In a year of ubiquitous frustration over #OscarsSoWhite, when even the Academy seems fed up with the backwards logic of Oscar season, an unexpected bright spot showed up in Santa Monica on Saturday: The Independent Spirit Awards got their groove back.
Film Independent’s annual beachside ceremony still shared some of the DNA from the bigger Sunday event, particularly with perennial awards circuit presence “Spotlight” winning the Best Film prize. But with no obvious Hollywood product overshadowing the ceremony — even the savviest campaigners couldn’t have forced “The Revenant” or “The Big Short” into the room — the Spirits felt more in tune with the American independent film scene than they have in years.
The comeback was long overdue. In recent editions, the $20 million budgetary cap that qualifies films for Spirits consideration has led to a series of infuriating outcomes, with winners lists that mirror the Oscars in most categories and favor celebrity turnout to placate deep-pocketed sponsors; the genuine filmmaking talent working outside the studio system was relegated to a sideshow.
Four years ago, Oscar heavyweight “The Artist” stole the show to an almost embarrassing degree, preventing less heralded works such as “Beginners” and “Take Shelter” from receiving their due. The next round found “Silver Linings Playbook” overshadowing “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the one show where its visionary achievement seemed most apt for a celebration. Even the landmark year of “12 Years a Slave” meant that eventual best picture winner elbowed out “All is Lost” and “Frances Ha.” Last year, “Boyhood” missed its one shot at a final salute when “Birdman” took the stage to rehearse for Sunday. Time after time, the Spirits made the little guys feel even smaller.
On Saturday, that recurring problem was barely present. While “Spotlight” snagged a lot of categories where Oscar non-entities may have benefited from a boost, the Spirits as a whole presented a striking contrast to the homogenized, fairly conservative set of Oscar nominees this year. “Beasts of No Nation” snagged two major acting prizes, for Idris Elba’s creepy turn as a domineering Commandant and newcomer Abraham Attah in the stunning, credible turn as a refugee brainwashed by a ruthless militia.
“Tangerine” star Mya Taylor received a shoutout from presenter Patricia Arquette, who noted the value of a transgender performer getting into the room. Moments later, Taylor received a well-earned standing ovation as she won for best supporting actress, and implored the room to hire more talent like her. “Carol” cinematographer Ed Lachman got his due, in a notable break from the buzz surrounding Emmanuel Lubezki’s frontrunner status for “The Revenant” at the Oscars. “Room” screenwriter Emma Donahue delivered a heartfelt acknowledgement of her longtime partner, Christine Roulston, with whom she’s raised two children. Joshua Oppenheimer’s daring “The Look of Silence” may not have the Oscar momentum of fellow documentary nominee “Amy,” but his movie’s win in that category at the Spirits put the right movie on the stage.
These moments played like correctives to an industry that has repeatedly stumbled over itself in reckless attempts to comprehend, much less accommodate, more diverse and sophisticated narratives. And it didn’t hurt that the movies were outstanding, unconventional alternatives to the usual awards bait. Tonally complex, risky and liberated from the constraints of an ever-changing marketplace, both “Tangerine” and “Beasts of No Nation” received a grand total of zero Oscar nominations. The Spirits did their job by presenting the ideal alternative vision of quality American cinema crafted on its own terms. There’s a much bigger picture to the best movies made today that the Spirits barely touched, but at least it got a bit closer this time.
Then there was the actual ceremony, which reflected the irascible nature of uncompromised creativity without forcing the idea. Co-hosts Kumail Nanjiani and Kate McKinnon started out with the usual cheeky gags about scrappy filmmaking values (“It’s not about making money, it’s about definitely losing money”), but as the show continued, their humor found a deeper edge. McKinnon, decked out in sunglasses and stuffing her face with ham from one table, brilliantly embodied a stereotypical no-nothing Kickstarter backer as she pretended to confuse “Anomalisa” and “Straight Outta Compton.” Pre-recorded bits placing the hosts in “Room” and “Carol” were smarmy without insulting the genuine filmmaking prowess that inspired them. The hosts themselves formed the ultimate rejoinder to #OscarsSoWhite — as Nanjiani pointed out, having a Pakistani and a gay woman as the guides for the afternoon was no small feat.
The film community itself radiated a much healthier attitude. While traditional distributors struggle to maintain a foothold in an ever-changing media landscape, the scene at the Spirits reflected a network designed for cooperative survival. Outside the tent, executives from Amazon beamed about their latest deals with Woody Allen, while hanging tight with the Duplass brothers, themselves comfortably settled into an ongoing relationship with Netflix. That company’s head of content, Ted Sarandos, spoke excitedly about the warm reception to their new series “Love” and their upcoming SXSW premiere of “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.”
Rather than muttering about their limited options, a number of nominated filmmakers looked happier than ever. “Tangerine” director Sean Baker gathered with Jonas Carpignano, whose tense immigration tale “Mediterranea” was one of last year’s great discoveries, along with Trey Shults, the John Cassavetes prize winner for “Krisha.” Having spent the past year brushing shoulders on the festival circuit, the trio had agreed to find time to watch each others’ films and finally got a moment to exchange their thoughts. Meanwhile, Baker and Shults both spoke excitedly of the new projects they hoped to shoot in the months to come. From this perspective, a world away from the bottom-line decisions of studio executives, the film community actually looked like a healthy place to live.
Still, not everyone received the exposure they deserved. The Cassavetes category remains a problematic ingredient at the Spirits, one that ghettoizes films made under half a million dollars rather than incorporating them into the major categories (though “Tangerine,” which was produced for a mere $50,000, miraculously made its way to a best film nomination). And no matter how much it accommodated a bigger picture this year, the Spirits still pushed many of its influential figures to the sidelines, with numerous programmers from top-tier festivals pushed to the back of the room. If the Spirits keep tweaking their formula for the better, a logical next step would involve ways of celebrating the independent film industry’s unsung heroes.
At the end of the day, “Spotlight” swept through several major categories, including best director and best film, but there was no discernible bitter taste in the room compared to other recent editions. Maybe the movies just happened to be better this time around. Or maybe the Spirits, at long last, have wised up. The Oscars may still dominate the conversation, but for a few hours on Saturday, a different world found its footing. There’s no guarantee that the next edition will follow suit, but unlike the Hollywood arena, this is one corner of the film community that thrives on uncertainty.