For much of the 2017 Gotham Independent Spirit Awards ceremony, it seemed like nothing could topple “Get Out.” Then came “Call Me By Your Name,” which landed Best Feature after “Get Out” triumphed in three major categories, proving that not only are both movies serious contenders for the best movies of the year, but we also have an unpredictable awards race.
That said: Anyone who uses the Gothams as a crystal ball for predicting the Oscar race is looking in the wrong place. Hosted by IFP, the swanky New York shindig celebrates movies and television made with an “economy of means,” with a series of small committees to select the nominees and winners for each category. That’s a world away from the Oscar voting process, which involves thousands of members, multiple branches, and no limits on budgets.
Nevertheless, in recent years the Gothams have become a reliable means of clarifying which movies have significant Oscar momentum, and the 2017 ceremony was a perfect illustration of that.
For the last three years, the Gotham winners for Best Feature — “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” and “Birdman” — went on to win Best Picture. None of those movies were produced by big studios, and with the exception of “Spotlight,” they weren’t conventional. As the Gothams continue to salute movies made beyond the clutches of Hollywood formula, the Oscars seem to be lining up with likeminded sensibilities.
This year’s seemingly unexpected triumph for the lush gay romance “Call Me By Your Name,” after the social thriller “Get Out” picked up breakthrough director and screenplay in addition to the audience prize, goes a long way toward demonstrating the mounting enthusiasm for both movies. Other awards suggested some support for “Lady Bird,” while “The Florida Project” (which went home empty-handed) remains a dark horse. However, they’re all significant contenders alongside heavyweights like “Dunkirk” and “The Post,” large-scale Hollywood productions that had no role to play in this context. (Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” was ineligible due to non-American director and producers.)
With no exact science to explain their logic, the Gothams force you to read the room. The swanky interior of Cipriani’s Wall Street is filled with many independent film luminaries, in addition to major actors, filmmakers, executives, and other influencers, including Academy members and others who have their ears.
As “Get Out” writer-director Jordan Peele came to the stage for the third time, he seemed to be running out of things to say. His biggest statement came with his first win, for screenplay, which he accepted from the adorable presenting duo of 87-year-old “Marjorie Prime” star Lois Smith and seven-year-old “Florida Project” star Brooklynn Prince (the oldest and youngest nominees of the evening; both lost, but left an impression). “It’s so important that we support these voices from the outside,” Peele said, “these perspectives we haven’t seen or heard. If you help these stories be told, they will resonate.” Then he was back again, for the audience award, thanking “all the people who came to see it and had insightful conversations about it.” And again, for Breakthrough Director, thanking his mother “for making all my Halloween costumes.”
“Get Out” even received an additional plug for producer Jason Blum, one of a whopping six tributes of a very long evening, for his work supporting low-budget productions at Blumhouse. “I mean, what the fuck, I was supposed to be the successful one!” presenter Ethan Hawke said, ribbing his longtime pal. “Anyone who knows Jason well, knows that he’s silly, loyal, spontaneous. He uses his success not to wield power over people, but to empower others.”
There were some notable gaps in between the “Get Out” celebrations. Chalamet scored the breakthrough actor prize for his tender turn in “Call Me By Your Name,” winning in an eclectic category that included both Mary J. Blige for “Mudbound” and Prince from “Florida Project.” The 21-year-old singled out his expanding network of LaGuardia High School alumni, but also saved some words of praise for Blige, clearly humbled to share the category with her. “Lady Bird” also got its moment when Saoirse Ronan won best actress, thrilling many of the high-profile performers in the room, including Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.
Of course, “Get Out,” “Call Me By Your Name,” and “Lady Bird” were already the big players of the evening, and all three found significant box office success in tandem with near-universal commercial acclaim. The odds were strong that one would win the big prize at the end of the night. It should come as no surprise that “Call Me By Your Name” — a queer twist on a formula that would otherwise look right at home at the arthouse 30 years ago — is a safe consensus choice.
Yet the real upset of the evening was James Franco in the best actor category. While most of the categories featured five nominees, there were six best actors in contention, a list that ranged from the late Harry Dean Stanton (“Lucky”) to Robert Pattinson for his gritty bank robber in “Good Time” and Adam Sander’s semi-dramatic turn in “The Meyerowitz Stories.” While none of these actors have been seen as major awards players, the Gothams (much like the Spirits in February) sometimes provide the opportunity to single out a neglected gem from earlier in the year that deserves one final kudos. Instead, the prize went to Franco, for his oddball transformation into craptastic “The Room” director Tommy Wiseau, a hilarious performance with an unexpected undercurrent of pathos.
The sixth slot in that category speaks to the quirky nature of the Gotham nominating process, which gives the committees a remarkable amount of leeway in shaping the list of nominees. (Full disclosure: I served on the committee for Best Documentary this year, and have served on others in the past.) However, the longer list wound up singling out Franco as he maintains an outside shot in the Best Actor race for the movie, which he also directed. In his acceptance speech, the typically verbose Franco read an excerpt from Greg Sistero’s book that inspired the movie, and thanked “every artist with a dream.”
That sentiment resonated at a moment of extreme change for the film industry. Less than a year after the historic “Moonlight” Best Picture win at the Oscars, the notion that independently produced and unconventional narratives can usurp the awards season conversation is more potent than ever. A decade ago, the Gothams took heat for allowing studio heavyweight “The Departed” to land a Best Feature nomination (it lost to “Half Nelson”), effectively steamrolling the smaller movies. Now, as fewer studios commit to costly awards campaigns and relative newcomers A24, Amazon, and Netflix deepen their clout, the Gothams are a less-alternative awards perspective by default. And that’s actually an encouraging sign.
The ceremony also provides the first window into how a flashy gathering could wrestle with touchy subject matter. Host John Cameron Mitchell did a solid job with the thankless task of pushing along a lengthy evening. His impassioned opening speech about the value of storytelling at a moment when “everything’s fucked up” woke the crowd without lame punchlines. Then came IFP executive director Joana Vicente, who managed to acknowledge the sexual harassment scandals jolting the industry without naming Harvey Weinstein once.
“This has been a tough year for our industry,” she said. “So many painful truths unfolding, sadly much of it involving our industry, where power has been used as a weapon against women and men who have less. We would like to take this moment to recognize all of those women and men who have come forward — and to recognize the journalists telling their stories.”
However, as if to illustrate the awkwardness of an industry at odds with itself, IFP went on to hand one of its tribute awards to Dustin Hoffman, whose fleeting awards prospects for his supporting role in “The Meyerowitz Stories” have been dashed by long-dormant tales of his own womanizing past. (Hoffman delivered a straightforward speech saluting multiple generations of collaborators, and received a standing ovation.)
Then came another reminder of the industry’s contemporary state. When Hoffman finished the speech, the emcee announced that Armie Hammer would take the stage to announce the next award, but Hoffman stayed put. “I forgot something,” he said. “I want to thank Ted Sarandos, who is extraordinary in his passion.” The Netflix content chief was holding court at the center of the room, where the streaming platform — which released “Meyerowitz Stories” — bought five tables for the evening.
It was a visible illustration of the need to kiss the ring. Netflix won two more prizes over the course of the ceremony, for Yancey Ford’s emotional essay film “Strong Island,” and for the ensemble of Dee Rees’ southern period piece “Mudbound.” Both movies remain Oscar players, and even if Netflix has yet to pierce awards season with the same kind of frontrunner status allotted to the bigger winners of the night, its presence illustrated just how badly the company wants a piece of the action.
Still, the evening concluded with a longtime awards player — Sony Pictures Classics — landing the top prize. Just days after “Call Me By Your Name” became the biggest specialty release of 2017, the movie landed the Best Feature prize as a large crowd made its way to the stage: Hammer and Chalamet were joined by director Luca Guadagnino and 90-year-old screenwriter James Ivory, while SPC co-president Michael Barker cheered from the back of the room. Even he seemed surprised.
The finale suggested that while “Get Out” has struck a chord with audiences keen on smart entertainment with a socially conscious bite, there’s considerable momentum for at least one other intimate drama made far beyond the limitations of studio formula (but don’t count out “Lady Bird,” either). If these are the awards-season frontrunners, it’s already one of the most exciting showdowns in years. The Gothams may not predict the Oscars, but this year they suggest a few promising outcomes in the months to come.