Earlier this week, awards season really kicked off with the year's first actual awards announcement: The Gotham Independent Film Awards. Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone" led the pack with three nominations, including best feature, best ensemble performance (for Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Lauren Sweetser, Garret Dillahunt, and Kevin Breznahan), and best breakthrough performance (Lawrence).
Those are the same three nominations Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" grabbed last year in the film's very first stop on the way to dominating the Academy Awards. At the time, few were brave enough to predict that outcome, just like essentially no one would do the same regarding "Bone" at this point in time. Which is not at all to suggest that "Winter's Bone" is going to surprise anyone in that regard. The most it can truly hope for is a few major nominations - notably best picture, best actress (Lawrence), and best adapted screenplay (Granik and Anne Rosellini). And if there's one thing the Gothams just did to the bigger picture, it's throwing a bone to "Bone"'s momentum in making that happen.
Beyond that, there's probably very little the Gothams have suggested about the overall awards race. Handed out by Independent Feature Project (IFP) for the past twenty years, they have always offered an interesting and generally deserving batch of nominations. But they are also quite inconsistent both category to category and year to year, which to some degree makes them a bit difficult to prove a stable predictor of anything beyond them.
Last year, for example, they nominated tiny, deserving films like "Amreeka," "Big Fan" and "The Maid" alongside Oscar players "A Serious Man" and "The Hurt Locker" (and over "Precious" and "A Single Man"). This year, "Bone" was by far the smallest film of the bunch (both in terms of production budget and mainstream accessibility) as it was joined by Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right,” and, most surprisingly, Matt Reeves’ “Let Me In.” Though they are certainly all independent films, most of them had budgets, star and distributor power that far exceeds the likes of "Winter's Bone," and most definitely the likes of "Big Fan" or "The Maid."
This isn't a new phenomenon. Their rather vague submission criteria (budgets have to made "within a limited means") has allowed everything from $40 million budgeted "The Departed" to multiple micro budgeted features to make it into the race.
Another result of the Gothams' strange rules was Derek Cianfrance not making the breakthrough director category because it was Cianfrance's second film. One would think it was more of a definitive breakthrough then actual nominees like "The Company Men"'s John Wells and "I Love You Phillip Morris"'s Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who while its their debuts, have been prominent names in the industry).
While "Valentine" should remain happy with its nomination in the feature film category, some films were surprisingly left out altogether. John Cameron Mitchell's "Rabbit Hole," Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," Aaron Schneider's "Get Low," and Jay and Mark Duplass's "Cyrus" were all shut out. "Hole" seemed like a strong contender for best feature; "Low" seemed likely for breakthrough director; and all three of them seemed like reasonable contenders for ensemble. Perhaps December releases "Somewhere" and "Hole" didn't end up submitting in time, but "Get Low" and "Cyrus" surely did (and for any decrying "Animal Kingdom"'s snubs, it was not eligible as a non-U.S. production).
"Rabbit Hole"'s Miles Teller also would have made a fine addition to the breakthrough performance category, which ended up nomination sure-fire winner Jennifer Lawrence alongside Prince Adu ("Prince of Broadway"), Ronald Bronstein ("Daddy Longlegs"), Greta Gerwig ("Greenberg") and John Ortiz ("Jack Goes Boating"). All fine choices, though "The Kids Are All Right"'s Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska were definitely more obvious ones. They both had done work previously, but certainly no more than Gerwig, who has been well known in indie circles for some time. Unlike "breakthrough director," the rules here are simply that the film "brought them to prominence."
Other notable snubs came in the best documentary category, where the likes of "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," "Marwencol," "Restrepo," "The Tillman Story," and "Waiting For 'Superman'" were among the many deserving docs left out (if they did all submit) for an equally deserving batch that included "12th & Delaware," "Inside Job," "The Oath," "Public Speaking," and "Sweetgrass." The latter two of which probably caught folks the most off guard, though the Gothams have always been very unpredictable in this category. Last year saw relatively unknown docs like Anne Aghion's "My Neighbor My Killer" and Michael Almereyda's "Paradise" in over "The Cove," "The September Issue," "We Live In Public," and "Anvil! The Story of Anvil."
But instead of continuing on decrying what didn't make this year's Gothams, it's appropriate to celebrate what did. It's overall an excellent group of work, and in many ways will draw attention to films that definitely need it. And that's not referencing the "Black Swan"'s and the "Blue Valentine"'s. It's doubtful much in the way of box office will come their way as a result of their nomination here. But it will should aid all five nominated docs in getting a few more looks, and will definitely help the nominees for Best Film Not Playing In a Theater Near You (bizarrely sponsored by The Royal Bank of Canada): Robert Greene's "Kati with an i," Mike Ott's "Littlerock," Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood's "On Coal River," Lynn True and Nelson Walker's "Summer Pasture," and Laurel Nakadate's "The Wolf Knife."
The awards also once again has brought some notable attention to female filmmakers. Last year, female directors Kathryn Bigelow and Ry Russo-Young both ended up winning awards, and this year there's 10 possibilities for that to happen again. The doc category also has two female-directed nominees, and two of the "breakthrough directors" are women. More over, Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right” and Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” were the only films besides "Winter's Bone" to garner multiple nominations, making the three most nominated films all directed by women. And it would be quite surprising if a few of them didn't go home with awards come November 29th. While "Kids" and "Bone" could very well also go onto Oscar noms (and are assured to dominate the Spirit Awards), that's not really what the Gothams are all about. It's probably mildly helpful for both films to get some attention here, but in the end they could have survived what would have been a bizarre snub and made it to Oscar night anyway ("Precious" certainly did). So while the Gothams may not be much of an "Oscar precursor," that's an excellent thing for a lot of deserving films and filmmakers that probably wouldn't get near an Oscar anyway.
Previous editions of this column:
For Your Consideration: 10 Underdog Actors
For Your Consideration: 10 Underdog Actresses
For Your Consideration: Save For "Love" Snub, Foreign Language Submissions Uncontroversial
For Your Consideration: Post-Toronto Oscar Predictions
For Your Consideration: Updating Oscar Contenders In The Eye of The Storm
For Your Consideration: 10 Things The Fall Fests Should Say About Awards Season
For Your Consideration: Assessing Oscar In The Calm Before The Storm