Last week I completed my quest to see all 35 of the independent films nominated for this year’s Spirit Awards. This meant weeks upon weeks of trekking to Tribeca through snow drifts, slick ice and high winds, and sitting through some heartbreaking moments, some grotesque sequences, and some deeply pretentious drivel. But I also saw a lot of truly daring and enthralling cinema – much of it on its way to theaters near you this year!
So now that I’ve done the legwork it’s time to vote. Below I break down my thoughts on who will win, and who should win.
Best Foreign Film
Unlike the Oscars, the Spirit Award’s foreign film eligibility is defined by place of origin — not language. So, English-language pictures are not disqualified from this category. This means The King’s Speech is competing against the Irish drama Kisses, the odd Thai fantasy Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and two French dramas: Mademoiselle Chambon, which centers on an illicit affair, and Of Gods and Men, a docudrama about martyred monks. While The King’s Speech scored 12 Oscar nods, it only managed this single nomination for the Spirit Awards, and I think it’ll win with ease as this biopic has been a resounding crowd pleaser. But if you ask me who should take home this honor, I’d say Kisses. While The King’s Speech is a sweeping epic with an admirable A-list cast, it was exactly what I expected it would be – a color by numbers drama if you will. Kisses, on the other hand, was a deeply engaging string of surprises, alternating moments of wonder and danger to create a truly glorious portrait of first love. Hopefully its nomination will be enough to garner a wider audience now that’s available on DVD.
Will Win: The King’s Speech
Should Win: Kisses
These five docs have little to nothing in common, other than this shared nomination. Sweetgrass rejects the standard doc devices of interviews, narration, and music, and follows a family of sheepherders as they carry out their dying tradition. Exit Through the Gift Shop falls into more modern conventions, throwing twists and turns that make the audience question everything about this meta doc, its masked director, street art and its value. Thunder Soul is a nostalgic and sugary sweet look at the life of a dedicated high school music teacher, while Marwencol reveals a tender but troubling portrait of an angry drunk turned delicate outsider artist. RESTREPO is the sternest of the bunch, presenting a politics-free look at American troops in Afghanistan. There are some truly wonderful and thought-provoking docs in this group, and while my personal favorite is Marwencol, I think the front-runners here are Exit and RESTREPO. And while the Academy Awards may prove too stodgy (or fearful of potential rebellious antics) to pick Banksy’s transgressive history/denouncement of street art, the Spirit Awards are known for their edge. My bet is this one will go to the man in the monkey mask.
Will Win: Exit Through the Gift Shop
Should Win: Exit Through the Gift Shop
Pretty stiff competition in this category, as each has garnered praise for its uniquely captured world. Greenberg shows a jaded L.A, while Tiny Furniture displays a quirky yet posh side of NYC, and Black Swan paints a twisted take on the city that never sleeps. Winter’s Bone reveals the bleak and bittersweet sides of the drug-addled Ozarks, and Never Let Me Go exhibits a pastel-colored alternative past. They are all striking without distracting from the narrative, but only one got an Oscar nod. This one is going to Black Swan.
Will Win: Matthew Libatique (Black Swan)
Should Win: Adam Kimmel (Never Let Me Go)
Should Have Been Nominated: Jeff Malmberg (Marwencol)
John Cassavetes Award
The John Cassavetes Award is for films whose production costs were less than half a million dollars. This tends to mean a handful of films that feel low-budget, sometimes to their detriment. Yep, generally films in this category feel a little rough around the edges, whether it be because of a rambling narrative or the kind of non-ending that has become standard for the mumblecore genre. Regardless of these drawbacks, each year this category presents something delightfully unexpected. Admittedly, I wasn’t fond of the semi-autobiographical bad dad drama Daddy Longlegs or the pretentious and elegiac road movie Obselidia, but I think that The Exploding Girl offered a delicate love story while LBS. presented an inspiring (though muddled) tale of personal salvation, and Lovers of Hate created an unconventional love-triangle tale that effectively blended the mumblecore aesthetic with slapstick and horror. Overall a great showing, but my bet is that Lovers of Hate will get the love on Awards night.
Will Win: Lovers of Hate
Should Win: Lovers of Hate
Best First Feature
So if you remember what I’ve said about these films you’ve probably figured out this is kind of an award for a noble first attempt. Each of these films had problems, most often in the third act, but they generally showcase a promising new filmmaker. I think Everything Strange and New is the long shot here, as it’s a challenging film with no discernible arc. Both Get Low and Night Catches Us are ambitious efforts, and period pieces to boot! However, the former struggles in its more dramatic scenes, and the latter fails to fully develop its setting. Then The Last Exorcism and Tiny Furniture explored new facets in their respective genres, but both suffered from a poorly constructed final sequence. Some truly intriguing features here, but I think for sheer spunk and its dead-on depiction of twenty-something life in New York, this is Tiny Furniture’s for the taking.
Will Win: Tiny Furniture
Should Win: Tiny Furniture
Best First Screenplay
This category is generally full of films whose plots may meander, but whose dialogue is distinctive — for better or worse. Notably, this year each centers on a love story. Obselidia was an offbeat story of love with winding discussions of the end of the world. Lovely, Still was a golden years romance with a wince-inducing third act twist. Monogamy was a relationship drama that dabbled with detective/noir conventions to explore a theme of wedding day blues. Tiny Furniture follows an apathetic college-grad looking for love in all the wrong places – a.k.a. New York’s hipster scene. And Jack Goes Boating centers on a lovable loser’s quest to win the woman he adores by learning how to cook, swim, and boat. While some of these were daring, inventive and deservedly praised, the best of the bunch is undoubtedly Jack Goes Boating, which was Glaudini adapted from his stage play. However, Tiny Furniture has gotten a lot of love from the indie community, whose made its writer and star, Lena Dunham, their newest It Girl. Though I’m slightly baffled by this nomination as Dunham is credited as having written the 2009 feature Creative Nonfiction, I think this round may go to the “new” indie ingénue.
Will Win: Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture)
Should Win: Robert Glaudini (Jack Goes Boating)
David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), Todd Solondz (Life During Wartime), Nicole Holofcener (Please Give),
Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini (Winter’s Bone), and Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg (The Kids Are All Right)
Two of these nominees are nominated for the Spirit’s Best Picture as well, and the same two, The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone, scored Oscar nominations – in Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted screenplay respectively. This should give you a pretty good idea of the front-runners in this category. As for the rest, Solondz’s ensemble piece is full of dynamic dialogue, but its rambling flow makes it the long-shot. Sure, Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of his acclaimed play works beautifully and never feels like a converted stage-play, and Holofcener’s dialogue is biting in bubbly in turn, revealing a bittersweet side to being upper class, but these NY-set dramas paled in comparison to the front-runners. (Maybe two heads are better than one.) When deciding who will take this prize, it’s a question of dialogue over atmosphere, for while Kids is full of chatter and banter, Winter’s strongest moments are visual. Based on past winners ((500) Days of Summer, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Savages) I’m going to say witty dialogue will win the day.
Will Win: Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg (The Kids Are All Right)
Should Win: Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini (Winter’s Bone)
Best Supporting Male
Here you have some truly talented supporting players. Ortiz reprised his role from the stage play in its adaptation, Jack Goes Boating, but it never felt like a re-tread or a stagey performance. Jackson played against type, portraying a gentle and soft-spoken old man. Ruffalo was a convincing, lovable hipster oaf, and Murray was effervescent as a smooth-talking funeral director. But come on, this one is going to Hawkes! He played against type, exuded menace and spoke volumes in his stillness. If he doesn’t win this award, I’ll be absolutely appalled.
Will Win: John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)
Should Win: John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone),
Should Have Been Nominated: Rhys Ifans (Greenberg)
Best Supporting Female
Bell was a girl possessed, Dickey a brutal Ozarks matriarch. Janney overshared and overmedicated her kids, while Rubin-Vega reprised her stage role as an unhappily married woman and Watts had sex on Samuel L. Jackson and sneered a lot. In this group are some interesting performances, to be sure, but I think this one is Dickey’s to lose. She’s best-known for her work on TV sitcoms, but her turn in Winter’s Bone is both dark and convincing. The pivotal climax scene in which she plays a disturbing mother-figure to the film’s tattered heroine during a crucial but grisly errand is likely to garner her this honor, and rightly so.
Will Win: Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone)
Should Win: Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone)
Should Have Been Nominated: Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right)
Best Male Lead
Bronstein was a bad dad, Eckhart a grieving father. Stiller was a groaner, while Reilly was a lovable loser and Franco a cocky adventurer. On the surface, these roles have little in common, but actually each is an antihero. And while the antihero has become a clichéd protagonist, each actor found something fresh in these devilish men. Bronstein, the nonprofessional of the bunch, brought a manic energy to his neglectful father that was so electric that it filled me with anxiety. Reilly was charming in his latest turn as a goofy guy in love, and Stiller took a chance with a serious (and seriously flawed) role. But these portrayals are easily overshadowed by the endurance performance of Franco in 127 Hours, in which most of the movie is him and him alone. I was most impressed with Eckhart’s heart-wrenching portrayal of a man in mourning in Rabbit Hole, but I think the audacity of Danny Boyle’s one-man survival drama will win out here.
Will Win: James Franco (127 Hours)
Should Win: Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole)
Should Have Been Nominated: Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine)
Best Female Lead
Now this category has a rarity: 6 nominees, and 5 of those are also up for the Best Actress Oscar this year. While Gerwig hasn’t scored an Oscar nod, her star is undeniably on the rise, but she’s undoubtedly the long-shot here. Lawrence was fantastic in Winter’s Bone, favoring subtlety over hair-tossing, eye-rolling and lip-biting, which seem to be among the favored tools of Hollywood’s current crop of ingénues. Yet, despite the fact that awards season love a new starlet, she’s likely to be outshone by indie darlings Williams and Portman, and A-listers Bening and Kidman. Williams raw and bare performance in Blue Valentine raised eyebrows and MPAA ratings, while Bening and Kidman crafted a careful and poignant portrait of a wife and mother. None of these easy feats – yet Portman’s been sweeping the season for her dual-sided ballerina, and I think she’ll continue her streak here.
Will Win: Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
Should Win: Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
Should Have Been Nominated: Amy Ryan (Jack Goes Boating)
Notably, the only director here that also earned a Best Director nod from the Academy is Aronofsky. But this is hardly surprising as indie directors rarely fare as well in the Oscars, being outshone by filmmaker’s with a longer filmography and studio backing to pave the way with PR. Conversely, the Spirit Awards – by their very nature — are the place where less known director’s actually have a shot at the prize. Aronofsky and Mitchell each earned this nomination before, for Requiem for a Dream and Hedwig and the Angry Inch respectively, but both lost: Aronofsky to Ang Lee and his Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Mitchell to Christopher Nolan and his breakthrough neo-noir Memento. Boyle, Granik and Cholodenko’s work have scored Spirit nominations before, but none has earned the director nod until now. So really, it’s hard to say who has the best chance, as the Spirit Awards love an underdog.
Boyle took a memoir many called impossible to adapt and made it an unforgettable movie-going experience. Cholodenko co-wrote and directed a family dramedy that made a hot topic a non-issue. Granik painstakingly created a harrowing coming-of-age tale filled with jaw dropping performances that will have A-listers clamoring to be her next star. Aronofsky took on an unexpected genre, the dance drama, and made something reminiscently retro and yet exciting and new. John Cameron Mitchell tenderly adapted a stage play to a fully affective drama and proved to the world Nicole Kidman can move her face again!
Honestly it’s a tight-race full of deserving directors, but my gut’s saying Aronofsky will win the day, finally earning his due from the community that first embraced him.
Will Win: Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
Should Win: Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone)
Should Have Been Nominated: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jack Goes Boating)
You may have noticed that four of these five have also garnered Best Picture nods from the esteemed Academy Awards. But a look at winners past (Precious, The Wrestler, Juno) shows that getting an Oscar nod won’t hurt your chances of taking home this prize. As I’ve pointed out, Greenberg is an aggressively unlikable protagonist – so I’m putting that as the long-shot. While 127 Hours is certainly as risk-taking a feature as the man on which its based, I think some viewers may respond as I have – sure it’s edgy, but what else is there? When you do parse past the shock tactics, this tale of survival is littered with some pretty on-the-nose themes. I mean, there is literally a scene where Rolston says aloud to himself that his loner choices have led him to a place where he will die alone. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but so was last year’s winner, so maybe that doesn’t matter. The Kid’s Are All Right and Winter’s Bone both made waves over the summer, which often proves too long to keep voters interest come award season. However, Winter’s Bone is not getting the kind of backlash Kids is.
At the end of the day, I think this race will come down to Black Swan and Winter’s Bone, both which made my top ten list, so yeah, I may well be bias. However, Darren Aronofsky is adored by the indie community, and Debra Granik’s adaptation has earned a lot of love from critics and on the film fest circuit. Each filmmaker crafted a deeply moving drama about a girl being force to grow up – but that’s where the similarities end. Black Swan is a film where fantasy and fear are embodied on celluloid, while Winter’s Bone is carefully crafted to realistically represent its rural Ozarks locale. The latter contains menacing but reserved performances that prove as rattling as the vivid and at times campy performances in the former. Nina’s tale is one of a pursuit of perfection leading to self-destruction, while Ree’s is one of self-sacrifice and survival. It’s comparing apples and oranges. And really, with the deep affection I have for both films, I have no idea how I’ll choose, much less how everyone else will.
However, Winter’s Bone was an early favorite, having scored the most Spirit nominations of the bunch. At the end of the day, the Spirit Awards are known (and arguably defined) for their love of the underdog, both in film and filmmaking. My guess is that Winter’s Bone will win the love here, though it may be shut out (however unfairly) at the Oscars.
Will Win: Winter’s Bone
Should Win: Winter’s Bone/Black Swan (Really they are both brilliant.)
Should Have Been Nominated: Rabbit Hole
And there you have it. 68 days, 35 indie films, a total running time of approximately 3,736 minutes. I hope my column has demystified the Spirit Awards a bit, and that my thoughts on the nominees will encourage you to seek them out in theaters and/or on DVD. You can see how my predictions stack up by tuning into the Spirit Awards ceremony Saturday, February 26th, 2011 at 10PM ET/PT on IFC.
What are your picks for the Spirit Awards? Share them in comments.
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