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What the Indie Spirit Nominations Tell Us About the Oscars

What the Indie Spirit Nominations Tell Us About the Oscars

What’s the secret of getting to be an Oscar contender? For starters, it’s a movie that becomes a must-see for enough of the 6000-plus Oscar voters to have a shot at scoring a nomination in at least one category. Some of the individual branches create shortlists (among them documentary, VFX, foreign, shorts & animation) and vote for the final five from there. 

What makes a movie a must-see? Rave reviews, boffo box office, awards group mentions and effusive media inspire voters who cannot attend screenings enhanced by Q & As and receptions to move up screeners in their piles. For many, watching those DVDs starts this holiday week, which is why stacks of them are arriving in mail boxes and door stoops. And this week, there’s the Indie Spirits. (Still to come are the Golden Globes, the critics’ groups, and the far more predictive Guilds.)

So which would-be Oscar contenders come out ahead from the Indie Spirits? (Note that European-financed films like “The Lady in the Van,” “The Danish Girl” and “Suffragette” were only eligible for foreign film consideration.)  

The full list of nominees are here and pasted below.

The Weinstein brothers are cheering as predictably, Todd Haynes’ glam lesbian romance “Carol”—which so far is fulfilling the magic formula of critical success at Cannes and the fall festivals followed by initial box office interest— led the 2015 Film Independent Spirit Awards nominations with six, including Best Feature, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and two nods for Best Female Lead (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara), the most of any film.

It will be fascinating to see how the Best/Supporting Actress categories play out at SAG and the Oscars, as the Globes also put Cannes Best Actress co-winner Mara in lead. Truth is, in an unusually competitive year for actresses, she has a better chance of winning in supporting. Also, while Mara is charming in person, she is not a campaign pro like Oscar-winner Blanchett. 

Also reaping Indie Spirit rewards with five noms is another timely message drama, Open Road’s “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe investigative team that exposed the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal, which carries emotional gravitas and scored five noms. “Spotlight” is the current frontrunner in the Oscar race, and only solidifies its strong position with this showing. Appropriately, it won the Robert Altman ensemble award for its cast, and will likely go on to win SAG’s coveted equivalent prize, which often presages an Oscar Best Picture-winner. 

Also getting a much-needed boost with five noms is Netflix’s child-soldier drama “Beasts of No Nation,” which stumbled day-and-date at the box office (total domestic gross: $90,000) as it was viewed by some 3 million subscribers in its opening frame on the streaming site. Netflix is pushing writer-director Cary Fukunaga’s screenplay as well as young Ghana discovery, Spirit nominee Abraham Attah, but respected British star Idris Elba is the film’s strongest contender for a supporting actor Oscar for his role as a charismatic Fagin-like commandant who recruits and trains child soldiers to fight and kill. There is some resistance to seeing the film, which is not an easy sit. Do Oscar voters care about the theatrical misfire? Some are more sophisticated about Netflix than others. It just means the movie needs extra support to be perceived as a winner. 

Paramount is pushing hard for Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion feature, “Anomalisa,” which nabbed four nominations. The animated film broke out at the fall festivals and was scooped up by the studio, which harbors high hopes for the movie, even though it starts off with a jarring “fuck,” signaling that this felt puppet movie is NOT a family picture. Many Academy members—who boast a wide variety of tastes—will value this visually stunning, slightly avant-garde and distinct piece of art as something unique and special, not unlike “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or the Coens’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” (which did miss the Oscar mark).

The actor-dominated Academy tends to favor live action over animation, rarely advancing animated features to the Best Picture category. The writers are most likely to appreciate what thrice-nominated Oscar-winner Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) has done here. And while the Indie Spirits are forward-thinking enough to honor Jennifer Jason Leigh for her voice performance, she’s more likely to get a leg up from “Anomalisa” for a supporting actress nomination in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” “Anomalisa” needs to continue to get this kind of support in a year when Pixar’s “Inside Out” is dominating the animation race. 

Not landing a Best Feature slot is A24’s current theatrical hit “Room” (domestic gross so far: $3 million). Spirit actress nominee Brie Larson is the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar, and Irish-born Canadian Emma Donoghue is a strong contender for a writing Oscar nom for adapting her bestselling novel. Also not getting into the Spirit top five is A24’s “The End of the Tour” (total domestic gross: $3 million) which did land a Lead Actor spot for Jason Segel as writer David Foster Wallace; his best Oscar shot is in the crowded supporting category. Roadside, which is a strong Oscar campaigner (“Winter’s Bone,” “Albert Nobbs”), landed a supporting slot for Paul Dano, who plays the young Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy,” which could help him repeat at the Oscars, but Elizabeth Banks as the car saleswoman who saved Wilson did not land a nod. 

Like “Beasts of No Nation,” many indies that scored on VOD at the expense of theatrical may not register as “hits” with the Academy crowd and don’t get that boost. Were they seen? Many did not get Academy screenings.

The Spirits are designed to honor smaller indie features like Sean Baker’s well-reviewed Oscar long-shot “Tangerine,” an iPhone-shot L.A. odyssey that earned groundbreaking Indie Spirit acting nominations for transgender discoveries Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as Santa Monica Boulevard prostitutes who are best friends. The Magnolia release performed better on VOD than theatrical (total domestic gross: $785,000), as did “Mississippi Grind” (total domestic gross: $130,000) whose Australian star Ben Mendelsohn deserves Spirit recognition. The Film Arcade is trying to get actors to see “James White,” which features intense performances by veteran Cynthia Nixon and breakout Christopher Abbott, but again, it’s a tough drama for the senior-leaning Academy. 

Indie upstart Broad Green’s the Hammond brothers believe in supporting their talent; the one who may emerge from their roster is Michael Shannon, nominated here for critical hit “99 Homes,” but without Spirit recognition for Patricia Clarkson in “Learning to Drive” (which was hurt by a mainstream advertising campaign) or Sarah Silverman for depression drama “I Smile Back,” they can now pull back. 

Among the docs, Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to “The Act of Killing,” “The Look of Silence” continues to be the one film that ALWAYS gets mentioned; he could earn a substantial sympathy vote for not winning last time. Among the foreign features, Hungary’s holocaust drama “Son of Saul” and French/Turkish “Mustang” are the leaders of the Oscar pack. 

Read the full list of nominees below:
Best Feature
“Anomalisa”
“Beasts of No Nation”
“Carol”
“Spotlight”
“Tangerine”
Best Female Lead
Bel Powley, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Brie Larson, “Room”
Cate Blanchett, “Carol”
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, “Tangerine”
Rooney Mara, “Carol”
Best Male Lead
Abraham Attah, “Beasts of No Nation”
Ben Mendelsohn, “Mississippi Grind”
Christopher Abbott, “James White”
Jason Segel, “The End of the Tour”
Koudous Seihon, “Mediterranea”
Best Supporting Female
Cynthia Nixon, “James White”
Jennifer Jason Leigh, “Anomalisa”
Marin Ireland, “Glass Chin”
Mya Taylor, “Tangerine”
Robin Bartlett, “H.”
Best Supporting Male
Idris Elba, “Beasts of No Nation”
Kevin Corrigan, “Results”
Michael Shannon, “99 Homes”
Paul Dano, “Love & Mercy”
Richard Jenkins, “Bone Tomahawk”
Best Director
Cary Joji Fukunaga, “Beasts of No Nation”
Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, “Anomalisa”
David Robert Mitchell, “It Follows”
Sean Baker, “Tangerine”
Todd Haynes, “Carol”
Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight” 
Best Screenplay
Charlie Kaufman, “Anomalisa”
Donald Marguiles, ” The End of the Tour”
Phyllis Nagy, “Carol”
S. Craig Zahler, “Bone Tomahawk”
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, “Spotlight”
Best Documentary
“(T)ERROR”
“Best of Enemies”
“Heart of a Dog”
“Meru”
“The Look of Silence”
“The Russian Woodpecker”
Best International Film
“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”
“Embrace of the Serpent”
“Girlhood”
“Mustang”
“Son of Saul”
Best Cinematography
Cary Joji Fukunaga, “Beasts of No Nation”
Ed Lachman, “Carol”
Joshua James Richards, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me”
Michael Gioulakis, “It Follows”
Reed Morano, “Meadowland”
Best Editing
Julio C. Perez IV, “It Follows”
Kristan Sprague, “Manos Sucias”
Nathan Nugent, “Room”
Ronald Bronstein and Benny Safdie, “Heaven Knows What” 
Tom McArdle, “Spotlight”
Best First Feature (awarded to director and producers)
“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
“Mediterranea”
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: Chloé Zhao
Producers: Mollye Asher  |  Nina Yang Bongiovi  |  Angela C. Lee  |  Forest Whitaker
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Director: Marielle Heller
Producers: Miranda Bailey  |  Anne Carey  |  Bert Hamelinck  |  Madeline Samit
Best First Screenplay
Emma Donoghue, “Room”
Jesse Andrews, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”
John Magary, Russell Harbaugh, and Myna Joseph, “The Mend”
Jonas Carpignano, “Mediterranea”
Marielle Heller, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” 
John Cassavetes Award (given to the writer, director and producer(s) of a feature made for under $500,000)
“Advantageous”
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: Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie
Writers: Josh Safdie  |  Ronald Bronstein
Producers: Oscar Boyson  |  Sebastian Bear McClard
“Krisha”
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
Robert Altman Award (given to the film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast)
“Spotlight”
Director: Tom McCarthy
Casting director: Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee
Ensemble cast: Billy Crudup  |  Brian d’Arcy James  |  Paul Guilfoyle  | Neal Huff  |  Michael Keaton  |  Rachel McAdams  |  Mark Ruffalo  | Liev Schreiber  |  Jamie Sheridan  |  John Slattery  |  Stanley Tucci

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