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The Spirits vs. The Oscars

Our Oscar blogger explains what the Film Independent Spirit Awards reveal and obscure about the race to Oscar.


Oscar Statuettes
Remember last year when Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire swept the Oscars, becoming the first... oh, no, wait, that didn't happen at all. That was the Film Independent Spirit Awards. They take place the day before the Oscars each year.


And they take place in a tent. We don't know the square footage, but it’s safe to say that it’s got nothing on the Kodak Theater. 
Gabby Sidibe as Precious


Generally speaking, the Spirit Awards are a looser, rowdier event. You can even wear jeans. As a group, they’re much more likely to honor African-American abuse dramas (Precious) or intimate character studies of "broken down pieces of meat" (The Wrestler) or teen pregnancy comedies (Juno) than the mainstream Academy is. In fact, in their entire 25-year shared history with the Oscars, the “Best Feature” and “Best Picture” prizes have only gone to the same film once. That was back in March of 1987, when Oliver Stone’s Platoon destroyed its competition at both ceremonies. The only other near-correlation was in the spring of 2006 when the Spirit Awards honored both Crash (Best First Feature) and Brokeback Mountain (Best Feature), and, unfortunately we know what happened on Oscar’s darkest night.


Jake Gyllenhaal at New Yorker Festival


Returning to 2010, what can the newly announced Spirit Award nominations tell us about the upcoming Oscar race? Perhaps we should start with what they can’t tell us. Comparing any two awards groups is, to at least a small degree, an exercise in futility. Different organizations have different rules when it comes to eligibility. They're drawing from a different pool of films, and even if they weren't, they use a different process to get to their shortlisted honorees. The Spirit Awards, for example, use a nominating committee rather than a wide balloting system to come up with their nominees. Some of the high profile exclusions and the weird omissions are easier to understand once you've come to grips with the way they operate.


Watch the nominations:



Blind Spots
How will the blockbusters fare in Oscar voting? Mega-grossing spectacles like Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland or Inception aren't independent films. They aren't eligible here. The Golden Globes will give us a better sense of how they’ll do at the big show.
The Coen BrothersTrue Grit and Ben Affleck’s The Town are two more Oscar threats that are too big for the tent.


Best in Show: Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network 


The Social Network is a critical darling, but will the Academy accept its “friend request”? David Fincher, the man behind the Facebook creation movie mythology, is a spirited director and something of a maverick, but he's only an independent filmmaker in the artistic auteur sense. He’s been working with huge budgets under studio umbrellas since his very first feature, Alien³. (The Social Network is no exception and not eligible at the Spirits.)
Norma UK: Sally Hawkins in Made in Dagenham


Since this particular awards show was birthed to honor the American independent film, anything that isn’t American is “foreign” and not eligible for other categories, including acting. British and Australian productions, like presumed Oscar frontrunner The King's Speech, or individual Oscar category hopefuls like Another Year, Made in Dagenham or Animal Kingdom can’t figure into the Spirit Awards, so their absence is nothing to worry about. (The King’s Speech received a foreign film nomination, the only thing it was eligible for.)
Oscar Clues
Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right, Oscar hopefuls ever since their successful Sundance debuts, lead the Spirit nominations with 7 and 5 nominations, respectively. They’re both looking good for Oscar Best Picture nominations—though, in true Spirit Award form, even if they win “Best Feature” in the tent, they’ll lose “Best Picture” in the Kodak.
Price of a Movie: 11.16.10


Black Swan is getting such a big promotional push and is led by such a big star that it doesn’t seem like an indie film at all, does it? That combination of mainstream appeal and independent spirit and the timing of its release (this week, in fact) could help it to peak at just the right time for major awards season attention here and elsewhere. But the Spirit snubs for its supporting cast and screenplay reconfirm what we suspected all along: this psychological ballet thriller is strictly seen as a pas de deux between director Darren Aronofsky and actress Natalie Portman. Portman will surely win an Oscar nomination, but Aronofsky may have a tougher battle ahead with the Academy. They’ve been slow to vouch for his potent gifts, preferring directors who are less aggressively visionary.
Rabbit Hole: Nicole Kidman


Rabbit Hole, which has yet to open, was shut out of the Best Feature Field, but the four-nomination tally probably speaks to a level of love for the film that should help Nicole Kidman to her third Oscar nomination.


The Kids Are All Right was hoping for a Thelma & Louise-style two-fer, with Julianne Moore and Annette Bening both seeking Best Actress nominations. That would be a real possibility in a weaker film year, but Moore, snubbed by the Spirit Awards despite a six-wide field, may find it difficult to join her co-star in the Oscar lineup. The final test will likely be the Golden Globes. If both are nominated for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, Moore’s campaign could get a second wind… or a first wind, since traction has been hard to come by thus far.


Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine
began wowing critics and festival-goers in January at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s an electric duet between two of the best actors of the new headlining generation: Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. But the Gosling snub in Best Actor at the Spirits may well be another bad omen for the film’s release and awards prospects. The first crushing blow was the inexplicable NC-17 rating with which the MPAA slapped the film (which the filmmakers are protesting). If the film was too brutal an emotional experience for both the timid MPAA crowd and the decidedly wilder Film Independent crowd, it might well take a miracle to get Academy voters to watch it, let alone vote for it.
You can’t win them all.


Blue Valentine seems like the type of independent film that the Spirit Awards were created to boost, but you can’t honor every film. In awards season there are always winners and losers. And, to reiterate a fine point, merit is only part of the year-end equation. Besides, with a Best Feature lineup that includes films as fantastic as The Kids Are All Right and Black Swan, as idiosyncratic and distinctive as 127 Hours and Greenberg, and as earthy and commanding as Winter’s Bone, it feels churlish to complain; the 2010 Spirit Award nominees are all winners for the moment. Come January 25, 2011, we’ll find out which of these nominees will also double as Oscar players.


Nathaniel Rogers blogs on The Film Experience. He is also a bit of an Oscar savant.


More in our 2010 Oscars series:
Too Many Screeners, Not Enough Turkey
Awards Season Begins

2010 Oscar Doc Shortlist: 15 Films


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