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.)
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.
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.