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Why the Spirit Awards feel even more essential in a year Oscars mostly overlooked indie film

Why the Spirit Awards feel even more essential in a year Oscars mostly overlooked indie film
Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in "Sorry to Bother You," one of several films nominated for multiple Spirit awards but zero Oscars this year. (Annapurna Pictures)

The Spirit Awards are known for their casual, irreverent attitude — they take place in an oversize tent on a beach in Santa Monica — and offering an “alternative” to the Oscars the day before Hollywood’s biggest night. But recently, rather than standing apart, the Spirits have seemed more like an Oscars preamble.

Last year’s Spirit Award for best feature went to “Get Out,” which was also Oscar-nominated for best picture. Other recent winners of the Spirits’ top prize, “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” “Birdman” and “12 Years A Slave,” all went on to win the Academy Award for best picture one day later.

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Not so this year. For the first time since 2008, none of the five films nominated for feature at the Spirits is nominated for the Oscar for best picture. No matter which film emerges victorious in the battle between “Eighth Grade,” “First Reformed,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Leave No Trace” and “You Were Never Really Here,” Saturday’s event will be the pinnacle, not a prelude.

“It's true that for a while they almost seemed to be mirrors of each other,” filmmaker Tamara Jenkins said of the Spirits and the Oscars. “That day was just kind of the cute, smaller version, and then people would have to put on tuxedos the next day. It was just like the more festive-wear version of the Oscars.”

"Private Life," starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, is one of the five films nominated for the top prize at Saturday's Spirit Awards.
"Private Life," starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, is one of the five films nominated for the top prize at Saturday's Spirit Awards. (Jojo Whilden / Netflix)

This year Jenkins’ film “Private Life” was nominated for three Spirit Awards, including screenplay and director, but wasn’t recognized at all by the Oscars. Jenkins’ previous movie, “The Savages,” was nominated for four Spirit Awards, winning two, and was also nominated for two Oscars.

“The reason that the Spirit Awards were invented was this exact reason,” Jenkins added. “They were in response to the establishment, and recognizing movies that the establishment might not notice. That's the point.”

Whether by circumstance or design, the Spirit Awards this year have largely gone their own way. None of the Spirit Awards nominees for best actor overlap with the academy’s nominations. Though with at least one Oscar nominee shared in the other acting categories (Glenn Close for lead actress, Adam Driver and Richard E. Grant for supporting actor, and Regina King for supporting actress), it is still possible to repeat what happened last year, when three out of four Spirit acting winners went on to Oscar glory on Sunday.

The Spirits’ special Robert Altman Award, given to a director, casting director and ensemble cast is going to Luca Guadagnino’s wild remake of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” a movie that got no Oscar nominations. And movies including Paul Dano’s “Wildlife,” Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” and Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” all received multiple Spirit Awards nominations without any recognition from the academy.

Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” nominated for three Spirit Awards, including first feature and first screenplay, wasn’t even eligible for Oscar consideration because it was released on HBO after bowing at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

“This year the Spirit Awards and the Oscars really are [recognizing] a different set of films,” said Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, which puts on the Spirit Awards. “And that’s unpredictable. It’s not something we can control or even really worry about.”

This year films such as “A Star Is Born,” “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Vice” are all in contention for the Oscars but are ineligible for the Spirit Awards due to the size of their budgets. And while the academy showered “Roma,” “The Favourite” and “Cold War” with multiple nominations, all three are only eligible at the Spirit Awards in the best international film category, where they were indeed nominated.

This award show shines a spotlight on the independent sector as an area where change is happening and change is possible.


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The spirit of this year’s Spirit Awards might be best represented by the film that received the most nominations overall: Jeremiah Zagar’s “We the Animals,” an intimate, imaginative tale of childhood that took in less than $500,000 at the box office when it was released by the Orchard late last summer.

Zagar was in production on a commercial project the morning that the Spirit Award nominations were announced. He turned his phone back on after a few hours to discover some 105 messages and more pouring in. A colleague showed him that “We the Animals” was prominently featured on film industry trade websites announcing that the film was up for five awards.

“That was surreal. It’s an honor,” Zagar recalled. “And to see who we’re coupled with, who else is getting those awards. That’s crazy. I’m going to be in a room with these people who are my heroes. It’s a very affirming moment.”

Two of the five films in the Spirit Awards best feature category were directed by women, while three of the five nominees in the director category are women. This alone stands in distinction to the Oscars, where none of the best picture nominees was directed by women and no women were recognized for director. Likewise, no female directors were nominated for feature awards by the Golden Globes, the DGA or the BAFTAs this year.

“When the nominating committees are watching films, they talk about one thing and one thing only, which is the quality of the filmmaking,” Welsh said. “And this year, the fact that three of the five best directors are films directed by women — it makes me extremely happy.

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“We have, and all of the industry still has such a long way to go when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” he said, “but I think this award show shines a spotlight on the independent sector as an area where change is happening and change is possible.”

From left to right, Raul Castillo and Evan Rosado in a scene from "We the Animals." The film took in less than $500,000 at the box office but goes into the Spirit Awards with the most nominations.
From left to right, Raul Castillo and Evan Rosado in a scene from "We the Animals." The film took in less than $500,000 at the box office but goes into the Spirit Awards with the most nominations. (The Orchard)

Taking stock of the current landscape, there continues to be much hand-wringing in traditional Hollywood circles over how to deal with the arrival of streaming platforms and the audience’s changing viewing habits. Not so in independent film, where creators find the moment to be one of excitement and opportunity.

Filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, whose jagged psychological drama “You Were Never Really Here” is up for four Spirit Awards, including feature, director and male lead for star Joaquin Phoenix, sees this as a moment of positive progress.

“The whole deck of cards is changing,” Ramsay said. “Films that once might have been considered very indie, and not part of the conversation, suddenly they're actually in that the spotlight, and there should be more of them.

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“So that’s super exciting and kind of radical; it's a radical little moment that we should embrace,” she said. “It's unnerving, like, “What the hell is going to happen next?” But good movies out — a good movie finds an audience. It might be five years later, but it will find its audience and be remembered.”

Those sentiments were echoed by “Madeline’s Madeline” filmmaker Josephine Decker. Her film, a drama of a young woman’s self-discovery with an unconventional approach to storytelling, was nominated for two Spirit Awards — cinematography for Ashley Connor and best female lead for Helena Howard in her feature film debut.

“To have the movie doing well and people actually seeing it and really responding to it, it's a big blessing,” Decker said . “And especially for a movie which is so unusual and unconventional, it gives me hope that the world is ready for a slight shaking up of conventional narrative storytelling in movies.

“There's so many styles that people are familiar with, and so many great directors working in both TV and film. I think people are getting used to having a more unconventional language of storytelling.”

I don't think anybody makes a movie to get an award... they want people to see the movie and talk about the movie and respond to the movie.


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If it seems that the academy has caught up to the Spirit Awards in the past, with sharp, forward-thinking storytelling becoming the norm instead of the outlier, perhaps this year’s Spirit Awards nominees are pointing to the future yet again. As the academy’s membership continues to change, so too will the very idea of what can be considered an “awards movie.”

Writer-director Boots Riley saw his debut feature “Sorry to Bother You” nominated for two Spirit Awards, for screenplay and first feature. For a movie that grapples with corporate dystopia with an absurdist sensibility, that sort of recognition puts it on a level ground with movies that have more obvious awards season appeal.

“I definitely feel like ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is representative of a time that we're in,” Riley said. “That there are all these movements going on to have more voices in there, representative of what's going on, on the ground where there are actual organizations and movements that are in the real world, that are organizing around power and parity and justice and wanting to change the whole system. And so from that art always responds, and industries always respond.

“There are more people looking for their art to have some connection to the real world,” Riley added. “And so with that comes the different kinds of voices — not only in the different kinds of voices of who the writer and director identify as, but in the different points of view that are out there that represent more where people are at.”

The distinct set of nominees for this year’s Spirit Awards also points to the sheer volume of movies that are being created and released right now, and provide one more signpost for audiences to find good and important work.

“I mean, why are awards even significant?” Jenkins asked, striking to the existential heart of the season. “I mean there are two reasons: one is for a sense of recognition by your peers or a voting body that’s supposed to have insight into cinema.

“But the other thing that’s important is it causes people to watch your movie and talk about it,” she said. “I don’t think anybody makes a movie to get an award. Most people that are filmmakers are making movies because they want people to see the movie and talk about the movie and respond to the movie.

“And so if getting your movie nominated means any little, tiny bit of visibility for a movie that could easily not be seen, it’s important. Especially when it just feels like there’s so much out there, it’s so easy to disappear.”

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