They may be idiosyncratic, but the Film Independent Spirit Awards nomination juries have moved away from duplicating the Oscars, so that this year the awards given out in a chilly white tent in Santa Monica delivered big wins to truly indie films from emerging filmmakers and indie stalwarts as well as a smattering of Oscar contenders who may win again on Sunday. Host Aubrey Plaza started off with a jab at the Oscars: “Their first choice to host was no one, but they’re booked for tomorrow.”
But the warmth in the room was real, as people cheered their favorites. Like all awards voting, at the Spirits the films that have been seen by the most of the organization’s 7000 voters have the best shot at winning. Best Leading Female Glenn Close (“The Wife”) and Supporting Female Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) are the likeliest to repeat at the Oscars and both won rousing standing ovations from the indie community, with tables ranging from A24, Annapurna, Sony Pictures Classics, and Fox Searchlight to Netflix, Amazon Studios and the Sundance Institute.
Annapurna’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” took home three awards, including Best Film and Director. Following up his six “Moonlight” wins two years ago, Barry Jenkins begged producers and financiers to hire more women, thanked Annapurna owner Megan Ellison, and told director Lynne Ramsay (“You Were Never Really Here”), “this award has your DNA in it.”
Fox Searchlight’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” won two awards, including Supporting Male for Richard E. Grant, who is up against favorite Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”) on Oscar Sunday. Choking back tears, he said that his performance as a flamboyant gay New York alcoholic is an homage to the generation of those who died of AIDS. Adapted Screenplay was won by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, who are in the running for the Oscar against “BlacKkKlansman.” “She did this little thing called directing the movie,” said Holofcener as she insisted on bringing filmmaker Marielle Heller, who did not land an Oscar nomination, up to the stage.
In past years, Best Film selections often mirrored the eventual Oscar winners, including “The Artist,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight” and “Moonlight.” Last March, Original Screenplay Oscar winner Jordan Peele took home the Best Feature Indie Spirit for “Get Out” while Frances McDormand, Allison Janney, and Sam Rockwell all landed Spirits before accepting their inevitable Oscars.
But this year “If Beale Street Could Talk” was not nominated for Best Picture or Director at the Oscars, where King is the frontrunner for Supporting Actress, Jenkins is competing for Adapted Screenplay and Nicholas Britell is up for Original Score.
Among the Spirit winners who did not land Oscar nominations, non-attendee Ethan Hawke (starring in “True West” on Broadway) won Best Leading Male for Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” “Leave No Trace” director Debra Granik took the Bonnie Award for a mid-career woman filmmaker (worth $50,000) and Morgan Neville scored Best Documentary for Focus Features’ “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
“I want to thank Fred Rogers,” said Neville. “Fred knew that kindness was something more than what you see on a bumper sticker. It’s like oxygen, which we need to survive.” (Several members of the Academy Documentary branch have told me that they assumed his film would sail in, and highly rated other lower-profile films like “Minding the Gap” instead.)
A24’s “Eighth Grade,” the coming-of-age comedy written and directed by Bo Burnham, won First-Time Screenplay, which was no surprise as Burnham had won Original Screenplay at the WGA. He thanked “Elsie Fisher, Elsie Fisher, Elsie Fisher,” saying, “13-year-old girls deserve to be paid attention to!”
Best First Time Director went to Bay Area filmmaker Boots Riley (Annapurna’s “Sorry to Bother You?”) beating out “Hereditary,” Ari Aster’s smart horror flick. “People are trying to change the way the world is,” he said. “And, rightly so, people are responding to that.”
The Robert Altman award — given to a casting director and ensemble of a movie — went to Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria,” in which Tilda Swinton plays three roles. The Amazon Studios title also picked up Best Cinematography, and the distributor also claimed an Editing win for “You Were Never Really Here.”
Of course the Oscars were the subject of some debate, as attendees wondered if Hollywood studio antipathy toward deep-pocketed streamer Netflix would impact the fate of “Roma,” which did win the Spirit for Best International Film. “I’m optimistic that we are reaching a moment when greater diversity is happening in cinema and will very soon make this category irrelevant,” said Alfonso Cuarón.
The Cassavetes Spirit Award for a movie under $500,000 went to Jim McKay’s “En El Septimo Dia”; happily for him, the filmmaker was off in Vancouver shooting his next film.