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For Your Consideration: Independent Spirit Awards Have Plenty to Choose, Little Of It Oscar Friendly

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire October 31, 2011 at 1:08PM

With the recent announcements of the Gotham Award nominations and the British Independent Film Award nominations, it only seems appropriate for this week’s column to take on the granddaddy of independent film awards: Film Independent’s Spirit Awards. With nominations to be announced November 29, the awards promise to (as always) be a surprising and at times unexpected representation of the year in American independent film.
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"The Descendants"
Fox Searchlight "The Descendants"

With the recent announcements of the Gotham Award nominations and the British Independent Film Award nominations, it only seems appropriate for this week’s column to take on the granddaddy of independent film awards: Film Independent’s Spirit Awards. With nominations to be announced November 29, the awards promise to (as always) be a surprising and at times unexpected representation of the year in American independent film.

One thing that can be expected: This year’s event promises to be much less Oscar friendly than last year’s Spirits, which was dominated by Oscar crossover. The best actress category, for example, featured all five Oscar nominees—and identical winners. This year, there might not even be one (though Glenn Close might have something to say about that).

Not that it’s a bad thing. It’s actually quite refreshing, since it gives opportunity to honor many deserving indies a little too outside the mainstream for Academy tastes.

Let’s break it down with respect to some of the Spirits’ major categories to see where things might be headed. When considering what is seemingly left out, keep in mind the awards’ eligibility rules.

For example, “The Tree of Life” has a budget that exceeds $20 million, placing it outside the awards’ limitations (EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally suggested Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” was budgeted outside the limit of qualification. This is not the case.)

Meanwhile, “The Artist,” “Melancholia,” “Shame,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Tyrannosaur,” “We Need To Talk About Kevin” and “Weekend” are not American productions, thus excluding them from all categories except “foreign film,” where one would suspect a lot of them will pop up.

There’s also the tricky thing of films that haven’t been theatrically released showing up, thanks to their festival screenings. “Sound of My Voice” would be a film to watch out for if that ends up being the case in their regard. So that all said, here’s some best guesses.

Best Feature

Prediction: The Descendants, Drive, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Midnight in Paris, Take Shelter
Spoilers: Beginners, Like Crazy, Win Win, Rampart, 50/50, Meek’s Cutoff

With the exception of Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and perhaps Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” this race is unlikely to have much crossover with Oscar’s top category (whereas last year, “127 Hours,” “Black Swan,” “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone” all double dipped). There’s no shortage of possibilities as to which films might join all-but-assured “Descendants” in the category: Jonathan Levine’s “50/50,” Mike Mills’ “Beginners,” Maryam Keshavarz’s “Circumstance,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” Miranda July’s “The Future,” Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre,” Drake Doremus’ “Like Crazy,” Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” Oren Moverman’s “Rampart,” Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” and Tom McCarthy’s “Win Win.”

In the end, it seems likely that Oscar friendliness will win out. The Spirits have historically always given their top prize to whatever indie resonates the most with Academy voters and there’s no doubt that will be “The Descendants.” Though Alexander Payne has won in this category twice already (for “Election” and “Sideways”), so perhaps voters might end up wanting to spread the love?


Best Lead Female

Prediction: Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Felicity Jones (Like Crazy), Adepero Oduye (Pariah), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff)
Spoilers: Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre), Brit Marling (Another Earth), Miranda July (The Future), Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground)

As noted, last year this category lined up perfectly with Oscar.  With the three women most likely to nab Oscar noms—Viola Davis, Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams (for “My Week With Marilyn,” at least)—all ineligible, that’s not going to be the case this time around.

Which opens up the opportunity for the Spirits to reward some of the year’s most interesting new actresses, like Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), Felicity Jones (“Like Crazy”) and Adepero Oduye (“Pariah”). Joining them is likely to be two considerably more accomplished women in Michelle Williams (for “Meek’s Cutoff”) and Glenn Close (“Albert Nobbs”). 

Close is probably the most likely of these actresses to also nab an Oscar nom, and only once in the past 12 years (when Shareeka Epps won for “Half Nelson”) has the winner here not also been an Oscar nominee.  But watch out for Elizabeth Olsen. It will be a shame if she doesn’t end up getting Academy love, so perhaps Spirit voters will break their own trend to reward them alternatively. They also love to give this award to newcomers (Epps, Ellen Page, Gabourey Sidibe)...

Best Lead Male

Prediction: George Clooney (The Descendants), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (50/50), Ryan Gosling (Drive), Woody Harrelson (Rampart), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)
Spoilers:  Paul Giamatti (Win Win), Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy), Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris), Ewan McGregor (Beginners)

Certainly the most competitive of all the acting categories, the race for best lead male is a doozy that could offer an awesomely mixed bag of actors. George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Michael Shannon and Woody Harrelson gave what some would consider career performances this year; it’s hard to imagine any of them being snubbed.

The last slot is a bit more up for grabs, but it seems like it could be an opportunity to reward Joseph-Gordon Levitt for his excellent work in “50/50,” a film that’s failing to gain much awards traction overall. Gordon-Levitt has become an iconic indie presence the past few years, from “Mysterious Skin” to “Brick” to “(500) Days of Summer,” and tops himself with his heartfelt work in “50/50.” But even if he gets nominated, Gordon-Levitt will have to contend with a definite frontrunner in Clooney; he’s never won an Indie Spirit and it seems unlikely anything could stop him this time around.

Best Supporting Female and Best Supporting Male

Female Prediction: Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter), Anna Kendrick (50/50), Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs), Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Shailenne Woodley (The Descendants)
Female Spoilers: Kim Wayans (Pariah), Amy Ryan (Win Win), Melanie Laurent (Beginners), Robin Wright (Rampart)

Male Prediction: Albert Brooks (Drive), Bruce Greenwood (Meek’s Cutoff), John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), John C. Reilly (Terri)
Male Spoilers: Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre), Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris), Ben Foster (Rampart), José Julián (A Better Life)

The Spirits tend to get even more wildly unpredictable when it comes to the supporting categories (who predicted Ashley Bell (“The Last Exorcism”) and Daphne Rubin-Vega (“Jack Goes Boating”) over Mila Kunis (“Black Swan”) and Dianne Weist (“Rabbit Hole”)?), so continue to take these suggestions cautiously.

But it seems pretty likely that actress-of-the-year Jessica Chastain will get some love for “Take Shelter,” as will Oscar frontrunner Christopher Plummer for his work in “Beginners.” They’ll likely both take home trophies come February as well. But if that ends up being the case, they likely will have won over an impressive array of performances. Newcomer Shailenne Woodley (“The Descendants”) and could get nominated, as could Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes, both of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (and Hawkes won last year for “Winter’s Bone”).

Also possible are Anna Kendrick of “50/50” Albert Brooks of “Drive,” Bruce Greenwood of “Meek’s Cutoff” and Janet McTeer from “Albert Nobbs.” Whatever the mix, expect a diversity of performances in true Spirit Award-spirit… even if Plummer and Chastain can pretty much start writing their acceptance speeches now.


Best Director and Best First Feature:

Director Prediction: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Mike Mills (Beginners), Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff)
Director Spoilers: Oren Moverman (Rampart),  Drake Doremus (Like Crazy), Tom McCarthy (Win Win), Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre)

First Feature Prediction: Another Earth (Mike Cahill),  Circumstance (Maryam Keshavarz), Higher Ground (Vera Farmiga), Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin), Pariah (Dee Rees)
First Feature Spoilers: Bellflower (Evan Glodell), Gun Hill Road (Rashaad Ernesto Green), Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij)

One of the most interesting races to watch is the one that has no Oscar equivalent: Best first feature. 2011 was an exceptional year for first time filmmakers (both stateside and internationally, as a similar category at the British Independent Film Award can attest). Sean Durkin of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is the clear frontrunner, but he could be joined by a lineup refreshing diverse in gender and race, from Dee Rees of “Pariah” to Maryam Keshavarz in “Circumstance” to Rashaad Ernesto Green in “Gun Hill Road.”


Best Foreign Film

Prediction: The Artist, Melancholia, A Separation, Shame, We Need To Talk About Kevin
Spoilers: Attack The Block, Kill List, Le Havre, Miss Bala, My Week With Marilyn, Pina, The Skin I Live In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tyrannosaur, War is Declared, Weekend, Where Do We Go Now?

This category is always quite interesting in that it often honors both foreign-language films and English-language films made outside the United States. As a result, last year saw “The King’s Speech” beat “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and “Of Gods and Men.” In previous years,  “Once,” “The Lives of Others,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Dancer In The Dark” all took home the prize. 

This year seems like a particularly English-language-friendly year (in large part thanks to such an impressive year for UK cinema), with “Melancholia,” “My Week With Marilyn,” “Shame,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Tyrannosaur” and “We Need To Talk About Kevin” all in the mix. Rarely have more than two English-language films made the cut, but it seems reasonable to suggest 2011 might be an exception. Though it seems like a film with no language might end up taking home the prize: Michel Hazanavicius’s silent film ode, “The Artist.”


Best Documentary

Prediction: Bill Cunningham New York, Buck, Hell and Back Again, The Interrupters, Into The Abyss
Spoilers: Better This World, The Black Power Mix Tape 1967 - 1975, Dragonslayer, How To Die In Oregon, Page One, The Redemption of General Butt Naked, We Were Here

As last week’s IDA Award nominations and Cinema Eye nominations made clear, another thing 2011 has going for it is an extraordinary output of documentary filmmaking.  How the Spirit Awards end up choosing to represent that is probably the toughest call of all; historically, they have very much gone their own way in this category. 

Steve James’ “The Interrupters” would seem the frontrunner, but last year eventual Oscar winner “Inside Job” wasn’t even nominated. There’s also the question of eligibility, as many of the this year’s most acclaimed docs—“The Arbor,” “Project Nim,” and “Senna,” for example—are not American productions. This makes it perhaps the most interesting of all categories to watch, largely because of much it probably won’t look anything like it’s Oscar counterpart.

For Your Consideration is a weekly column by indieWIRE’s Associate Editor and awards guru, Peter Knegt. Follow him on Twitter and check out his weekly Oscar prediction chart





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