How The Spirit’s Clouded Indies With Oscar Nominees (Analysis)

The Film Independent Spirit Awards are presented to films made under $20,000,000 and have an ‘independent spirit’. A lot of great films that don’t make the cut as Oscar nominees can be found in the Spirit Awards.

However, if you felt like you were watching an Oscar rehearsal show last night, you’re not far off. This year the Spirit Awards are loaded with not only Oscar nominees, but likely Oscar winners, which means that some films will be going home with both awards. 12 Years A Slave, a likely Oscar Best Picture winner, has the best chance of doing this. It won the Spirit Awards Best Feature, Best Director (Steve McQueen), Best Screenplay (is up for an Adapted Screenplay Oscar), Best Supporting Female (Lupita Nyong’o), and Best Cinematography. Nebraska, an Oscar Best Picture nominee, also has 6 Spirit Awards nominations, including a win for Best Screenplay. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won acting awards for Dallas Buyers Club. Two of the International films, The Great Beauty and The Hunt, are Oscar nominees, although the much deserving Blue Is The Warmest Color won the Spirit Award. Three of the Documentary Feature nominees are also Oscar nominees: 20 Feet From Stardom (the Spirit Award winner), The Act Of Killing, and The Square. Again, the Oscar winner for Best Doc, I feel, will be one of them.

What is being overshadowed by these Oscar nominees are the other great independent films up for a Spirit Award. All Is Lost, Frances Ha, and Inside Llewyn Davis are Best Feature nominees that were viable Oscar noms. Great acting performances from Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Robert Redford (All Is Lost), Brie Larson (Short Term 12), Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12), Melanie Diaz (Fruitvale Station), Yolanda Ross (Go For Sisters), etc. are recognized thanks to the Spirit Awards. Another great film, Upstream Color, was lost in the Oscar shuffle. It was up for Best Director and Editing, with Short Term 12, another great film, winning the Best Editing award. And one of my favorite films of the year, Mud, is receiving the Robert Altman award for (Director, Casting Director and Ensemble Cast).

In some ways it seems almost unfair that some of the lesser independent films have to compete with Oscar films. All four Spirit Award acting category winners are top picks to win the Oscar (Lupita Nyong’o, Jared Leto, Cate Blanchett, Matthew McConaughey). Plus, with Best feature, Directing, Screenplay, and Cinematography going to 12 Years A Slave, I’ve debated in my head what this means for the Independent Spirit Awards. You can look at it as the Oscars have ‘invaded’ the independent film world, or, as I like to think, the independent spirit has entered the Oscars, which usually award big budget feel good universally acclaimed films. In this way, I think that it’s a good thing for indie films and the Oscars. Of course, if you’re one of those people who like to follow bands until they ‘make it’ and then dump them, you are probably upset at seeing 12 Years A Slave dominating the Independent Spirit Awards. Especially since, it just got in under the $20 million max budget rule (Some have even suggested it might have been up to $22 million). The idea that films like Inside Llewyn Davis and Short Term 12 were snubbed by the Oscars, only to have to face off with Oscar nominated films for a Spirit Awards can be frustrating. I look at it as more filmmakers with an independent spirit and budget to back them up are introducing more important stories to a mainstream audience. 12 Years A Slave is a great film that should get the accolades it deserves. That goes for the other acting categories as well. It’s for this reason that I like to see all the Spirit Awards nominees. If you love film, you need to see all that it offers from blockbusters down to the low-budget indies.

There is one category that Oscars can’t touch called the John Cassavetes Award. These are films with a budget under $500,000. I enjoyed all 5 nominees (Computer Chess, This Is Martin Bonner, Museum Hours, Pit Stop, Crystal Fairy). This Is Martin Bonner, the winner, was one of my top two favs (Computer Chess being the other). It’s amazing what can be made with under $500,000 and it makes you think about the millions of dollars many production companies throw at mediocrefilms. It’s extremely unlikely you’ll find an Oscar nominee in this category. Two other categories you won’t find at the Oscars are Best First Screenplay and Best First Feature. Although there can potentially be Oscar nominees in these. In fact, Nebraska, an Oscar nom, won Best First Screenplay. I was picking either Lake Bell’s In A World or Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon. And Fruitvale Station, the winner of Best First Feature, was a strong favorite for an Oscar nom early in the season. However, these categories are where you’ll hear the a filmmaker’s first voice introducing a fresh vision to the screen. Wadjda was a great Best First Feature which many feel was, as I do, an Oscar Foreign Language snub.

The big difference between the Oscars and the Independent Spirit Awards is that anyone can vote for the Spirit Awards with a membership. For around ninety dollars, you can have a hand in deciding the best indie films of the year. If you think having non-industry people voting for film awards is a recipe for favoritism and uneducated voting, look no further than the Oscars. Favoritism is all over those picks. I would also argue that Film Independent members probably see more of the Spirit Award films than the Academy voters see the Oscars.

Last night, one more stride was made heading down the final stretch of a great film season. While it played out as a warmup to Oscars, it was also a reminder of the quality of films that don’t always make it to the local multiplex. Films created to carry out a unique vision and tell a personal story. Films not designed to pleasure everyone, but to show the stark reality of love, life, and death through the unique vision of a filmmaker on a limited budget with limit resources. And while the Big Show, the Oscars, are an example of the ultimate achievement in film, an example of what can be done when you have access to the best filmmakers, actors, directors, producers, and artists of both sight and sound, we must always remember the driving force that set them down their path in the beginning. It was that independent spirit with the desire to create and tell a story, no matter the time, energy, or limited budget needed to complete the vision.

About the Author

Brian Perry is an International Correspondent for TFM.

Posted in Awards, Independent Spirit Awards