News: 31st Film Independent Spirit Award Nominees



"Carol", "Spotlight", "Beasts of No Nation", "James White", "Songs My Brothers Taught Me", "Tangerine", "Mediterranea" earn multiple nods! 

Film Independent, the nonprofit arts organization that produces the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the LA Film Festival and Film Independent at LACMA, announced on November 24, 2015 the nominations for the 2016 Spirit Awards this morning. Film Independent President Josh Welsh presided over the press conference held at W Hollywood, with actors John Boyega and Elizabeth Olsen presenting the nominations.

"This year's nominees are a testament to the strength, vitality and diversity of independent, artist-driven filmmaking,” said Film Independent President Josh Welsh. “It’s an astonishingly strong group of films and performances this year and we look forward to celebrating them all at the Spirit Awards."

"Spotlight" was selected to receive the Robert Altman Award, which is bestowed upon one film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast. The Altman Award was created in 2008 in honor of legendary director Robert Altman who was known for creating extraordinary ensemble casts.

“Spotlight is a remarkable film that excels on every level, but the Nominating Committee thought it was especially deserving of the Robert Altman Award,” said Welsh. “The film is beautifully cast with every member of the ensemble working together to tell the story of the Boston Globe investigating allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church."

The Spirit Awards Nominating Committees selected nominees from 362 submissions this year and applied the following guidelines in determining the nominations: uniqueness of vision, original and provocative subject matter, economy of means (with particular attention paid to total production cost and individual compensation) and percentage of financing from independent sources. The Spirit Awards Nominating Committees are comprised of writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, editors, actors, critics, casting directors, film festival programmers and other working film professionals.


(Award given to the Producer. Executive Producers are not awarded.)
Producers: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, Dino Stamatopoulos, Rosa Tran

Beasts of No Nation
Producers: Daniel Crown, Idris Elba, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Amy Kaufman, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Riva Marker

Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Christine Vachon, Stephen Woolley 
Producers: Blye Pagon Faust, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, Michael Sugar

Producers: Sean Baker, Karrie Cox, Marcus Cox, Darren Dean, Shih-Ching Tsou

(Award given to the director and producer)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Director: Marielle Heller
Producers: Miranda Bailey, Anne Carey, Bert Hamelinck, Madeline Samit

James White
Director: Josh Mond
Producers: Max Born, Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, Melody Roscher, Eric Schultz

Manos Sucias
Director: Josef Kubota Wladyka
Producers: Elena Greenlee, Márcia Nunes

Director: Jonas Carpignano
Producers: Jason Michael Berman, Chris Columbus, Jon Coplon, Christoph Daniel, Andrew Kortschak, John Lesher, Ryan Lough, Justin Nappi, Alain Peyrollaz, Gwyn Sannia, Marc Schmidheiny, Victor Shapiro, Ryan Zacarias

Songs My Brothers Taught Me
Director/Producer: Chloé Zhao
Producers: Mollye Asher, Nina Yang Bongiovi, Angela C. Lee, Forest Whitaker

Given to the best feature made for under $500,000.  Award given to the writer, director and producer. Executive Producers are not awarded.

Writer/Director/Producer: Jennifer Phang
Writer/Producer: Jacqueline Kim
Producers: Robert Chang, Ken Jeong, Moon Molson, Theresa Navarro

Christmas, Again
Writer/Director/Producer: Charles Poekel
Heaven Knows What
Directors: Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie
Writers: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie
Producers: Oscar Boyson, Sebastian Bear McClard

Writer/Director/Producer: Trey Edward Shults
Producers: Justin R. Chan, Chase Joliet, Wilson Smith

Out of My Hand
Writer/Director: Takeshi Fukunaga
Writer/Producer: Donari Braxton
Producer: Mike Fox


  • Sean Baker, Tangerine
  • Cary Joji Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation
  • Todd Haynes, Carol
  • Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa
  • Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
  • David Robert Mitchell, It Follows

  • Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa
  • Donald Margulies, The End of the Tour
  • Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer, Spotlight
  • Phyllis Nagy, Carol
  • S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk


  • Jesse Andrews, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
  • Jonas Carpignano, Mediterranea
  • Emma Donoghue, Room
  • Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • John Magary (Story by Russell Harbaugh and Myna Joseph), The Mend


  • Cary Joji Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation
  • Michael Gioulakis, It Follows
  • Ed Lachman, Carol
  • Reed Morano, Meadowland
  • Joshua James Richards, Songs My Brothers Taught Me


  • Ronald Bronstein and Benny Safdie, Heaven Knows What
  • Tom McArdle, Spotlight
  • Nathan Nugent, Room
  • Julio C. Perez IV, It Follows
  • Kristan Sprague, Manos Sucias


  • Cate Blanchett, Carol
  • Brie Larson, Room
  • Rooney Mara, Carol
  • Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine


  • Christopher Abbott, James White
  • Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
  • Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
  • Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
  • Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea


  • Robin Bartlett, H.
  • Marin Ireland, Glass Chin
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anomalisa
  • Cynthia Nixon, James White
  • Mya Taylor, Tangerine


  • Kevin Corrigan, Results
  • Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
  • Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
  • Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk
  • Michael Shannon, 99 Homes

(Given to one film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast)

Director: Tom McCarthy
Casting Directors: Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee
Ensemble Cast: Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle, Neal Huff, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Jamey Sheridan, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci

(Award given to the director and producer)

Directors/Producers: Lyric R. Cabral & David Felix Sutcliffe
Producer: Christopher St. John

Best of Enemies
Directors/Producers: Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville

Heart of a Dog        
Director/Producer: Laurie Anderson
Producer: Dan Janvey

The Look of Silence
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Producer: Signe Byrge Sørensen

Directors/Producers: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Producer: Shannon Ethridge

The Russian Woodpecker
Director/Producer: Chad Gracia
Producers: Ram Devineni, Mike Lerner

(Award given to the director)

Embrace of the Serpent
Director: Ciro Guerra

Director: Céline Sciamma

(France, Turkey)
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Director: Roy Andersson

Son of Saul
Director: László Nemes

The 19th annual Producers Award, sponsored by Piaget, honors emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality, independent films.  The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant funded by Piaget.

  • Darren Dean
  • Mel Eslyn
  • Rebecca Green and Laura D. Smith

The 22nd annual Someone to Watch Award, sponsored by Kiehl’s Since 1851, recognizes a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition.  The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant funded by Kiehl’s Since 1851.

  • God Bless the Child, Directors: Robert Machoian & Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck
  • King Jack, Director: Felix Thompson
  • Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Director: Chloé Zhao

The 21st annual Truer Than Fiction Award is presented to an emerging director of non-fiction features who has not yet received significant recognition.  The award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant.

  • Among the Believers, Directors: Mohammed Ali Naqvi and Hemal Trivedi
  • Incorruptible, Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
  • A Woman Like Me, Directors: Elizabeth Giamatti and Alex Sichel

Winners will be announced at the Spirit Awards on Saturday, February 27, 2016. The awards ceremony will be held as a daytime luncheon in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica, in a new location this year just north of the Santa Monica Pier. The show will broadcast live exclusively on IFC at 2:00 pm PT/ 5:00 pm ET.

Winners of the Spirit Awards Filmmaker Grants will be highlighted during the awards ceremony and announced at the Film Independent Spirit Awards Filmmaker Grants and Nominee Brunch on Saturday, January 9, 2016, at BOA Steakhouse in West Hollywood.

In addition to celebrating the broad spectrum of independent filmmaking, the Spirit Awards is also the primary fundraiser for Film Independent’s year-round programs, which cultivate the careers of emerging filmmakers and promote diversity in the industry. To learn more about table sales, attendance and donations please contact or 310.432.1253.

Raymond Lo

Film Review: "Guten Tag, Ramon"

This heartwarming and deeply moving Mexican film from director Jorge Ramirez Suarez has finally reached Netflix! This is one of the most perfect films for the big Thanksgiving week. It's a beautiful story of kindness, generosity and friendship wrapped around a young man's inspirational journey from his poor and violent Mexican village to a prosperous German city where he discovers that the biggest barrier to human understanding is not the lack of a common language between people but the lack of compassion and empathy. Make sure you have a box of Kleenex handy.

This movie was a big box office hit in Mexico and has received numerous awards since its release last year. It screened in US theaters spring this year.

Young Mexican actor Kristyan Ferrer embodies the courageous and kindly spirit of Ramon whose only desire is to be able to help his grandmother get her medication and to help his mother put food on the table. He is smart enough to avoid the drug trade but attempts several times to cross the US border only to be caught and sent back to Mexico every time. Frustrated but unwilling to give up, a good friend suggests he goes to Germany and work with his friend's aunt. He decides to go equipped with zero knowledge of the German language, a few spare euros, a sheet of paper containing the step-by-step instruction on how to reach the aunt, and a wide-eyed excitement of the opportunity he was sure Germany would offer him. But when he arrives in Germany, he finds that the aunt has moved and no longer lives in the address provided by his friend. Desperate and scared, he returns to the airport to get a flight home only to be told that he needed to pay a couple of hundred euros for rescheduling fees.

With his luck running out, he decides to return to the city where the aunt used to live in the hopes of meeting her by chance. He sleeps at the train station at nights braving the winter cold and, for food, he resorts to begging outside a deli where a kind clerk offers him food occasionally. A retired nurse who he initially meets at a park and later outside the deli, takes pity on him and offer her basement for him to stay. And his story turns for the better. Maybe.

This film is a perfect companion piece to another moving immigrant saga, "Brooklyn", playing in theaters now. Both films feature wonderful performances from the cast and a hopeful ending that will make you feel so good about the world and will make you wish for that kind of heartwarming ending to cap your everyday endeavors so that you'll look forward to the challenges of the next day and the days after with much enthusiasm and excitement.

Rating: 5 Stars

Raymond Lo

Film Review: "By the Sea"

Or, guide on how to enjoy Angelina Jolie's 3rd directorial film.

So this writer saw Angelina Jolie's "By the Sea" on Friday the 13th last week as a gift from a good friend who was celebrating her birthday that day. Yes, i get to be the receiver and not the giver. Life's more fun that way. I wish i could say the same of Brad and Angie's latest screen coupling.

If you are a fan of slow artsy European cinema where character development  tends to be vague and the story does not really rely on a plot but instead on the advancing conflict between the characters on screen, this movie is divine. Absolutely divine.

If you are a fan of the couple and wish you could be with them, up close and personal, for two hours, this movie is a gift. You will see their incredible, beautiful faces hug the screen for as much as you'd want them.

If you are the visual kind of moviegoer who would like to be treated to elegant scenery, tailored clothes, designer glasses, coiffed hairs, made-up faces, beautiful architecture, melancholy music, french dialogues, scenes of fishermen going out to sea, tourists being tourists, this movie would instantly drop in your best film list of the year.

But then, all of the above would vanish by the time the 3rd act of this film unfolds. It's so ridiculous that to stifle a laugh would only heighten your urge to laugh out loud like you are watching the funniest video of a toddler fighting off sleep while trying to munch on her favorite candy. You will be instantly forgiven by everyone in the cinema because they, too, will be laughing with you. And the odd thing is, the scenes you are laughing at is supposed to be the big payoff for the two hours you've previously invested waiting for Angelina's character to blurt out what's making her so miserable. Haha!

So i decided to skip writing a review but here's a quick guide instead on how to enjoy this film, that is, if you still want to watch it.

Here goes:

Step 1. Buy a bottle of your favorite wine.

Step 2. Drink a glass of wine.

Step 3. Buy your tickets online. Watch it at Arclight in Hollywood or at your favorite cinema with the most comfortable seats.

Step 4. Drink another glass.

Step 5. Call a cab or Uber. Don't drive, you've just had two glasses of wine.

Step 6. Drink your 3rd glass.

Step 7. Go to the cinema.

Step 8. Set your timer. Make sure the alarm will set off at the 2 hour mark.

Step 9. Relax and enjoy the movie. It will be a great two hours of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Angelina's beautifully composed shots and great selection of melancholy music.

Step 10. When the alarm sets off. Stand up and leave. Don't be curious as to how the movie will end. Listen to me, I am trying to save the movie for you!!!

Step 11. Optional. You may tell your friends you have just partially seen Angelina's best film yet.

Step 12. Stop reading this article now. Spoiler below. Come back after you've completed steps 1 - 11.

Spoiler alert.

Step 13. So you are back home. Grab your 4th glass of wine. Am going to tell you why Angelina's character was so miserable in the film... she's barren. she can't have children.

Here's the trailer of the film to remind you of how gorgeous the film is.

Raymond Lo

Film Review: "Spotlight", "Brooklyn"

It was a stroke of luck that I was able to watch "Spotlight" and "Brooklyn" at a back-to-back screening tonight. Both films are screening at my favorite specialty multiplex in Long Beach, CA starting this week for what I hope would be a long, extended run because both films deserve an audience, both films deserve to be seen on the big screen, and because both films, as many are already predicting, are the top front runners at this year's Oscars race.

I always find it interesting that when I watch two, three or four films in a single day (usually at film festivals), I tend to see a common thread that somewhat connects all the films together: It could be a character's quirk, it could be a location, a conflict, anything! And it makes it more fun analyzing, deconstructing the movies after.

"Spotlight" and "Brooklyn" are films that obviously differ in subject matter and theme but you will be surprised how aesthetically similar the films look and how it depicts contrasting images of characters integral to their respective plots.

"Spotlight" recounts the year-long investigation by a group of intrepid Boston Globe reporters of the Boston Archdiocese' decades-long cover-up of various allegations of child molestation against catholic priests. It's a provocative, riveting and thrilling piece of cinema that gives us an inside look on how the best journalistic works, the kind that wins the Pulitzer Prize, do not rely on sensational headlines and malicious slant. They seek the truth and they tell the story as is. In this case, the story happens to be the biggest modern scandal to ever rock the catholic church -- one that drew massive condemnation from around the world, inspired other abuse victims to come out, and eventually forced the church to publicly acknowledge the crime and ask for forgiveness from the victims and the faithful.

The film, directed by Thomas McCarthy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, shares strong thematic similarities with the Berlin-winning film "El Club", the official submission of Chile to the Oscars this year. Both movies examine the apparent church conspiracy to protect the guilty priests by evading legal prosecution and giving them instead "special housing" and regular "counseling" but "El Club", which was more pointed in its criticism by adding malice to its already provocative subject matter, ended up more offensive than truly enlightening. In contrast, "Spotlight" took the high road and presented a thoughtful, factual and respectful film aimed at educating and informing the public of the vastness of the crime without casting judgement on the church.

"Spotlight" boasts of a strong ensemble cast featuring extraordinary performances from stars Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d'Arcy James, Liev Schreiber and Billy Crudup. But the special spotlight in the movie belongs to Mark Ruffalo, who shines the most in this film. His powerful performance brings back memories of his equally powerful turn in "You Can Count on Me." He should win the Oscar for best supporting actor come February or I will be terribly disappointed. The cast will definitely be rewarded with an best cast award from the SAG.

"Brooklyn", written by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley based on Colm Tóibín's novel of the same name, is an intimate and triumphant story of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland and settles in New York during the early 1950s. It tells the story of Ellis Lacey, who braves a new world away from the comforts of her home, away from her thoughtful sister and her loving mother, away from her town that she's grown disillusioned with.

In New York, she battles homesickness by going to the weekly dances, going to night school and serving food to the needy. She eventually meets a young Italian man who falls in love with her and she with him and she slowly finds happiness. A tragic news from back home will crush her newfound joy and she will be forced to choose between her new home and her old home. "Brooklyn" is a profoundly moving love story, a beautiful film with exquisite performances from leads Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen with strong supports from Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Dohmnall Gleeson.

As I previously stated, "Brooklyn" and "Spotlight" share some similarities to this writer's sheer amazement. Both films are bathed in a soft white light bringing a certain hazy glow to the screen as if the stories are being told from memories of a distant past that's slowly coming back to life motivating us to face and right our past mistakes or inspiring us to dream again and fall in love once more.

Another similarity I found interesting is the contrasting depiction of priests in both films. In "Brooklyn", a good priest is instrumental in helping the lead character move to New York and have a new and better life while in "Spotlight", the priests do evil things to children. Both films depict catholic faith in its many forms and have, not surprisingly, strong Irish presence. Lastly, the best similarity I can think of is that both are excellent films.

Ratings: "Spotlight" - 5 Stars  |  "Brooklyn" - 5 Stars

Raymond Lo

AFIFEST 2015 Winners!

And the countdown to the 2016 edition of the biggest and most prestigious fall season film festival in the world has begun...

AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi concluded today, November 12, with the announcement of the features and short films that received this year’s Jury and Audience Awards.

The biggest winner is the powerful Colombian drama "Land and Shade (La Tierra Y La Sombra)", which is one of my favorites at the festival. The film was awarded the New Auteurs Grand Jury Award! Congratulations! Well deserved recognition.

The jury gave special citations to the Alice Winocur film "Disorder" for direction and to the Venezuelan drama "Desde Alla" for writing.

Other winners are:

Grand Jury Award for Live Action Short: BOYS

Grand Jury Award for Animated Short: WORLD OF TOMORROW

Live Action Short Special Mention for Innovative Storytelling: RATE ME


Animated Short Special Jury Mention for Screenwriting: TEETH

Animated Short Special Jury Mention for Creative Vision: MANOMAN

World Cinema Audience Award: LANDFILL HARMONIC

New Auteurs Audience Award: MUSTANG

American Independents Audience Award: JAMES WHITE

 Breakthrough Audience Award: MA

Raymond Lo

Film Review: "EL CLUB"

Film Review: "El Club"
Official Submission of Chile to the 88th Academy Awards
AFIFEST 2015 Official Selection
November 2015

First this disclosure: I am a catholic and I know when my faith is being attacked, I get mad but I was taught to be more understanding and forgiving.

I had to compose myself before writing a quick review in my FB account of Pablo Larrain's Berlin-winning follow-up to his Oscar-nominated film "No" because I thought "El Club", a movie about priests with criminal pasts, was vicious, vile and offensive and I was so ready to rip it apart but I realized that it was the exact reaction the filmmaker was aiming for when he made this film and I have to respect  that because in all objectivity his film is a powerful indictment and an eye-opening expose of the apparent hypocrisy of the catholic church.

With that said, I decided to expand my review and give it a full one after I have given it much more thought.

This film is blatantly sacrilegious and it is obvious from the first moment you see the main characters train a racing dog and later engage in gambling which is forbidden by the church, specially among clergymen.

"El Club" tells the story of a group of defrocked priests exiled in a secluded villa in a remote seaside town as punishment and penance for the various sins and offenses they have committed -- their crimes range from kidnapping infants to sexually abusing kids.

They all surprisingly live in relative comfort with the town unaware of their presence or their past crimes but all that comes to a standstill one morning when a new priest is brought into town to join them. The priest is accused of the same crimes as the other tenants in the villa ran by a sweet-talking nun who has come to enjoy looking after the priests and the occasional dog racing they engage in. She considers it her "vocation".

Soon, a seemingly mentally unstable and disheveled stranger shows up at the gate looking for the new priest and starts exposing in lurid details the abuse he suffered at the hands of this priest. This disturbance will end in a tragedy that was so perfectly staged by the director. May I add here that the cinematography is brilliant!

But the tragedy only marks the beginning of what will become an odd investigation of the priests activities, their role in the tragic incident and the threat to permanently close down the villa. How the group resolve this intrusion is where I take strong issue with. The film depicts the group as a gang of criminals who would go to extreme lengths to protect their own, keep their crimes under wraps, while preaching the word of God but to try to condemn the filmmaker's interpretation of the events or to censor and dissuade others from watching this film would be tantamount to endorsing the grossly unchristian acts depicted in the film. I will not do that. Instead, i will give this film the rating it rightfully deserves even if i strongly disagree with its message of hate. I invite you all to watch it and form your own opinion about it.

Rating; 4 1/2 Stars


Raymond Lo

AFIFEST 2015: Festival Diary

I'm back at the biggest fall season film festival in the world after missing it last year due to a last-minute flight to Chicago to celebrate a very good friend's birthday. This year, I made sure my schedule from November 5 thru November 12 would be free and that my time would only be spent at my day job and my life's passion: watching great films from great directors and filmmakers from great film-making countries all over the world.

AFIFEST 2015 opened with Angelina Jolie's 3rd directorial effort "By The Sea" on Thursday to a decidedly mixed critical reception. Some kinder critics declared it as Angelina's art film effort and lauded her decision to veer away from contending for the Oscars.

On Friday, the highly anticipated Los Angeles debut of "The Lobster", Yorgos Lanthimos' follow-up to his Oscar-nominated film "Dogtooth", took place and a very good friend who loved both Yorgos and Colin Farrell raved about the film and it made me so envious to have missed the film. I will just have to wait for its later screenings in town.

Saturday, Nov 7, was my official first day at the festival. It felt so good to be back! I love to be in the company of fellow film buffs. To be listening in to their conversations about the movies and occasionally butting in with my two cents are some of the best 30 minutes to 1 hour one could ever spend while queuing in line.

I saw 4 films on my first day though I attempted and did not finish 2 others. I saw 4 great films on Sunday, 1 on Monday, skipped Tuesday screenings for work and other commitments and went back yesterday to catch Gabriel Mascaro's latest feature "Neon Bull."

Below are my quick reviews of the films.

(Note: The Festival concludes today with the announcement of the award winners. You will find the list of winners here: AFIFEST 2015 Winners!)

Dir. Ida Panahandeh (Iran)
Rating: 5 Stars

This film tells the story of a woman in modern-day Iran who must thread her roles as a single mother, a divorcee and a woman in love with a new man. It's a gripping film that examines what life is like when you are forced to choose between your happiness and your child, between what society expects from you and what you can sacrifice to hold on to some perceived good reputation. A very insightful film filled with superlative perfs and great writing. An outstanding film!

Dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari (Greece)
Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

This is a ridiculously funny movie about a group of friends, all men, who spent a few days together on a boat engaging in various male-bonding activities including a game they concocted called "chevalier" where they measure each other's worth as a friend, as a person, as a man. If you've ever wondered what men really do when they are closely huddled together and have nothing better to do, this film tells us that they surprisingly do things common and superficial like every other person. Excellent film!

Dir. Matteo Garrone (France/UK/Italy)
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Finally got to see acclaimed Italian director Matteo Garrone's latest film! The film premiered at Cannes this year and it's a visually sumptuous fantasy film filled with exceptional costume, make-up and production design. This is an adaptation of a collection of fairy tales by Italian poet Giambattista Basile and tells the story of three kingdoms whose rulers and heirs are having issues typical in fairy tale stories -- some are interesting but unfortunately a good portion of the film proved to be uninteresting. The film failed to offer much excitement and was not able to sustain the wonderful opening tale of a barren queen who bore a child after eating the heart of a sea monster.

Dir. Can Evrenol (Turkey)
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

This film is a horrifying mash-up of classic horror (think of Eli Roth) and psychological thriller. It tells the story of a squad of Turkish cops who are called to provide back-up to their fellow officers who are engaged with some criminals only to find themselves in an abandoned mansion where they will be later trapped in the basement with a group of devil-worshipping amputees! This is a bloody and gory film with copious amounts of violence and body mutilations that would excite hardcore fans of the genre. For those looking for an allegorical meaning of the film you can start your analysis with the cop characters and the cannibal amputees but this is a midnight movie selection at the festival and I expected this kind of film and I was not disappointed so I will stop there.

Dir. Marco Bellocchio (Italy)
No Rating

This is a movie with an ambiguous plot and an ambiguous storytelling structure. At least, that's what i got after watching the first half of this dual narrative film set 300 years apart but set in the same village and populated by the same kind of people with various levels of questionable sanity. Don't get me wrong. The movie is gloriously shot but I just couldn't last. I barely contained myself from dozing off over the extended witch-hunt story of the first half and I thought the search for a modern-day vampire, which makes up the second half of the narrative, would be too much to bear and I would just disturb everyone in the theater if I started snoring. So I left.

Dir. Alice Winocour (France)
No Rating

This is what disappointed me the most on my first day. This film is about an ex-soldier with PTSD who gets assigned to protect the wife and child of a wealthy Arab businessman. It's supposed to be a thriller but nearly one hour into the movie, nothing happens except for numerous slow-motion sequences. I went into the theater expecting some high-octane thriller based on the synopsis provided but I spent the first hour waiting for some real action. This is a classic case of Expectation-Versus-Reality conflict -- in this case, the reality did not meet the hype. I feel too bad about not finishing the movie because it stars Diane Kruger and Matthias Schoenaerts. But there are 80 more films to choose from and we only get 8 days.

Dir. Chantal Akerman (Belgium)
Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

My heart still aches in pain. I just saw Chantal Akerman's final film, the somber and meditative docudrama "No Home Movie", and I felt this connection to her and the mother she lost as if i knew them very well. I am not familiar with the filmmaker's work but a fellow film buff educated me of her work and her contribution to the rise of feminist filmmaking as well as her tragic passing last month when she took her own life in Paris. The film is the filmmaker's love letter to her mother and a document of her finals days. Her mom is a Polish immigrant who survived Auschwitz. The filmmaker's visual compositions, a series of beautifully constructed master shots, reminded me a lot of Haneke's "Amour". One scene where i found myself sobbing, with the rest of the audience, was one of the conversations the filmmaker and her mother had over Skype covering mundane topics but which took on a different, deeper meaning now that both are gone. This film is a must-see for students of film.

Dir. Cesar Augusto Acevedo (Colombia)
Rating: 5 Stars

This is a heart-wrenching film about a family struggling with poverty and the threat of losing their last piece of property, their land, from being completely usurped by sugarcane plantation owners. The story is a sad reflection of the state of poor farmers and laborers today and how they are being left behind by the apparent growth in wealth being touted by the optimists in the world. It's quite sad to see a mother and a father wash the body of their dead son who they couldn't send to a hospital for proper treatment because they couldn't afford it. And it's heartbreaking to see birds ignore your offering of humble food because they feel like you need it more. This film does not tell us a new story but it reminds us that the stories of struggles of poor families in the past continue on today and they may even be multiplying.

Dir. Jayro Bustamante (Guatemala)
Rating: 5 Stars

Finally! Finally! I have been waiting for this film to reach Los Angeles since its award-winning debut at Berlin in February. And it did not disappoint. It is amazing, incredible, masterful! This is the strongest of the Oscar submissions I have seen so far. It tells the story of a poor Mayan family who lives on the foot of an active volcano and whose daughter has been arranged to marry the landowner whom they owe their livelihood from. But the seeming simplicity and ordinariness of the arrangement would have complications later when the daughter suddenly becomes pregnant. The film is an insightful look into the lives of the Mayan people who live on the fringes of Guatemalan society and it touches on several social and economic issues affecting the community. It also offers striking visuals and extraordinary performances from a cast of mostly non-actors.

(Note: The screening I attended was presented to the audience by the the film's very young and talented director Jayro Bustamante and by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu. I rarely witness films receiving a standing ovation prior to its screening and it happened tonight at the packed screening of "Ixcanul." Fearless forecast: This film will be shortlisted and could win.)

"A WAR (Krigen)"
Dir. Tobias Lindholm (Denmark)
Rating; 5 Stars

This is the official submission of Denmark to the 88th Academy Awards and it tells the story of a company commander stationed in Afghanistan who must make hard decisions everyday for the young men under his command and for the citizens of the country they are trying to protect while his wife is left to raising their three very young kids back home. Highly acclaimed writer/director Tobias Lindholm ("A Hijacking") shows us the duality and hypocrisy of every war in his powerful new film, which proposes that a soldier must set aside his compassion, harden his heart and turn a blind eye in order to serve right the cause of any war. "A War" starts out as riveting action film filled with impressive combat sequences in the first act and transitions to a gripping morality tale in the second. Actor Pilou Asbæk delivers a haunting performance as soldier torn and conflicted with the decisions he made, could have made and didn't make.

Dir. Pablo Larrain (Chile)
Rating 4 1/2 Stars

I had to compose myself before writing a quick review in my FB account of Pablo Larrain's Berlin-winning follow-up to his Oscar-nominated film "No" because I thought "El Club", a movie about priests with criminal pasts, was vicious, vile and offensive and I was so ready to rip it apart but I realized that it was the exact reaction the filmmaker was aiming for when he made this film and I have to respect  that because in all objectivity his film is a powerful indictment and an eye-opening expose of the apparent hypocrisy of the catholic church... read full review here: "El Club" Full Review

Dir. Gabriel Mascaro (Brazil)
Rating: 4 Stars

This is a very divisive film from the very young Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro, whose previous film "August Winds" i did not particularly enjoy. But fortunately, this film, his 2nd feature is something i did enjoy and thoroughly liked. It's plotless and can feel very slow at times but it's a fascinating look into the Brazilian rodeo subculture and I like how in their world no one has a predefined role. A cowboy can wrangle bulls during the day and sew bikinis at night and dream of becoming a fashion designer. A woman can sell cologne during daytime and moonlight as a security guard at night. A man can spend hours in front of the mirror to straighten his hair but his masculinity is never doubted and a woman can sleep in a shack with other men and never fear of being raped -- she gets to call who gets to fuck her. Very interesting world. Very interesting film!

It was a great 8 days of AFIFEST. Can't wait for next year. Meantime, next stop for festival junkies are the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February. Oscar screenings and select festivals from various countries are also going on in LA. Happy times!

Raymond Lo

Film Review: "The Brand New Testament"

Film Review: "The Brand New Testament"
Official Submission of Belgium to the 88th Academy Awards
European Film Promotion Screening Series
Los Angeles, November 2015

How would you react if someone proposes that God not only exists but he actually lives in Belgium? 

That's the provocative proposition of Jaco Van Dormael in his latest film "The Brand New Testament", which tells the story of an unhappy young girl whose only escape is by envisioning a world where her father is the God who controls the world and his creations through a desktop computer inside a cavernous room in their downtown apartment. Her mother is the Goddess who loves to embroider all day, watch baseball and collect baseball cards. Her older brother is the dead JC (that's short for Jesus Christ, duh!) 

The story kicks off one day after another bad fight with her abusive dad. She decides to revolt by hacking into his computer and leaking to the world each person's death of date, prompting a comical countdown on each person's cell phone. She ventures the world and seeks out 6 new apostles to add the to the 12 to complete the 18 apostles her mother had always wanted to have. And the reason to add 6 more is so silly it will make you laugh so bad. 

This is an irreverent and fantastical film that on the surface may look like a harsh criticism of the christian faith but is actually a farcical, escapist comedy that's full of wit, sarcasm and deadpan humor. It's a compendium of stories about people who, like the girl, are in various states of loneliness and the only escape it seems is welcoming their impending deaths. The film is not about just believing in a God or a creator but in believing that, if we really want to, we can take full control of our lives and have a meaningful, bright, colorful day everyday.

The film offers wonderful performances from the cast composed of Pili Groyne, Benoit Poelvoorde, Yolande Moreau, Francois Damiens and the great Catherine Deneuve, who appears, as you'll see in the accompanying photo to this review, hilariously makes out with a gargantuan gorilla in the film.

Rating: 4 Stars

Raymond Lo

Film Review: "ZVIZDAN" (The High Sun)

Film Review: Zvizdan (The High Sun)
Official Submission of Croatia to the 88th Academy Awards
European Film Promotion Screening Series
Los Angeles, October 2015

Let me start this review by stating that this is one of the most beautiful films this writer has seen all year!

It's the kind of film that wills its audience to beg for that particular ending and when it's given, you just heave a big sigh of relief and give the movie the most rapturous applause you can give. This movie is a testament to the enduring strength of love and should be seen by as many people as possible.

"The High Sun" is a romantic drama and tells of three different love stories set in three consecutive decades. The first love story is set in 1991 between Jelena and Ivan during the first days of the war between Croatia and Serbia. This writer is only vaguely familiar with the details of the Yugoslav wars so when the two lovers are introduced as they spend a lazy summer afternoon on the banks of a lake, we are lulled into a false sense of peace with the very lyrical staging of the scenes until we see a convoy of military jeeps disturbing the tranquility of the area. Ivan is Serbian who is in love with Jelena, a Croat. Their families are against their union but they continue on believing that their love will conquer all. Their love story ends in tragedy.

The next story is set ten years later in 2001 between Natasha and Ante and set in the same village from the first story but with houses in ruins caused by the preceding war. Natasha and her mother returns to their village to reclaim their house and continue their lives after it was disrupted by the war. Her father and her brother died in the war and she still harbors strong feelings against their Serbian neighbors who she blames for their deaths. One day, her mother commissions a handyman to help them repair their house. The handyman is a Serb named Ante. They begin an uneasy relationship forged mostly by her dislike of his ethnicity. As Ante quietly goes about doing his work, Natasha starts to notice him more and she develops an attraction to him, which he mostly ignores. One day, she invites Ante to the lake and they both discover that they do like each other but the pains of the last war is putting a wall between them. We leave them with their story going nowhere.

The final story is set in 2011 between Marija and Luka. We are introduced to Luka on a road trip showing the wide expanse of the modern world trying to break away from the painful memories of the last war. We see new constructions, we see hope. Luka is on the road with his best friend. They are going to their village (same village from the first and second stories) to support one their friends who is organizing a rave party. They pick up girls on the way and everyone seems to be having a good time. But not Luka. He is mostly pensive and his thoughts seem to be far away. He seems wary, unsure of going home. He has not seen his parents after setting off for college in the city. Later, we learn the reason of Luka's behaviour: He abandoned his girlfriend Marija because she was a Croat and he was a Serb. I cannot tell you how their love story unfolds and ends but you should have learned from the preceding love stories that love, true love, endures. It may come to an end at some point for two lovers but you know it will find another lover to continue the story.

I love this movie! Super love it! It is structured masterfully with nothing, no scene, no minute wasted. All three stories are linked by the same conflict, by the same village and, astonishingly, by the same set of actors playing multiple characters across all three stories. This is a masterpiece from filmmaker Dalibor Matanic. I love how the movie is titled as well because like the high sun, love at its most pure, shines a light like no other and gives us all hope amidst conflicts and wars, amidst tragedies and estrangements, amidst death and birth.

Tihana Lazovic, Goran Markovic, Nives Ivankovic and Dado Cosic are among the actors who delivered excellent performances in this beautiful, beautiful film!

Rating: 5 superstars!!!

Raymond Lo

Film Review: "VIVA"

Film Review: "Viva"
Official Submission of Ireland to the 88th Academy Awards
European Film Promotion Screening Series
Los Angeles, October 2015

"Viva" is a poignant character study that was unfortunately hampered a bit by the introduction of a father-son dynamic to the narrative spoiling somehow the promising start of this beautiful and heartbreaking drama from Ireland that’s interestingly set in the poor slums of Havana.

Have you ever felt like your heart was being stabbed and you are breathing with extra effort because you want to cry and yet your tears are not coming out of your eyes and instead you feel like it is slowly drowning you inside and you just want to collapse and wail in immense sorrow? That’s how I felt from the very instant the film opened with a shot of a city from a distance and the entire cinema is engulfed in that sorrowful, bellowing ballad from a woman who is obviously in pain. My pain further intensified when the camera takes us inside a dimly-lit club where an aging drag queen is seen singing all her heart out and then we see from the corner a face that’s intently focused on the performer on stage. We are then introduced to Jesus and to his world, to his life. And, oh, what a tragic life, indeed! What a beautifully tragic life. A life where the struggle is not preparing for next month’s rent but for the next day’s meal, where the choices are limited to not what you are willing to do for work but how far you are willing to sell and prostitute your body and, in poor Havana, there are only two easy options it seems: to be a boxer and get your body beat up for money or to do tricks and get your body used and abused by horny men.

Aerial shots of the decaying neighborhood where our main protagonist lives adds an additional layer of forlorn to what is already a sad film. You will see the deterioration of what probably once was a bustling and vibrant city to a lifeless, joyless, poverty-laden slum. The narrative is compellingly punctuated with bursts of powerful and emotional ballads that further heightens the despair you are already carrying in your heart from the first moment the camera rested on Jesus' face. His sad eyes, which has a distinct sparkle of a small droplet of water out of a dripping faucet and makes him appear like he’s on the verge of crying anytime, longingly and forlornly watches his own life as it goes past him.

To mitigate the overwhelming despair, the narrative introduces us to several colorful characters that make up the world of Jesus. Some make us laugh with their antics including a street hustler who fakes various injuries because he thinks clients tend to be more sympathetic and generous when they see an injured hustler. There's a grandmotherly client who always pays Jesus short after he's done doing her hair. There's an aging drag queen who takes his time putting on make-up before he goes on stage. His world is alive and offers reasons to laugh but Jesus thrives in his unhappiness. He is not depressed but circumstances has made him treasure the misfortune he was born with. Oh, i am all dragging you into his miserable, beautiful life. 

Jesus is portrayed to perfection by Hector Medina and he is ably supported by Jorge Perugorria, Luis Alberto Garcia, Laura Aleman, Luis Manuel Alvarez. "Viva" was directed by Paddy Breathnach and was written by Mark O’Halloran. Benicio Del Toro is credited as Executive Producer. 

Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Raymond Lo