By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 2, 2014 at 2:03PM
On the eve of the Oscars and the immediate aftermath of the Independent Spirit Awards, the chaotic war of art and commerce epitomized by this season suddenly felt very small. Late at night, word got around that New Wave master Alain Resnais had died in Paris at 91.
It was one of those news items that felt both inevitable and surreal to anyone passionate about the movies. It concluded a career that spanned half a century and spawned countless cinephiles with seminal enigmas of cinematic ingenuity, from "Night and Fog" to "Last Year at Marienbad" and "Hiroshima Mon Amour." Just last month, Resnais unveiled his final work, the theater adaptation "The Life of Riley," while the time travel head trip "Je T'Aime, Je T'aime" landed a weeklong revival at New York's Film Forum. For most of his career, Resnais was a ubiquitous symbol of cinema's power to riff on time and memory with transcendent, probing results. More than just an icon in the history of 20th-century art, Resnais proved it had no tangible restrictions. "I never looked to make difficult movies on purpose," he once said. "You make the films you want to make."
With his finest achievements, Resnais made that commitment look easy. But some 5,600 miles away from Paris, on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, it seemed harder than ever. In the press tent behind the stage for the Independent Spirit Awards, Brad Pitt looked out at a roomful of journalists, clutching the award for best feature that he shared for producing "12 Years a Slave," and didn't smile. "The risk was me being a distraction on this," he said. "The cold reality is that this is a hard movie to get made."
It was an assertion that stood out more than the movie's artistic credentials. At the Spirits, the celebration of the effortless innovation epitomized by committed individualistic filmmakers like Resnais was secondary to its showcasing of a constant dilemma: an environment designed to recognize autonomous creativity still wound up marginalizing it.
For years, the Spirits have faced criticism (some of it in these parts) for allowing larger-budgeted productions, generally those with prominent roles in Oscar season, to dominate the awards. Last year, that allowed the slick comedy "Silver Linings Playbook" to dominate and Jennifer Lawrence to practice her Oscar speech; this time around, Steve McQueen's slavery drama got the dry run, nabbing five awards in major categories. In the case of "12 Years a Slave," however, its very existence was something of an anomaly in Hollywood, and so its victory felt less like a cheat than usual. In a sense, the Spirits got lucky this time.
Aside from "12 Years a Slave," there were a few other notable wins that improved the outcome of the proceedings and better reflected the real indie community operating outside the realm of celebrities and seven figure budgets. Nat Sanders snagged the Spirits' inaugural editing prize for his work on "Short Term 12," though anyone who has noticed Sanders' work on meticulously crafted low-budget projects like his first feature credit "Medicine for Melancholy" and Lynn Shelton's heavily improvised "Humpday" realized the prize recognized more than just one achievement. In his acceptance speech, Sanders (whose early credits included an episode of "The Biggest Loser") thanked "Medicine for Melancholy" director Barry Jenkins for "saving me from a career in reality television."
It was an appropriate reflection of the struggles faced by young creatives with an instinctual aversion to commerciality. The sentiment resurfaced again when director Chad Hartigan accepted the John Cassavetes Award for his unassuming character study "This Is Martin Bonner," which came and went from theaters last year with barely any noise aside from a handful of strong reviews. It would have been nice to see the prize go to a truly off-kilter piece of imaginative filmmaking like fellow nominee Andrew Bujalski's "Computer Chess." But Bonner's gradually involving tale of an alienated older man (Paul Eenhorn in one of last year's best roles) rebuilding his life as a volunteer aid to newly released prisoners still had the restraint and maturity to cast an ideal contrast with bigger commercial efforts. It didn't hurt that Hartigan pointed out in his acceptance speech that he made the movie for a paltry sum of $42,000.
But then, moments later, Matthew McConaughey was onstage accepting his acting prize for "Dallas Buyers Club," in another possible rehearsal session for Sunday night. "We had a little more than $42,000," he said with a smirk, meaning well, but also singling out the same elephant that lumbers through the room each year.