The Independent Spirit Awards are to the Oscars what Sub Pop was to the major record labels or what the Harvard Lampoon is to "The Daily Show" and "SNL": the scrappy, anti-establishment feeder pool, where the ideas are sharper, the jokes are funnier, and the parties are better.
This year’s crop of Spirit nominees, announced yesterday, fills in quite a few of the blanks in the group portrait of likely Oscar contenders, including Best Director frontrunner, David O. Russell, whose “Silver Linings Playbook” received five Spirit nods, including Bradley Cooper for Best Male Lead and Jennifer Lawrence for Best Female Lead. Of course, in keeping with the intended spirit of the Spirits, splashy studio titles like "Silver Linings" still comprise a small but attention-grabbing minority in a lineup of nominees weighted toward unknown up-and-comers, boundary-pushing arthouse titles, and obscure exercises in low-budget filmmaking. And there are more than a few nominees who don’t stand a chance of making the longest of the Academy’s lists of potential nominees. For instance, it’s hard to imagine the Best Picture race will include the Spirit’s Best Feature nominee, “Keep the Lights On,” writer-director Ira Sachs’ semi-autobiographical account of a documentary filmmaker who enters into an obsessive relationship with a drug- and sex-addicted literary agent (based on Bill Clegg, who chronicled his own version of that turbulent time in his memoir, Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man).
However, in recent years, the criteria by which Indiewood rewards its best and brightest for a job well done has become nearly as nebulous and subject to the whims of politics and popularity as Hollywood’s annual high school yearbook awards show. Case in point: “Silver Linings Playbook,” which cost $22 million -- and made the cut even though Film Independent, the organization that produces the Spirits, had previously stipulated that only films budgeted at less than $20 million would be eligible for consideration. This is, after all, an event designed to recognize the resourcefulness and ingenuity involved in making films independent of studio meddling.
Rules are made to be broken, though, particularly during awards season. And the Spirits have everything to gain by incorporating at least one film guaranteed to continue building Oscar buzz right up until the night of the big broadcast. That way the Spirits, which are handed out the day before the Academy distributes its trophies, stand the best chance of remaining relevant and padding its viewership with the legions of diehard Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence fans.
Consequently, the list of omissions from this year’s field of Spirit contenders is just as impressive as those who were included. We’re talking, of course, about the snubs. This has been a remarkably rich year for alternative cinema; and it would have been nice to see those creative risk takers rewarded. In the Best Feature category, some of the more notable oversights include “The Master,” “Smashed,” “The Sessions,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “Compliance.” Even more mystifying than the absence of any of these films is the presence of “Bernie,” the Richard Linklater comedy in which Jack Black plays a murderous mortician. We love “Before Sunset” as much as anyone whose heart pumps red blood and whose mind pumps philosophical fatalism. But try as we might, we can’t see “Bernie” as anything more than the latest goofball Jack Black comedy with an extra helping of heart.
The bottom line here is that as long as the Spirits committee is stretching the rules, why not bend them to include challenging and worthy films that might not otherwise get the exposure? This year that might mean including a few of the many exquisite foreign films in the main categories. For instance, it seems almost criminal not to recognize Marion Cotillard among the Best Lead Actresses for her performance in “Rust and Bone” as a whale trainer who seeks solace in a relationship with a street fighter after losing her legs in an Orca accident. The same could be said of her stunningly talented gentle giant costar, Matthias Schoenaerts. And there simply is no justice in a world that doesn’t reward the great Jean-Louis Trintignant for a brilliant career’s worth of indelible characters culminating with the devoted husband he plays in Michael Haneke’s “Amour.”
While we understand that measuring the value of any creative endeavor is an inexact science, we don’t hold any illusions that the Oscars operate on a meritocracy free of any commercial or financial bias. But since we’re talking about an event that claims to reward the industry’s outlaws and outliers, why not push the envelope and aim for a field of nominees that reflects the very renegade ideals of the iconoclasts they’re celebrating?
What are your thoughts on this year’s field of Independent Spirit Award contenders? What are some of the nominations and snubs that most had you scratching your head?