Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Spirit Awards: The nominees and what ‘independent film’ means

Obvious Child star Jenny Slate is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best actress.

The nominees for the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards – the West Coast cousin to the GothamFilm Independent Awards – were released Tuesday, and among them, you will find the usual suspects. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman leads the list with six nominations and is joined in the Best Feature lineup by Boyhood, Love Is Strange, Selma, and Whiplash.

The winners this decade have been Black Swan, The Artist, Silver Linings Playbook, and 12 Years a Slave. You perhaps will notice that list is comprised solely of nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture, including two winners. This year, Birdman, Boyhood, and Selma are all likely Best Picture nominees, and it is possible the winner will come from among those.

The Spirit Awards began in 1985 with a mission to honor the best in independent filmmaking, and up until about 2000, the worlds of the Spirits and the Oscars remained relatively separate – with the odd Platoon and Pulp Fiction thrown in there. Now, however, if you find yourself wondering what the difference is between these awards, you are not the only one. Since 2003, the only Best Feature winner at the Spirits not to garner a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards has been Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler in 2008.

I would suggest there are a few overlapping reasons for this shift. First, over the last decade, the number of Academy Awards precursors has increased 10-fold as every little critics organization across the country throws its picks in the hat. Much as they claim to honor the best in film for a given year, many just want to predict the Oscar winners and claim the glory of saying they got it right first. Unfortunately, the Independent Spirit Awards have fallen into this trap as well.

Second, as the big movie studios such as Warner Brothers, Sony, and others have focused on major blockbusters, they have spun off their own “independent” studios to buy or develop awards-caliber fare. Sony Pictures Classic and Focus Features are among the best in the business at this, and they produce many great films, but these mid-size prestige studios contribute to blurring the line between independent and studio filmmaking.

Related to this is the fact that the blockbuster prestige film is a dying breed. From 1994 to 2004, all but two Best Picture winners earned more than $100 million at the box office with films such as Forrest Gump, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King qualifying as mega-blockbuster hits. Since 2004, five of the nine best picture winners have failed to crack $100 million – including the lowest grossing ever, The Hurt Locker – and none has achieved the blockbuster success of the aforementioned movies.

None of this is to say the Spirit Awards lack identity or purpose, and the organization still finds places to nominate and award lesser-known, lesser-hyped, and under-the-radar fare, as one might hope from such a voting body. Sam Fleischner’s micro-budget indie Stand Clear of the Closing Doors pulled a supporting actress nomination for Andrea Suarez Paz, and the four nominations for Ira Sachs beautiful and sad Love Is Strange, including in the top category, are a tremendous showing for the little modern love story.

My favorite notice among the nominations is a best actress nod for Jenny Slate in the acerbic romantic comedy Obvious Child, a film I just caught up with on DVD and loved. The nomination is unlikely to vault the comedienne into the conversation for an Oscar, but the Spirit Award nomination is well deserved recognition for an honest, raw, and down-to-earth portrayal of a woman who is not quite ready to reach a turning point in her life.

So, while big names may dominate the list, we can still be thankful that there is room for people such as Slate and Sachs and for the smaller films that launch vital new voices into the industry. What "independent film" means anymore with regard to budget or prestige or box office prospects is up for debate, but in the hearts and minds of the artists, the spirit of independent filmmaking will always remain alive and well.

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