For the independent film world, it has been the season of discontent. Until yesterday.
The Hollywood power elite mocked the independent agenda with its abortive screener ban, a new book cast an unflattering eye on stalwarts Robert Redford and Harvey Weinstein, and the groundbreaking Sundance Film Festival somehow morphed into a Paris Hilton party destination. Surely the great days of independent film were a thing of the past.
This may or may not be true, but the 76th Oscar nominations tell a different story. What they prove is that by its very existence the independent film world has in effect liberated the Oscar voters, freeing them to cast the widest possible net in their choices. This has benefited not only traditional independent films but foreign-language items like the Brazilian "City of God" and even, unexpectedly, Johnny Depp. No wonder "God's" director Fernando Meirelles' response to his film's four nominations was, "Has the academy gone mad?"
The academy's recognition of the independent film world is by now business as usual. It's no surprise to see voters plucking Patricia Clarkson out of "Pieces of April" and Holly Hunter out of "Thirteen" as nominees in the best supporting actress category. Or even that four out of five best actress nominees (everyone except Diane Keaton in "Something's Gotta Give") came from either independent companies like Newmarket or from the studios' independent branches. Or that a major studio like Paramount ended up with zero nominations.
There's no need to hand-wring that the studio-owned boutiques are not as feisty as they might be, it's that they are making and/or distributing films that simply would not be made or distributed if they did not exist. As much as a slam-dunk as the astronomically profitable "Lord of the Rings" trilogy might seem today after 11 nominations made it the front-runner for best picture, one of the reasons it went to New Line is that the majors could not be bothered to take the risk.
More than that, this year's voting indicates that academy voters, emboldened by years of looking beyond studio releases for their choices, are now peering past the independents themselves for worthy candidates. They've freed themselves to consider foreign films in areas other than the foreign-language category, and they've even been willing to cross the final frontier and nominate the kind of mainstream Hollywood films and performances that would have been ignored as not classic Oscar material.
The best original screenplay victory last year for Pedro Almodóvar's Spanish-language "Talk to Her," a film that was not even Spain's submission in the foreign-language category, was a landmark in this process. This year, the French Canadian "The Barbarian Invasions" got an original screenplay nod in addition to its foreign-language nomination, and the French animated feature "The Triplets of Belleville" got an original song pick in addition to best animation.
Doing best of all was "City of God," which was Brazil's foreign-language submission last year but did not get to the final five. This time, taking advantage of an academy rule change, it got four major nominations: directing, adapted screenplay, cinematography and film editing.
What this speaks to is not only this film's qualities, its ability to blend a socially conscious look at the slums of Rio de Janeiro with the slick filmmaking of one of Brazil's top commercial directors, but the paucity of good American-written material for the academy to choose from.
In the original screenplay category, for instance, three of the five scripts come from small films by foreign screenwriters (Britain's Steven Knight for "Dirty Pretty Things," the Irish Sheridan family for "In America," plus Denys Arcand for "The Barbarian Invasions"). Of the two American scripts, "Lost in Translation" was an independent film and "Finding Nemo" was a cartoon. The major studios' disdain for adult drama has truly come home to roost.
Speaking of "Nemo": Though its nomination for original screenplay was predictable (and in part a function of a lack of other choices), its total of four Oscars (original score, sound editing, animated feature) was not. But academy voters as well as audiences were impressed by the film and basically said, "Why not?"
Even more reflective of liberated, nontraditional thinking was that in the Battle of the Sea Captains, the academy ignored Russell Crowe in "Master and Commander" and selected Johnny Depp for "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." In years past, that would have been no contest and the decision would have gone the other way. As charming as Depp was, his is a comic role and "Pirates" is Jerry Bruckheimer-produced mass market entertainment, the kind of thing that, whatever else you think about it, is traditionally ignored when the academy hands out its most coveted nominations. But this year, as with 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes' best actress nomination for New Zealand's "Whale Rider," the unconstrained voters liked what they saw and refused to second-guess their emotions.
One of the most curious aspects of this year's nominations, especially considering how well foreign-language films did across the board, is the surprising nature of the foreign-language category. Except for Arcand's "Barbarian Invasions," none of the films selected came in with major reputations, and numerous films with major reputations — Germany's "Good Bye, Lenin," Russia's "The Return," Norway's "Kitchen Stories" among them — were shut out. Whether the academy knows something we don't won't be clear until the nominees are widely screened, but it's nice to know that, like "City of God," the unfairly neglected may have better luck next year.
Freedom of choice
Academy voters were emboldened to look at the independents (and beyond), our critic observes.
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