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Spirit Awards 2011: Previewing An Exceptionally Oscar-Friendly Showdown

Spirit Awards 2011: Previewing An Exceptionally Oscar-Friendly Showdown

This Saturday afternoon, Film Independent’s Spirit Awards will return to the beach in Santa Monica (after last year’s unpopular move downtown) for its 26th annual edition. And as indieWIRE‘s recent poll of critics and bloggers suggest, it’s going to be an interesting afternoon.

More often than not, the Spirits have a clear frontrunner largely determined by the film with the most Oscar nominations. Last year, for example, “Precious” was the Spirits’ only best-feature nominee that was also nominated for a best picture Oscar. The film swept all five of its nominated categories, which included best picture and best director. In 2007 and 2008, “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno” saw similar successes; each was the only nominee that year with significant Oscar crossover.

However, there’s usually only one film that receives both a Spirit and an Oscar nomination. In fact, there have only been two exceptions in the Spirits’ history: In 2006, and this year.

In 2006, Oscar nominees “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote” and “Good Night and Good Luck” were all nominated for best picture at the Spirits. “Brokeback” won; oddly enough, the film that beat it at the Oscars – “Crash” – was eligible at the Spirits but didn’t receive a best-picture nomination. (It won best first feature and best supporting actor for Matt Dillon). That same year, the best actor category saw four of the five nominees also nominated for Oscar; the two awards shared “Capote” star Phillip Seymour Hoffman as their winner.

This year, a record four of the five films share Oscar and Spirits best-picture nominations: “Black Swan,” “127 Hours,” “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone” (“Greenberg” is the odd man out). This crossover extends well beyond best picture. The best actress category at the Spirits offers all five Oscar nominees: Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams (though they also have a sixth nominee in Greta Gerwig). Never in the 26-year history of the Spirits has a category matched Oscar nominee for nominee.

Of course, in 2006, there were still only five best picture nominees at the Oscars. If that were still the case, it’s likely that only one of the films nominated at the Spirits would have also done so at the Oscars: “Black Swan.”

However, there’s definitely two films that could take down “Black Swan:” The $4 million-budgeted “The Kids Are All Right” and the $2 million-budgeted “Winter’s Bone,” both of which feel a bit more “indie” than “Swan.” Spirit voters may feel that Arnofsky’s film has found enough success in its $100-million gross — though to be fair, that film’s $13 million budget is also fairly frugal.

A likely scenario would see Aronofsky winning best director (he never has) and either “Kids” or “Bone” taking the top prize. If “Bone” wins, it will follow “Precious” in breaking a serious winning streak for “Kids” distributor Focus Features and “Swan”‘s Fox Searchlight. Combined, they distribute four of the five best-feature nominees; last year’s “Precious” (distributed by Lionsgate) broke Focus’ and Searchlight’s seven-year collective winning streak.

But what of Oscar frontrunner Natalie Portman? At the Spirits, is she a shoo-in to beat the same group of women as the Oscars? Probably. But if there’s any prize “Bone” breakout Jennifer Lawrence can win, it’s this one. And look out for indie staple Michelle Williams. Voters may feel guilt over the Spirits’ bizarre disregard for “Blue Valentine” outside her nomination and give Williams a (deserved) first trophy after four nominations.

Academy Awards host James Franco is the sole Oscar nominee in the best actor category and it’s very likely he’ll win. (It’s hard to imagine he won’t attend, even with Oscar rehearsals. He’s redefined multitasking; his latest project, films he directed with Gus Van Sant, will debut Saturday morning at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills.)

Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone.” Roadside Attractions.

For supporting acting, “Winter’s Bone” could pull of a double win in John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, unless the Spirits opt for bigger stars in Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Watts (who give worthy performances themselves). “Black Swan” should take cinematography, while “Kids Are All Right” is a good bet for screenplay. And there’s be room for the less “Indiewood” indies — “Tiny Furniture” and “Daddy Longlegs” are among the films being predicted in categories like Best First Feature and the John Cassavetes Award (which honors low-budget filmmaking).

But back to the Spirits’ being a semi-preview of Oscar. In that respect, the two most anticipated moments will come when they announce best foreign film and best documentary. The former could see the Spirits’ honor Oscar favorite “The King’s Speech” over the likes of “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and “Of Gods and Men” — a likely move, but one that will probably find many groans for those hoping the Spirits go in a less predictable and Oscar-pandering direction.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” will likely take best documentary. What happens when anonymous street artist Banksy does or doesn’t accept his prize should tell us a bit about what might happen if he wins at the Kodak Theater Sunday night. Then again, he could very well not win at the Oscars, so the Spirits might be the only chance we get to see what happens when “Exit” wins a major award.

Either way, check in with indieWIRE for extensive Spirit coverage starting around noon PST tomorrow. There will be plenty to discuss.

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