Independent Spirit Award Nominations: A Preview

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As the first award-giving institution to unleash a full slate of nominees every awards season, the Film Independent Spirit Awards are quite difficult to predict. Certainly, the publicity pushes behind certain high-profile indies -- which this year would include 12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis, and August: Osage County -- are well underway, but the Spirits almost always throw one or two curveballs per category that are outside the typical publicity darlings, so look for that when they announce their nominations on Tuesday.

The argument that the Indie Spirits aren't indie enough is so well-established and time-worn as to be rather boring to get into. It's a problem, but it's not one anybody has any real interest in solving. The Weinstein Company is one of the biggest, most well-funded players in the Oscar chase. They're also, technically, an independent studio. Same goes for Fox Searchlight. There's a $20 million budget ceiling for Spirit eligibility, but year after year, that limit is messed with and ignored. It's not like the $21 million figure attached to Silver Linings Playbook (last year's big winner) is so egregious. But when a $21 million budget encompasses three A-list actors and a publicity push to rival any studio tentpole, the letter of the law becomes much less important than the -- pardon the pun -- spirit of the law.

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We find ourselves, then, in the middle of a year when more than half of the major Oscar players are eligible for Spirit nominations, and there's a real possibility that the so-called indie awards will have very little to differentiate them from the big boys come early March. The key word there is "possibility." While the Spirit winners tend to be Oscar players lately, the nominations have been a schizophrenic blend of the uninspiringly predictable and the left-field wacky.

(It should be noted that foreign-language films like Blue Is the Warmest Color are ineligible for any awards besides Best Foreign Film, and The Weinstein Company's The Butler is reportedly over the budget limit for consideration.)


Predicted Nominees: So, okay, yeah, 12 Years a Slave is a total given. Beyond that, there are a good seven to ten movies that could make a reasonable claim at nominations. Richard Linklater's Before Midnight was enough of a critical darling and indie success story that it should show up here, though it would be the first of the trilogy to get such a nomination. Similarly, the Coen brothers have historically been a safer bet with the Oscars than with the Spirits, but Inside Llewyn Davis is in a good position this year, decidedly more of a downbeat selection than, say, True Grit. Finally, the early-year film festivals are sure to produce a few successes in this category, but it's something of a grab-bag figuring out which. The Spectacular Now was a massive crowd-pleaser from Sundance on through its theatrical run, and SXSW darling Short Term 12 has the goodwill it takes to rise above its contemporaries.

Potential Spoilers: In my mind, Short Term 12 and Frances Ha have been waging a silent battle for the hearts and minds of audiences looking to praise strong indies with fantastic female leads. That is, of course, not true -- there's room for many female-centered indies. It just seemed like once everybody started seeing Short Term, they stopped talking about Frances. Alexander Payne has been a Spirits fave before, so don't count out Nebraska. Matthew McConaughey films could, with a few breaks, find themselves in the big race, with Dallas Buyers Club and Mud as huge indie faves this year. Finally, though Shane Carruth's Upstream Color confounded as many audience members as it dazzled, a nomination here could be a flag planted for thinky indie sci-fi, even if it is fairly incomprehensible.

For Your Consideration: Nicole Holofcener has had much success at the Spirits over the years, so it would be a shame if her best film since Lovely & Amazing missed out due to an abundance of competition. In any universe, her Enough Said is one of the triumphs of the indie year.


Predicted Nominees: The parlor game of Best Director, especially at a show like the Spirits, which tends to spread the wealth, is figuring out which Best Feature nominees will hold onto corresponding Best Director nominations and which won't. In a year with so many established names behind the camera of the year's top indies -- not to mention a rising tide of of up-and-coming  filmmakers -- we could be in for an uncommonly thin crossover between the two top categories. Steve McQueen seems solid, but, for example, I'd bet on Nebraska's Alexander Payne to get in even before the Coen brothers. I'd expect Noah Baumbach to get nominated even if Frances Ha doesn't. I'm guessing that Jeff Nichols stands a great shot at a second consecutive Best Director nomination, as the Take Shelter director is back this year with the very popular Mud. Finally, if any awards body is going to get down with the idea that All Is Lost is a directorial triumph first and foremost, it's the Spirits, so I'm taking a flier on a nod for JC Chandor.

Potential Spoilers: I'm expecting Best Feature nominations for films by Richard Linklater, Joel and Ethan Coen, Destin Cretton (Short Term 12), and James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), so they're obviously huge contenders to spoil here. I'd throw in David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints) and Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) as well. Also? Don't be entirely surprised if a nomination surfaces for Harmony Korine for Spring Breakers. I'd probably bet against a nod for Woody Allen, though, whose Blue Jasmine is eligible, but who has never been nominated in this category ever.

For Your Consideration: Alexandre Moors delivered a moody, sinister, wholly satisfying film in Blue Caprice, and while it hasn't garnered the same levels of attention as the above referenced films, it deserves to be championed by the Spirits.


Predicted Nominees: An insanely competitive category at the Oscars this year will mostly play out intact at the Spirits. No, there's no Tom Hanks to worry about since Captain Phillips is a decidedly studio affair, but look for almost all of his Oscar competition to show up here: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club). They'll be joined by two men who by all rights should be poised to storm the Oscars short list, but who have steeper uphill climbs ahead of them: Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station).

Potential Spoilers: The one Oscar contender I'm leaving out is Robert Redford (All Is Lost). Every year, there's a major star whose film gets recognized for Spirit awards but he does not. I'm thinking George Clooney for The Descendants or Robert DeNiro for Silver Linings Playbook. Sometimes, star power works against you at this show. Redford has been a major name in the indie world via Sundance, but I wonder if, as an actor, he's still viewed as too much of a Hollywood guy. Other possibilities who would have a better shot in a less competitive year: Isaiah Washington (Blue Caprice), Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now), Casey Affleck (Ain't Them Bodies Saints), and Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight).

For Your Consideration: Kill Your Darlings wasn't exactly the critical smash it needed to be to stake a claim as an awards dark horse, but the lead performances by Dane DeHaan and Daniel Radcliffe were charismatic, sensitive, and indicative of serious good work in their futures.


Predicted Nominees: While I don't think Blue Jasmine is going to bring a nomination for Woody Allen, it's a mortal lock that Cate Blanchett will be nominated here, and it's most likely she will perform the Spirit/Oscar double that Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman have done before her. While the win here seems fairly pre-determined, the race to fill out the other four nominations should be very competitive. I'd be shocked if Brie Larson (Short Term 12) and Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) didn't get in, and Julie Delpy (Before Midnight) should capitalize on her year's worth of goodwill too. As for the 5th slot, while I could make a great case for any of the below-listed spoilers, I'm taking a flier on Gotham Awards nominee Robin Weigert (Concussion), whose nomination would be a perfect fit for the Spirits' tendency for offbeat acting nods.

Potential Spoilers: Despite its eligibility, I wouldn't expect anything major in the way of nominations for the cast of August: Osage County. I just can't see voters for an indie award having the stomach to nominate Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts for such mainstream fare, no matter how good they are. If I'm wrong and Osage County does end up with a slew of nominations, I think we can fairly well consider the Spirits the Harvey Weinstein Awards and call it a day. More likely alternates, in my estimation, would be Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said), Rooney Mara (Ain't Them Bodies Saints or Side Effects), Kathryn Hahn (Afternoon Delight), Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color), or Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now).

For Your Consideration: A pair of women who share authorship in their films. This year's Best Actress contenders actually feature quite a few leads who have either written (or co-written) their films (Gerwig; Delpy) or directed other features this year (Seimetz, who could end up with a Best First Feature nod for Sun Don't Shine). I'd advocate for a pair of actress/authors myself, in writer/director/star Lake Bell (In a World) or writer/star Brit Marling (The East), both of whom delivered wonderful performances.


Predicted Nominees: Oscar frontrunners Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) and Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) should be well represented here (though I'm starting to wonder if Fassbender could be that inexplicable movie-star omission), joined by what will likely be the year's only awards-show recognition for James Franco in Spring Breakers. Beyond that, things get less certain. A posthumous nod for James Gandolfini (Enough Said) would make for a potent moment at the ceremony. And I can't be the only one who saw something special in Ben Foster in Ain't Them Bodies Saints.

Potential Spoilers: So many! McConaughey was a double nominee last year for Magic Mike and Killer Joe, and incredibly, he might be able to do the same this year if a supporting nomination materializes for his Mud performance. John Goodman seems to be getting the big awards push for his Inside Llewyn Davis performance, even if it does amount to an extended cameo. Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back) and Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines) are big-name actors in small but spotlighted roles. I'm really hoping the Spirit voters don't decide to get too cheeky and throw a nomination Andrew Dice Clay's way for Blue Jasmine, but stranger things have happened than a serviceable performance by a infamous piece of stunt casting getting nominated. More satisfying left-field choices would be Michael C. Hall (Kill Your Darlings) or Tequan Richmond (Blue Caprice).

For Your Consideration: Keith Stanfield is so heartbreakingly good in Short Term 12, though I'd also support a nomination for his co-star, John Gallagher Jr.


Predicted Nominees: The case for the women of 12 Years a Slave is going to be an interesting one all through awards season. Lupita Nyong'o is fairly well a given, and a huge threat to win. But her co-stars Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard will also be major contenders, especially for an Oscar field that seems very light on supporting actress contenders. At the Spirits, however, multiple acting nominees from the same film in the same category is just rare. It's only happened twice in the last 15 years (for Rachel Getting Married and Little Miss Sunshine, if you're curious), while it's happened eight times in that same span at the Oscars. So I'd be more confident putting my money on Scarlett Johansson (Don Jon), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), and Melonie Diaz (Fruitvale Station), the latter of whom I have a feeling will stand a better chance than co-star Octavia Spencer, though the reverse should be true in the Oscar race. Finally, I'm taking a complete flier on the fifth nomination going to Michaela Watkins, who was aces in a whole bunch of films this year, but nowhere more so than in In a World, where she turned in a compassionate, quietly heartbreaking performance as a loyal sister and conflicted wife.

Potential Spoilers: Beyond Paulson, Woodard, and Spencer, I'd be on the lookout for Mickey Sumner (Frances Ha) and Ellen Page (The East), as well as a possible left-field supporting nomination from the August: Osage County cast. If they don't go for Streep or Roberts, there's still a chance they'll throw a nod to Margo Martindale or Julianne Nicholson. I feel like the salty-old-broad antics of June Squibb (Nebraska) will play better at the Oscars than here, but I could very well be proved wrong about that.

For Your Consideration: I was not the world's biggest fan of The Way Way Back, a film I found too flabby and too insistent on shoehorning all its characters into the same coming-of-age story, but that criticism in no way extends to Allison Janney, whose performance is fun and unexpectedly empathetic. She's never been nominated for a Spirit Award, and that's a damn shame. If we can't get the star of CBS's Mom a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award, what do we even have these awards for?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.