, or screener, at the top of the list. Their films become those most likely to get seen by the majority. That means they have first dibs at a spot in the lineup. Who they are now is as important as the films they’ve made before, particularly when voters seek to fit their current work into the larger context over the span of their careers.

Predicting the DGA and Oscar

Since we know the nomination ballots for Oscar’s Best Director (numbering around 400) will be turned in before the DGA announces their five nominees, and we know this is shaping up to be a wide open year, there could be some disconnect between the two groups, as there was in 2012.

I’m not prepared at this juncture to underestimate the great and esteemed Mr. Spielberg, nor am I prepared like so many of my pundit pals to underestimate Ridley Scott for his assured mastery on The Martian, which will go down as the most purely enjoyable and across-the-board hit of the year. I’m going to put the two 1970s giants in the lineup, which might end up looking like this:

The names in the game

Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies
David O. Russell, Joy
Cary Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation
Lenny Abramson, Room
Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight
Todd Haynes, Carol
John Crowley, Brooklyn
Tom Hooper, The Danish Girl
Scott Cooper, Black Mass
Ryan Coogler, Creed
Paolo Sorrentino, Youth
Adam McKay, The Big Short
Ron Howard, In the Heart of the Sea
Angelina Jolie, By the Sea
László Nemes, Son of Saul
George Miller, Max Max: Fury Road
Bill Pohlad, Love & Mercy
Sarah Gavron, Suffragette
Alex Garland, Ex Machina

But Oscar is going to be different. It could go any which way and is bound to look very different from the five the DGA honors. Names might break through that no one is expecting, like Cary Fukunaga for Beasts of No Nation, or Ryan Coogler for Creed. They might catch a wave from films from earlier in the year, because their ballots have to be in so early, like László Nemes, for Son of Saul.

One way to maybe figure it out is to look at timing. While the Best Picture slate is more likely to take films that open later that the October cut-off, Best Director doesn’t. In fact, the directors who get chosen there have often come from films with earlier release dates.

Oscar Best Director Last year:

Birdman (Venice/Telluride)
Boyhood (Sundance)
Foxcatcher (Cannes)
Grand Budapest Hotel (released much earlier in the year)
The Imitation Game (Telluride)

DGA Best Director Last Year:
Birdman (Venice/Telluride)
Boyhood (Sundance)
American Sniper (late release)
Grand Budapest Hotel (released in March)
The Imitation Game (Telluride)


Oscar Best Director

Gravity (Venice/Telluride)
Nebraska (Cannes)
12 Years a Slave (Telluride)
American Hustle (late release)
The Wolf of Wall Street (late release)

DGA Best Director

Gravity (Venice/Telluride)
Captain Phillips (October)
12 Years a Slave (Telluride)
American Hustle (late release)
The Wolf of Wall Street (late release)

Oscar Best Director
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Sundance)
Lincoln (New York Film Fest)
Life of Pi (New York Film Fest)
Amour (Cannes)
Silver Linings Playbook (Toronto)

DGA Best Director
Lincoln (New York Film Fest)
Life of Pi (New York Film Fest)
Zero Dark Thirty (late release)
Argo (Telluride)
Les Miserables (late release)

So what I’m getting from this crude eyeball research is that late-breaking films do better with the DGA than they do for Oscar. That makes sense since the Oscar deadline is so short. That means it’s better to get your film seen as early possible to build the consensus for the Oscar race. Most importantly, if you plan to be a late breaker it’s good to be a big name, like Quentin Tarantino, Alejandro G. Inarritu, or David O. Russell.

For DGA, right now, I’d go with:

The Revenant (late release)
The Martian (Toronto)
Spotlight (Telluride)
Bridge of Spies (New York Film Festival)
Steve Jobs (Telluride)

For Oscar, I might go:
The Revenant
The Martian
Bridge of Spies
Son of Saul

Something like that. I would probably mix them up and not predict them the same way. I suspect Son of Saul could crack the Best Directors at the Academy, or Lenny Abramson for Room. There is wiggle room and remember, only half of the story has yet been told!


One of the constant themes between the readers of this site and me is whether pixar’s breakout hit, Inside Out, will have a shot at being nominated for Best Picture. Kris Tapley and nine other Gold Derby pundits are currently predicting the film to get a nomination. Anne Thompson and I are two hold-outs, among others, in not predicting it. People keep asking me why or why not so I thought I would explain myself.

You ready? Okay, here goes. Beauty and the Beast shocked everyone and was nominated for Best Picture in 1992 when there were only five slots on the nomination ballot and five nominees for Best Picture. But Pixar was probably more responsible for the creation of that category which, frankly, took way too long to create. After Toy Story came out, there was talk continually about whether these great films that were coming out of animation studios could do what Beauty and the Beast did – take a slot in the Best Picture category away from the live action films. It wouldn’t be Pixar but Dreamworks that would win in the first ever animated feature category in 2001.

After 2003’s Finding Nemo, Pixar would win for The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. When they have a great movie they dominate the field. The only time since Beauty and the Beast was nominated, however, that an animated movie cracked Best Picture was in 2009 and 2010, when the Academy had ten nomination slots and ten nominees.

In 2011, the Academy went back to five nomination slots, but still allowed for more than five nominees. The key to why I don’t think Inside Out will get in lies with the five slots for nominating. But before we move on to that, let’s consider the animated movies that were extraordinary by any measure that didn’t get in with five nomination slots – the big one is Wall-E.

In Inside Out’s favor, there hasn’t been a movie as good as Wall-E coming out of Pixar since they changed to five nomination slots, not one that would threaten to crack the Best Picture category anyway. To that end, Inside Out seems to have a much better chance than any film since 2011.

The other thing Inside Out has going for it is if it can get 300 #1 votes; you can’t even get on the ballot at all to make the cut if you aren’t named the Best Film of the Year by 300 Academy members. If they can get those 300 votes, there’s a good chance Inside Out can get in. That’s a big if unless you consider that the animation branch is around 300 and if they band together they might be able to mobilize and get those #1 votes.

I remain skeptical for three reasons. The first is that Inside Out is female driven. Academy members like male driven stories except for Beauty and the Beast. Inside Out is brilliant beyond words and a very very good film but it is still about the inside of a girl’s head.

The second reason is that The Good Dinosaur is already on track to beat Inside Out’s $354 million take at the box office. What an astounding number for Inside Out but you have to admit it would be better for the film’s Oscar chances if it remained the highest grossing animated film (at the very least) of the year.

The third reason is that its inclusion would be dependent upon every other movie coming up, those that haven’t been seen and predicted already, to fail.

We can’t go any higher than nine. It would be a fluke if it got to ten but you have to ask Ryan or Marshall Flores to explain to you why because I do not understand.

Let’s look at what we think will be nominated so far:

1. The Martian – seems like a lock at the moment but time will have to tell.
2. Spotlight – seems like a slam dunk.
3. Steve Jobs – ditto
4. Bridge of Spies – looks stronger by the day
5. Room – winning hearts plus won the audience award at Toronto
6. Brooklyn – I’m going to guess this one becomes many voters’ favorite film of the year.
7. Carol – still a strong possibility.

Now we have to make room for what’s coming next:
1. The Revenant
2. Joy
3. The Big Short
4. The Hateful Eight
5. Concussion
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
7. By the Sea

To pick Inside Out, six of these will have to go. And even if they did go, would they be replaced by Inside Out or one of the other fringe dwellers, like The Danish Girl, Mad Max, Suffragette, Black Mass or Love & Mercy?

Why would a voter choose an animated film for their mere five slots when they know Inside Out is not only going to get nominated in the animated category but will probably win?

Here is your chance to make your best argument as to why you think it will get in.

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