This is it! The final week of Voting Spirit 2012. Last week I completed my journey to see all 38 nominated features, and then I–along with scores of other IFP and Film Independent members– cast my ballot. And now I’ll break down for you my final thoughts on the nominees, as well as who will win and who should.

Tyrannosaur, The Kid With A Bike, Shame, A Separation, Melancholia

A curious trend in this year’s International nominees is a tendency toward truly dark drama. The Dardenne Bros. Kid With a Bike contains a lot of violence for a film about a young boy. Steve McQueen’s Shame dives headfirst into the depths of sexual depravity; while Paddy Considine’s deeply bleak Tyrannosaur paints a portrait so revolting that it dares you not to look away. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation explores the troubling realm of what happens when good people make awful choices, and then of course Lars Von Trier‘s Meloncholia is about soul-crushing depression and the literal end of the world. While I personally hated some of these offerings, I fully admit that each is extraordinary in its own way. Still, to me A Separation is by far the most compelling film, needing no spectacle or shock value to garner rapt audience attention and rave reviews. However, you may remember that films deemed “International” are barred from competing in the Spirits other categories, meaning that despite all the hype over Michael Fassbender’s revealing performance in Shame, he garnered no nomination here. As such, I fear that those wanting to pay tribute to Fassbender and his stripped down portrayal of a man struggling with his inner demons may win Shame this honor, leaving A Separation shamefully out in the cold.

Will Win: Shame

Should Win: A Separation

The Redemption of General Butt Naked, The Interrupters, An African Election,
We Were Here, Bill Cunningham New York

This category often contains some of Spirit’s most eye-opening offerings, and this year was no different. An African Election presented a shocking look into the political struggle of Ghana, which bares a troubling resemblance to more domestic politics. We Were Here served a haunting reminder of the early days of AIDs, and how it relates to the ongoing civil rights struggle of gay Americans. Then The Interrupters gave an unflinching look at the violent crime that’s tearing apart the communities of Chicago, as well as the undaunted activists who tirelessly fight against the rise of violence. Bill Cunningham New York undeniably brought forth a lighter and more whimsical tale about an individual who is driven by art at all costs, while  The Redemption of General Butt Naked painted a disturbing portrait of a man claiming to seek forgiveness for his horrific past actions. Each is compelling, but for me the film that hit me the hardest and offered the most shocking yet subtle commentary was The Redemption of General Butt Naked. However, it seems that between all its critical praise and homegrown impact this award will go to The Interrupters, which is undeniably a great doc with an important message.

Will Win: The Interrupters

Should Win: The Redemption of General Butt Naked

Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris), Jeffrey Waldron (The Dynamiter), Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist), Joel Hodge (Bellflower),Benjamin Kasulke (The Off Hours)

These five films have little in common style-wise. The Dynamiter is defined by its gritty and patient camerawork, while The Off Hours looks to capture the beauty of overlooked people in everyday life. Midnight in Paris aims to display the enchantment of the city of love, while The Artist reveals the best and worst of Hollywood in stark black and white. And then there’s Bellflower with its high contrast and supersaturated look that makes it seem like the film was shot with the hipster-loved Instagram app. Which DP will come out on top? I’m going to say that as it did last year, this one’s going to go to the only cinematographer also contending for an Oscar, in this case: Guillaume Schiffman. And it should, because The Artist‘s cinematography is absolutely awe-inspiring.

Will Win:  Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist)

Should Win:  Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist)

Circumstance, The Dynamiter, Pariah, Bellflower, Hello Lonesome

This award is reserved for films that managed to make something extraordinary with a meager budget of less than $500,000. Generally this means that these are features that feel a little rough around the edges, but ultimately offer a bold vision from what is often a new filmmaker. In this case, three of the five films are directorial debuts, while two are their writer-director’s first narrative features. Now each of the films listed above has its merits. The Dynamiter presents a spare tale of brotherly love and hope. Circumstance offers a daring story of Sapphic first love, while Bellflower revels in the rage that follows heartbreak, and Hello Lonesome explores themes of loneliness and love. However, Pariah is the one that has drawn the most notice and praise. And while it was woefully shunned from the Oscar race, it will win well-deserved accolades here, and should because Rees has managed to tell a complicated tale about coming out and growing up that never feels forced, sharp or predictable. Pariah is an understated drama that’s extraordinary on nearly every level.

Will Win: Pariah

Should Win: Pariah

J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), Mike Cahill & Brit Marling (Another Earth), Will Reiser (50/50), Patrick deWitt (Terri), Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids)

As you can imagine the films in this category often have some stumbling blocks like a meandering storyline, an extraneous subplot or a final act that runs out of steam. Generally where these nominees excel is in world-building and sharp dialogue. And so it went for much of this year’s contenders. Terri offered an unexpected and funny tale of student-teacher bonding, but ultimately fell prey to its own protagonist’s weighty teen angst. Cedar Rapids offered a batch of colorful characters, but never really found a rhythm. Margin Call has been highly acclaimed, but that seems to be more for its award-winning ensemble cast than its painfully vague dialogue. So in the end, the real contenders to my mind are the clever and heart-wrenching dramedy 50/50 and the ethereal, lightly sci-fi drama Another Earth. However, while I find the latter to be a better film, with its deftly executed tale of regret and redemption, I suspect voters will be influenced by the fact that 50/50 is based on the screenwriters own life, and so will overlook the elements of the film that make is a bit unwieldy.

Will Win: Will Reiser (50/50)

Should Win: Mike Cahill & Brit Marling (Another Earth)

Mike Mills (Beginners), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (The Descendants), Tom McCarthy (Win Win), Joseph Cedar (Footnote)

This year, this category was filled with unique and unexpected stories. Beginners is a whimsical yet elegiac tale about love and late bloomers; The Descendants is a surly dramedy about grief, betrayal and parenthood. The Artist is a self-reflexive story of the fickle nature of Hollywood as well as a enchanting romance. And lastly Win Win and Footnote both offer warmly hilarious narratives of flawed fatherhood (or father-figurehood). But which truly has the best screenplay? Typically the Spirits favor features with a keen ear for dialogue, so this may be one category where The Artist is a dark horse. From there, Beginners‘ plot issues and disjointed flow will likely discount it while Footnote will suffer from being in a foreign tongue. This leaves Win Win and The Descendants, both tales of troubled men trying to do the best they can with a bad situation. And while I wholeheartedly adore Tom McCarthy’s film and feel it has been woefully overlooked this award season, I think The Descendants, which also garnered an Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay, will steal away Win Win’s only shot at a Spirit win.

Will Win: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (The Descendants)

Should Win: Tom McCarthy (Win Win)


Margin Call, Another Earth, Martha Marcy May Marlene, In the Family, Natural Selection

Not unlike the Best First Screenplay category, this award is generally given to those films that were not flawless, but were ambitious and provided a window to a promising new talent. Of course, some of this year’s nominees have garnered major notice, including an Oscar nod. So the pensive custody drama In the Family and the peculiar comedy Natural Selection are unlikely to overcome this disadvantage, leaving the race to the delicate sci-fi romance Another Earth, the critically heralded cult-drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, and the Oscar-nominated Margin Call. But before you assume the Academy has clinched this race, allow me to point out that Margin Call’s nod is for Best Original Screenplay, which at the Oscars is often a consolation prize nomination. As I see it, the true contenders here are the dramas that drew major buzz for the heartbreaking performances of their intriguing indie ingénues. However, while I’d argue that Another Earth is a better realized/executed film, I think that MMMM’s moody tone, anxiety-inducing transitions and lingering impact will drive it to victory. Undoubtedly, with its curious climax Another Earth stuck with me, but MMMM’s chilling lack of resolution haunted me, and I doubt I’m alone.

Will Win: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Should Win: Another Earth

John C. Reilly (Cedar Rapids), Albert Brooks (Drive), John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris)

This race is filled with extraordinary performers. Corey Stoll drew major buzz for his gruff yet charismatic portrayal of Ernest Hemingway, while John C. Reilly is adored for his long history of indie efforts. John Hawkes, last year’s winner, stunned audiences with his frightening yet undeniably sexy cult leader, a portrayal that was masterfully subtle yet stirring. However it seems to me the frontrunners here are Christopher Plummer, whose portrayal of a dying gadabout is not only the major bright spot of Beginners but also the only Oscar-nominated performance here, and Albert Brooks whose exclusion from the Oscar nominations caused a massive outcry online. Both are incredible performances, but between his masterful playing against type and the hoards of fans who felt he was robbed at his shot of Oscar glory, it seems this one will go to Brooks.

Will Win: Albert Brooks (Drive)

Should Win: John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene)


Anjelica Huston (50/50), Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs), Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter), Harmony Santana (Gun Hill Road)

In a curious turn of events, two of the nominees listed above are also competing for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but notably not for the same films. In both Janet McTeer is honored for her show-stopping and chest-baring performance in Albert Nobbs, but 2011 breakthrough queen Jessica Chastain is nominated for The Help at the Oscars and for her far subtler performance in Take Shelter here. However, I don’t think either of these are the true frontrunners in this race. And while I found Anjelica Huston to be thoroughly fabulous in her role as a dedicated mother in 50/50, I feel she too will be left in the dust of rising starlets Shailene Woodley and Harmony Santana, who both tackled portraits of teen angst without falling into melodramatic screeching. Now while Woodley is wonderful in her measured yet spirited performance in The Descendants, I think this win will and should go to Santana. She not only performed a remarkable onscreen transformation from shy boy to bold young woman, but also shared a very personal part of her own evolution to do so. Something that is especially daring in our current transphobic social climate. Gun Hill Road may be too off the map for Oscar’s notice, but this is where the Spirits really shine.

Will Win: Harmony Santana (Gun Hill Road)

Should Win: Harmony Santana (Gun Hill Road)

Demián Bichir (A Better Life), Ryan Gosling (Drive), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Woody Harrelson (Rampart), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)

There’s some majorly stiff competition in this category, so stiff that Oscar contender George Clooney was not included! Instead, an enraged Woody Harrelson faces off against a possibly mad Michael Shannon, a deeply devoted Demián Bichir, a reckless yet romantic Ryan Gosling and silent stunner Jean Dujardin. However, while Harrelson and Shannon offer intense portrayals, I imagine their gruff characters will turn off some voters. This leaves the race to foreign-born Oscar-noms Bichir and Dujardin, and Gosling who many felt was robbed of an Oscar nod. (For Drive, Ides of March, Crazy Stupid Love, pick your poison.) But what will all of this mean to Spirit voters? While I’m tempted to say that like Brooks, these indie-loving voters will favor Gosling as a way to pay tribute to an undervalued indie, I’ve heard too many claim Gosling’s part was too underplayed to feel confident there—even though I don’t agree. In the end, I think it will be an Oscar honoree face-off, but feel certain the beguiling Dujardin will come out on top. I mean, come on! He romances, dances, and breaks your heart. He is The Artist!

Will Win: Jean Dujardin (The Artist)

Should Win: Jean Dujardin (The Artist)

Lauren Ambrose (Think of Me), Rachael Harris (Natural Selection), Adepero Oduye (Pariah), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)

There’s some deeply daring and dazzling performances in this category. Lauren Ambrose singly shoulders the troubling tale of an unlikeable single mom while Rachael Harris proves her drama chops with a role that is a disorienting in its strange emotional complexity. However, the real standouts are newcomers Elizabeth Olsen and Adepero Oduye, and indie devotee Michelle Williams who has been up for a Spirit Best Acting honor four times prior. Each actress shapes a portrait of a woman seeking her place in the world, but to very different ends. Olsen deftly develops her on-edge character, breathing a full backstory into the vague narrative, while Oduye tackles the complex personal evolution of a teen in Brooklyn looking to discover who she. Both are subtle yet deeply affecting performances that have revealed the raw talent and stunning screen presence of these young starlets. Yet Williams took on the role of a Hollywood legend and did what seemed impossible: she nailed Monroe’s charm while never losing sight of her crippling inner demons. It’s tough to pick a favorite here, but easy to spot the winner.

Will Win: Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)

Should Win: Adepero Oduye (Pariah) / Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene)

Mike Mills (Beginners), Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive)

It’s worth noting that two of the nominated directors above, Michel Hazanavicius and Alexander Payne, are also contenders for Oscar’s Best Director. Moreover, Payne has won this particular honor twice before, for Election and Sideways. So he seems to be the favorite in this race. However, Jeff Nichols, who first drew Spirit notice in 2008 with his debut Shotgun Stories, has a film that boasts the most Spirit nominations this year along with The Artist. (Tied at 5 a piece.) So it seems too soon to count out either Hazanavicius or Nichols just yet. Conversely, Mike Mills, who first snagged a Spirit nod in 2006 for debut feature Thumbsucker, does seem to be in a weaker position with only four nominations. Buzzed about Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is enjoying his first Spirit success, but his heavy-handed homage is unlikely to win him this award.

So who will it be? Payne, Hazanavicius or Nichols? Let’s break it down.

All three’s features have been nominated for Best Director and Best Picture. Each has at least one nomination in an acting category. However, only The Descendants and The Artist have screenplay nods. So while Take Shelter has snagged two acting nominations and the Piaget Producers Award, I think it can be counted out as a frontrunner here. This leaves The Descendants—with nominations for performance, direction, screenplay and Best Feature—against The Artist, which not only boasts contenders in those arenas but also garnered a nod for Best Cinematography. Boiled down, this seems like Hazanavicius’ to lose.

Will Win: Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)

Should Win: Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)

Beginners, Take Shelter, The Artist, The Descendants, Drive, 50/50

In an unusual move, the Spirits have named six contenders in their Best Picture category. However, while 50/50 has scored spots in Best Supporting Female and Best First Screenplay it is noticeably absent from Best Director. With every other Best Feature nominee present there, it seems this discounts 50/50.

From there, I think it’s likely that the winner will come down just as Best Director does, as that’s how it’s played out 8 out of 10 times over the past decade. So I’m calling it: The Artist will win the night with 4 out of 5!

Will Win: The Artist

Should Win: The Artist

There you have it. 38 indie films, a total running time of approximately 3,873 minutes. I hope this column has demystified the Spirit Awards a bit, and that my discussion on these nominees will encourage you to seek out these incredible indies in theaters and/or on DVD. You can see how my predictions stack up by tuning into the Spirit Awards ceremony  Saturday, February 25th, 2011 @ 10PM ET/PT on IFC with 50/50′s Seth Rogen as host.

Our Complete Indie Spirit Coverage

What are your picks for the Spirit Awards? Share them in comments.

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