Spirit Award noms a timely stamp of approval for deserving films

“12 Years a Slave”
Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen star in “12 Years a Slave.”
(Francois Duhamel, Fox Searchlight)

“12 Years a Slave,” which led the way Tuesday in Spirit Award nominations, has been screening for film academy members since its strong debut earlier this fall at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. Despite a wealth of opportunities, many Oscar voters have put off seeing the well-reviewed movie, an uncompromising, unshakable look at American slavery.

So, if anything, the seven Spirit nominations the movie received — including nods for film, director Steve McQueen and actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o — should serve as a potent reminder to voters to move the “12 Years” screener to the top of the DVD stack or, you know, actually go see it in a theater over Thanksgiving weekend.

More than anything, the Spirit Awards, along with next week’s announcements from two major film critics groups, Los Angeles and New York, function as timely stamps of approval for a host of deserving pictures trying to find an audience (commercially and among academy members) in a season crowded with movies and events. (Film Independent, the L.A.-based nonprofit arts organization that champion’s independent pictures, presents the Spirit Awards.)

PHOTOS: 2014 Independent Spirit Awards top nominees


Given the film’s universal acclaim, “12 Years’” steamroll through the Spirits was a given. But the nominations, voted on by a group of 43 people, including industry professionals and members of Film Independent’s board of directors, also provided a valuable foothold for two other movies currently fighting for attention.

Alexander Payne’s bittersweet family story “Nebraska” received six nominations, second to “12 Years.” The movie follows a middle-aged man (Will Forte) giving his father (Bruce Dern) a last shot at dignity by driving him from Montana to Nebraska, where the old man believes a $1-million sweepstakes payout awaits. Like Payne’s other movies (“The Descendants,” “Sideways,” among them), “Nebraska” mixes deadpan humor with affecting emotion. Unlike the others, it’s in black and white, gloriously so. The Spirits love, which saw nominations for Payne, Dern, Forte, actress June Squibb, writer Bob Nelson and the film itself, should give the movie a nice boost as it expands from its current platform run at 28 theaters nationwide.

J.C. Chandor’s gripping adventure tale “All Is Lost” is another big Spirits winner, receiving nominations for feature, director Chandor, cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco and, of course, its star (and only cast member), Robert Redford. The movie didn’t lack for attention when it arrived in theaters last month and yet, despite reviews hailing Redford’s turn as a sailor fighting for his life after his boat hits a stray shipping container in the Indian Ocean, audiences have resisted it.

“It’s the title,” Chandor told me at the Governors Awards earlier this month. “We should have called it ‘All Is Not Lost.’ People think it’s hopeless.”


RELATED: Complete list of Independent Spirit Awards nominees

It isn’t. And, given the four Spirit noms, neither is the continued optimism that the movie might eventually find more appreciation.

Although the Spirit Awards nominations are voted on by a select group, the awards themselves are chosen by anyone who signs up for a Film Independent membership. Those with a spirited (or vested) interest in whether, say, Brie Larson (“Short Term 12") or Shailene Woodley (“The Spectacular Now”) can somehow best “Blue Jasmine’s” Cate Blanchett for lead actress honors can vote simply by paying the $95 fee to join. (The Spirits will be given out March 1, the day before the Oscars, in an irreverent ceremony that’s one of the highlights of the awards season).

This egalitarian spirit has resulted in a fairly conventional slate of winners in recent years (“Silver Linings Playbook” thoroughly dominated the last contest), which makes the membership committee’s left-field nominees all the more worthy of celebration. Larson and Woodley starred in two of the more celebrated indies of the year, so their inclusion was deserved, but not surprising. That they were joined by Gaby Hoffman, so wonderfully natural in the largely unheralded road trip comedy “Crystal Fairy,” stands as the sort of nod to discovery that should define the Spirits, but too rarely does.

Glenn Whipp writes the Gold Standard column for The Envelope.