Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Spirit Awards: Where indie still means indie

What a difference a year makes. On Tuesday, Film Independent announced its nominees for the annual Independent Spirit Awards. Last year in this space, I wrote about the general trend of the Independent Spirits toward more Oscar-friendly films, but this year, the nominated films and performances are nothing if not fiercely independent. That is not to say there are no likely awards heavies in the lineup, but there is more than a fair share of movies that probably will not get anywhere near the Academy Awards.

The nominees for best feature are Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion Anomalisa, Cary Fukunaga’s African war story Beasts of No Nation, Todd Haynes’ beautiful tale of forbidden romance Carol, Tom McCarthy’s masterpiece Spotlight, and Sean Baker’s experimental Tangerine. All six of those directors also were cited in the best director category and are joined by David Roger Mitchell for the retro-horror It Follows.

Last year, four of the five best feature nominees ended up nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (Birdman; Boyhood; Selma; and Whiplash), a feat that is unlikely to be repeated this year. Of these, Spotlight is rightfully among the frontrunners for the Academy Awards, but only Carol among the others has a realistic shot at Oscar glory. Let’s take a look at each of these films and break down their merits and possible awards futures.

Anomalisa Kaufman, an Academy Award winner for co-writing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is the marquee name here for cinephiles, but Johnson has the animation chops likely to make this film memorable. For Community fans out there, Johnson directed the magnificent “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” episode.

This is the only film in the lineup I have yet to see – hopefully that will be rectified next week, though the film does not hit theaters until the end of December – but with these two attached, it is highly anticipated, which I wrote about here. As for the Academy, this might be a little too out there for any of the top categories, but a Best Animated Feature nomination is not out of the question.

Beasts of No Nation A harrowing tale of child soldiers in war-torn Africa, Fukunaga’s film might be most notable for its unusual release strategy. A Netflix Original film, Beasts of No Nation was released to theaters and on the movie streaming site on the same day, alienating a number of larger theater chains. As a result, the movie was locked out of theaters in most of the country, screening only in independent cinemas. The film, which likely works better on the big screen, deserved a better fate, but its quality will carry it through the awards season.

It is a fair question to ask whether filmmakers will embrace this new distribution model or reject it and hold it against the film. The Independent Spirit nominations, however, bode well for its chances, including in the technical categories, where it would not be out of place. Fukunaga also adapted the film from its source novel and served as the director of photography, and he would make for a handsome nominee in either category at the Oscars.

CarolI wrote at length about Haynes’ exquisite film here, and it is not surprising to see a film this well acted and this superbly crafted lead the nominations list with six, including notices for both its lead actresses, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. If the independent film community rallies around Carol, which it seems like it will, the film could be a threat in a number of top categories at the Oscars.

SpotlightAs I said in my review, McCarthy’s exploration of the investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal is hands down the best American film of the year (so far) and an undeniable masterpiece. Carol is definitely the flashier film, but Spotlight is an unimpeachable achievement in filmmaking. A number of pundits have it down as the Best Picture frontrunner, and it deserves to be. As for its independent bona fides, McCarthy is a hero of the independent film community after his fantastic The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win showed the best of what the community can accomplish.

TangerineEvery year, there is a film firmly in the awards discussion that just passes me by, and it seems Baker’s sordid story of transgender prostitutes in L.A. is the one this year. I do not see what others see in this highly regarded and critically acclaimed film. Tangerine is a testament to the democratization of filmmaking in its low-budget, low-fi origins, but I simply found nothing to like in its story or craft. It would be one of the biggest shocks of the year for me if it were read out in any category on Academy Awards nominations morning.

Jacob Tremblay and nominee Brie Larson in Room.
Regarding the rest of the Spirit Awards nominees, there are a number of pleasant surprises and less pleasant omissions. First, the gripes: The excellent 99 Homes, Room, Love and Mercy being left out of the best feature and best director categories is an unfortunate oversight, though each picked up a single acting nomination; about those single acting nominations, though, Jacob Tremblay belongs in the supporting actor category for his great work next to nominee Brie Larson in Room, and I would have liked to see Elizabeth Banks in supporting actress for Love and Mercy.

For the good, I was happy to see Michael Shannon recognized in supporting actor for 99 Homes, and the best international film list includes two of my favorite films this year, Mustang and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Spotlight deservedly will receive the Robert Altman Award, given to the best ensemble cast of the year, an inarguable distinction for a film built on the strengths of its remarkable actors.

Overall, it is an exciting and eclectic list that reflects the best intentions of the nominating organization. Per tradition, the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony will take place the night before the Oscars, Feb. 27, 2016. Check out the full list of nominees here.

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