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Independent Spirit Awards Preview

It‚Äôs easy to see for nearly a decade, and especially over the past 5 or 6 years, the top films at the Independent Spirit Awards have overlapped the Oscars with increasing frequency. Whether it‚Äôs because independent films have evolved from their grungier roots into more sophisticated pedigreed projects, or if it‚Äôs because the definition ‚Äì and budget — of ‚ÄúIndie‚Äù has been stretched to fit the prestigious scope appropriate for Academy credibility, Indies get more Oscary every year. Sideways, Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Milk, The Wrestler. These are a new breed of Oscar-friendly Indie animal far removed from the esoteric species of films leading the Spirit Awards in the early years. What do Rambling Rose, City of Hope, My Own Private Idaho, Homicide and Hangin’ with the Homeboys all have in common? Those were the 5 nominees for Best Feature Film at the Spirit Awards 20 years ago. And no, My Own Private Idaho didn‚Äôt win.

In an odd reversal of the usual chain of events, Oscar nominations in January often serve as a reliable precursor to help predict the winners of the Spirit Awards a month later. If there‚Äôs any flow of good fortune down the love canal between Oscars and Spirits, that good luck almost always runs in reverse ‚Äì back toward the ISA. While this could be explained as the natural result of the cream-of-the-indie-crop being skimmed off the top, advancing to the next level of game play at the Kodak, a cynic might say that the cachet an independent film acquires when it‚Äôs honored by the Oscars is irresistible to ISA voters when they scan the titles on their ballots. When Little Orphan Indie is adopted by Daddy Oscar Warbucks, you can almost hear the choir of struggling producers break into song, ‚ÄúThe sun‚Äôll come out, to-mor-roooow!….‚Äù Bet your bottom dollar indeed.

So for this quick and dirty overview of tonight’s Independent Spirit Awards, we’re going to use the Oscar scales to measure Spirit weight. Remember though, the Oscar-Spirit symbiosis unusually only works to impact Spirits. Remember the semi-permeable membranes of cell walls we all learned about in biology? Yeah, me either, but it was something about how “stuff” can diffuse from one side of the wall to the other. An Oscar nomination provides enough force to elevate a film to frontrunner status at the Spirit Awards, but winners at the Spirits can seldom muster enough Oscar osmosis to carry that clout over the moat to Castle Kodak. Instead, what we usually see is the star of the Spirit awards being handed an consolation award for screenplay on Oscar night. (i.e., Sideways, Brokeback, Juno, Miss Sunshine, Milk). Because, you know, that funny indie fascination with “words” and “wit” and “story” and whatnot.

By this arbitrary yardstick, our job is simpler this year than it’s been in recent seasons, because there really aren’t that many Indie nominees who’ve earned their Oscar nomination badge of honor. Precious and The Last Station lead the pack at the Spirit awards tonight, with 5 nominations each. But as anyone who’s fallen asleep on the El can tell you, most of the passengers have already disembarked before you wake up at The Last Station. Nope, despite their nearly identical Spirit nom recognition, it’s only Precious who wears the halo of top Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress, Sup. Actress. Precious will ride the crest of that acclaim tonight (before washing up on shore Sunday night with Mo’Nique the lone survivor.)

I’ll do my best to avoid the pitfalls of prediction Sasha staked out earlier this morning, and try to avoid letting my own personal preferences cloud my vision. But as we progress through the categories, it’s going to be hard not to hope that a few of this year’s Oscar wrongs might be righted tonight. We’ll get to those shortly.

Best Feature seems to belong to Precious, and provides a nice bookend to the journey it began at Sundance almost exactly one year ago. Though Sin Nombre is probably my personal favorite among the nominees, and The Last Station obviously has strong credentials, no other movie at the Spirit awards has the heat and passionate support that Precious has built over the past 12 months. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Lee Daniels winning Best Director. None of the other nominees have been in the spotlight that’s warmly embraced Daniels all year. With the all-important Oscar nomination as its letter of recommendation, Geoffrey Fletcher’s First Screenplay looks secure for a win too. (Though anyone who’s compared Christopher Isherwood’s novella side by side with the Tom Ford and David Scearce’s screenplay for A Single Man must surely marvel at how effectively they transformed 190 pages of stream-of-consciousness internal monologue into a living, breathing cinematic reality with the throbbing pulse of a broken heart. It’s my personal favorite, but I just can’t see it overcoming the momentum Precious has earned.)

Mo’Nique is naturally a foregone conclusion for Supporting Actress. The only real uncertainty in my mind at this point is whether Gabby Sidibe can prevail over the bigger flashier name-brand actresses she’s up against. Helen Mirren, exquisitely polished as always, and Gwyneth Paltrow in a criminally undervalued performance would at first glance appear to be formidable rivals, for Best Actress but I really think if anyone can beat Sidibe, it’s Nisreen Faour. As much as the Spirit Awards like to aspire to Oscar glamour, they never shy away from awarding smaller grittier performances in the acting categories, perhaps in an effort to counter-balance the star-wattage of lead roles the Academy favors. But even then, if it’s a battle for the grittiest most earthy performance, it’s almost impossible to argue against the post-modern neorealist effect achieved by Gabby Sidibe in Precious.

Can Precious really carry off a clean sweep of wins in every category it’s been nominated? If the competition had a little more Academy heat, maybe not. But this year the field is uniformly distinguished without many prominent peaks. Anyway, it sure simplifies these predictions to expect such unanimous clarity, so let’s move on.

The nominees for Best First Feature include 3 movies Oscar has benevolently smiled upon. The Messenger, Crazy Heart and A Single Man have all shown strength, and stands out for extraordinary lead male performances. I’m going to go with my heart, and hope for recognition for A Single Man. These are the Indies, after all, and what embodies the indie spirit better than a movie that was loving brought to the screen as a personal project paid for entirely out of the pocket of its director, Tom Ford. Add to that my daydream that my respect for Colin Firth and the film itself is shared by enough other filmmakers who might feel A Single Man got a raw deal this season. Of the three directors responsible these films which one has you most intrigued to see what that come up with next? I rest my shaky case.

For the same reason, and perhaps overly encouraged by his BAFTA victory last week, I’m going further out on this limb to predict Colin Firth wins Best Actor over juggernaut Jeff Bridges. I fully understand the love and admiration for Bridges – I feel it deeply myself – but while the meme is undeniable that this is year he’s “due” for an Oscar, does anybody really think in terms of The Dude being “due” for an Indie Spirit Award? If anything, I’d almost fear for his Oscar chances if Bridges wins tonight. Nobody wants to see Jeff Bridges walk away from this season with a lovely parting gift, and lead acting awards at the Spirits actually carry the “kiss of death” (as I’ve learned from a certain female movie writer who knows quite a bit more about all this than I ever will).

In the absence of Hans Landa, Best Supporting Actor is a toughie. It would be a shame to see such fine and worthy films as The Messenger and The Last Station walk away empty handed, so here’s one of the only remaining opportunities to throw them a bone. Will the ISA voters go for a perennial indie favorite like Woody Harrelson, or will the chance to bring a legend like Christopher Plummer onstage be too tempting to deny? Your guess is as good as mine, and probably better, but I’m really feeling so little buzz for The Last Station right now. It’s almost too old-school Oscarish to be Indie, while The Messenger might give the Spirits a way to say, “Hey, look! We’ve got a movie that probes our feelings about Iraq too!” But you know, I haven’t really been taking any risks with these guesses, and I’m hungry for a upset somehow somewhere, dammit. So I’m going to go wild and predict Christian McKay – not only for his astonishing performance, but because he so brilliantly embodies the legendary spirit of Hollywood’s most renowned and rebellious indie pioneer – Orson Welles.

Among the Best Screenplay nominees tonight, only The Messenger has managed to earn an Oscar nomination. So do I stick with my litmus test (which frankly, is starting to bore me) or do I go with my heart and hope (500) Days of Summer brings enough structural flair to dazzle the Spirit voters? I fell for (500) Days so hard, jilting it now would feel like leaving it standing alone at the altar, so I’m not ready to give up my infatuation just yet.

OK, now we’ve reached an embarrassing point when I have to confess I’ve only seen one of the nominees up for the John Cassavetes Award (for best feature charged on the producer’s AmEx card made for under 500,000). ruh-roh, I missed Big Fan, The New Year Parade, Treeless Mountain, and Zero Bridge, srry. I’ve only seen Humpday, so I have to hope Fate has led me down the correct path to enlightenment.

I’ll be updating with even skimpier reasons for my wild guesses in the remaining categories later this afternoon, but I’ll post this now to give everybody a new target for today’s game of discussion dodge-ball.

[UPDATE]

Running through the rest of the categories should be quick work, because my reasons become progressively elusive. For Best Cinematography I’ll go with a choice that might seem too easy, but “obviously” might be the right attitude for the consistently terrific Roger Deakins who’s persistently taken for granted. Deakins frames compositions with his trademark cocked eyebrow and inherent visual irony, so we’re already tickled before the characters say a word. Treeless Mountain is gorgeously austere, but maybe too much like a Zen rock garden to stand out. Cold Souls has a Kubrickian stillness that owes a lot to Deakins, but why reward a disciple when the maestro himself is nominated?

Feels to me like Food Inc and Anvil! have the requisite name recognition and media ink to push them to the head of class for Best Documentary, but maybe that’s because they’re the only two I’ve seen. I could search around for reviews and try to bluff some knowledge of the other 3 nominees, but basing predictions on critics’ opinions is a fool’s errand. Food Inc has the organic all-natural flavor sure to appeal to voters all tanked up on Acai berry juice, but I think the narrative roadtrip of Anvil! will help it prevail here.

It’s fun to see An Education among the Best Foreign Language Film nominees as if 1960s London needs subtitles, but even though it’s probably my third favorite English language movie of the year, the loss of schoolgirl innocence look a bit slight standing next to the epic arc of Un prophète – my personal pick to win tonight. Rounding out the category, Everlasting Moments, Mother and The Maid do a wonderful job making me feel a little embarrassed for a few of our homegrown productions. No need to name names, but all five of these international beauties mop the floor with some of the other movies that will emerge as winners tonight. Yeah, Americans would look like the world’s greatest skaters too, if the Olympics had relegated Korea to its own ghetto ice rink.

Speaking of being relegated, looking over the titles of films nominated for The Producers Award, Someone to Watch, and the Truer Than Fiction awards makes me realize just how far outside the loop of the indie circuit I’ve been this past year. That’s a sad situation I hope to rectify in 2010. I’m sure I could venture a few guesses about those categories if I dug around to learn more of the nominees’ back-stories. But I think the primary purpose of these last three honors is to spotlight the normally invisible effort of filmmakers who don’t have the LATimes and Entertainment Tonight humping their legs day and night during awards season. That’s why I appreciate that the Spirit Awards take time to recognize movies and moviemakers who don’t all arrive with their front-row seats already reserved. I like seeing faces totally unknown to me weave their way to the stage from the back tables, and I love seeing them glide past the big names in the crowd who show genuine affection for the up-and-coming kids following in their footsteps — and someday filling their shoes.

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BEST FEATURE (Award given to the Producer)
500 Days of Summer, Producers Jessica Tuchinsky, Mark Waters, Mason Novick, Steven J. Wolfe
Amreeka, Producers Christina Piovesan, Paul Barkin
* Precious, Producers Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness, Gary Magness
Sin Nombre, Producer Amy Kaufman
The Last Station, Producers Chris Curling, Jens Meurer, Boonie Arnold

BEST DIRECTOR
The Coen Brothers for A Serious Man
* Lee Daniels for Precious
Cary Fukunaga for Sin Nombre
James Grey for Two Lovers
Michael Hoffman for The Last Station

BEST FIRST FEATURE (Award given to the director and producer)
* A Single Man
Crazy Heart
Easier With Practice
The Messenger
Paranormal Activity

JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD
(Given to the best feature made for under $500,000; award given to the writer, director, and producer)
Big Fan
* Humpday
The
New Year Parade
Treeless Mountain
Zero Bridge

BEST SCREENPLAY
Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman for The Messenger
Michael Hoffman for The Last Station
Lee Toland Krieger for The Vicious Kind
Greg Mottola for Adventureland
* Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber for 500 Days of Summer

BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY
Sophie Barthes for Cold Souls
Scott Cooper for Crazy Heart
Cherien Dabis for Amreeka
* Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious
Tom Ford, David Scearce for A Single Man

BEST FEMALE LEAD
Maria Bello for Downloading Nancy
Helen Mirren for The Last Station
Gwentyth Paltrow for Two Lovers
* Gabby Sidibe for Precious
Nisreen Faour for Amreeka

BEST MALE LEAD
Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart
* Colin Firth for A Single Man
Joseph Gordon Levitt for 500 Days Of Summer
Souleymane Sy Savane for Goodbye Solo
Adam Scott for The Vicious Kind

BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE
Dina Korzun for Cold Souls
* Mo’Nique for¬†Precious
Samantha Morton for The Messenger
Natalie Press for Fifty Dead Men Walking
Mia Wasikowska for That Evening Sun

BEST SUPPORTING MALE
Jemaine Clements for Gentleman Broncos
Woody Harrelson for The Messenger
* Cristian McKay for Me And Orson Welles
Ramon McKinnon for That Evening Sun
Christopher Plummer for The Last Station

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
* Roger Deakins for A Serious Man
Adriano Goldman for Sin Nombre
Anne Misawa for Treeless Mountain
Andrij Parekh for Cold Souls
Peter Zeitlinger for Bad Lieutenant

BEST DOCUMENTARY (Award given to the director)
* Anvil!
Food Inc
More Than a Game
October Country
Which Way Home

BEST FOREIGN FILM (Award given to the director)
* A Prophet
An Education
Everlasting Moments
Mother
The Maid

ROBERT ALTMAN AWARD
(Given to one film’s director, casting director, and its ensemble cast)
A Serious Man

PRODUCERS AWARD
Karen Chien (The Exploding Girl, Santa Mesa)
Larry Fessenden (I Sell The Dead, The House Of The Devil)
Dia Sokol (Beeswax, Nights & Weekends)

SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD
Kyle Patrick Alvarez for Easier With Practice
Asiel Norton for Redland
Tariq Tapa for Zero Bridge

TRUER THAN FICTION AWARD
Natalia Almada for El General
Jessica Oreck for Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo
Bill Ross, Turner Ross for 45365

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