Spirit Awards Roundup: How Indie Is Indie?

The 28th Annual Film Independent Spirit Awards were handed out on Saturday, at their usual spot on the beach in Santa Monica. It's casual! It's indie! It's... increasingly hewing to the mainstream as dictated by the Oscars. Last year, eventual Oscar champ "The Artist" took home the big awards, despite the Spirits being strictly for American independent productions. This year, the Oscar-nominated, Weinstein-financed romantic comedy "Silver Linings Playbook" took home four awards: Best Feature, Best Director and Best Screenplay for David O. Russell and Best Female Lead for Jennifer Lawrence. The one major award it didn't win - Bradley Cooper dropped Best Male Lead to John Hawkes from "The Sessions" - is the one it's least likely to repeat at the Oscars.

In the immediate aftermath of the awards, there were all sorts of rumblings about the "SLP" sweep. How is this movie with huge A-list stars and heavy financial backing from an industry giant like Harvey Weinstein a champion at an independent-film awards show? I'll admit, it doesn't feel right. Questions of the film's quality aside, it just feels too big. And yet... The Weinstein Company, behemoth as it can seem come awards season, is an independent company. The Spirit Awards ceiling for an eligible film's budget is $20 million. Box Office Mojo says "Silver Linings" clocks in at $21 million, which, yes, is out of bounds, but blurring the line by a mere $1 million dollars is NOTHING in Hollywood. And are we saying that with a 1/20th budget trim, "Silver Linings" would have fit the Indie Spirits bill any better?

Whether this is a problem that needs a solution is a question that's not up to me to answer. Block "dependent" studios like Weinstein Co. and Fox Searchlight and Focus (i.e. make it "true" indie) and I think you're throwing the baby, and dozens of incredibly worthy and decidedly independent movies, out with the bathwater. Lower the budget ceiling and somehow I suspect Harvey's next pet project magically arrives at that new figure. The real "solution," the same "solution" to all the complaints about the Oscars, boils down to the voters valuing what "we" want them to value. It's taste, and there is just no regulating taste (that said, I still like my idea of holding  two ceremonies: one Harvey ceremony where he wins all his awards, and then a second ceremony that starts once Harvey has left the tent).


Good News

"The Sessions" can lay as solid a claim on second place as any film at the Spirits this year. Best Supporting Female Helen Hunt was not a huge shock, though she beat some solid competition in what I considered to be the year's best category (Ann Dowd in "Compliance," Rosemarie DeWitt in "Your Sister's Sister," Brit Marling in "Sound of My Voice" and Lorraine Toussaint in "Middle of Nowhere" - four formidable performances). But John Hawkes beating out Bradley Cooper was not expected, and is certainly not a bad consolation prize for being the odd man out when Oscar nominations were announced.

Double-nominee Matthew McConaughey took Best Supporting Male for "Magic Mike" (another rule-bender, since the $7 million movie was distributed by Warner Bros., not exactly an independent studio), happily accepting his trophy with a "f**k yeah, man, dot com" and basically proving how exciting these endless pre-Oscars awards could have been if more groups had the sense to nominate this performance. Seriously, he closed out his speech with, "Just keep livin', alright!" Is there an actor with a better sense of self than McConaughey? I honestly don't think so.

Host Andy Samberg did a solid job, as most Spirit Awards hosts do - the room is always incredibly loose and ready to have fun. His monologue-closing bit thumbing his nose at the Hollywood establishment on behalf of such non-Hollywood Spirits talent like Bruce Willis, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence really put a button on the indie/not indie stuff without losing the funny.

The Best Documentary Feature winner was "The Invisible War," Kirby Dick's film about the nightmare of sexual violence against women in the U.S. military. It's not favored to win at the Oscars, but I've already begun to think that it has the stuff to make an end run and beat "Searching for Sugar Man" to the finish line. It's an incredibly emotional film and one that sends audience members out wanting to do something, even if that something is merely check a box on a ballot.

The team behind "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" may have been slightly crestfallen on nomination day when it only received one nomination, for Best First Feature, but one was enough to bring home an award for author/screenwriter/director Stephen Chbosky.


The Not-As-Good News

Best First Screenplay winner Derek Connolly battled through visible “nerves” and rattled off a FIVE-MINUTE speech that was largely left off of the TV broadcast, ultimately needing a rescue from presenter Kerry Washington, good Samaritan Bryan Cranston, and half a glass of Jameson.

Five nominations for Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," but no awards. I guess that just means that Bruce Willis will have to try even harder for that Supporting Actor citation for "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" this year. Honestly, though, sometimes, at the end of the ever-more-grueling awards season, it's better to be the movie that doesn't win. Think of all the Wes Anderson haters who'd have come out of the woodwork, knives out, if "Moonrise" had started to clean up at these things. Now, all the "Silver Linings" and "Argo" grumblers can point to "Moonrise" as the kind of movie "the system" works to keep down. It's a sick game sometimes, and I won't pretend it isn't.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Middle of Nowhere" each entered the awards with four nominations apiece, and there's a temptation to see the "Beasts" win in Best Cinematography (for Ben Richardson's magical-realist work) and the John Cassavetes Award for "Middle of Nowhere" (best film made for under $500,000) as consolation prizes. "Sorry you got steamrolled by the big movie stars - here's your parting gift." But that's buying into the mentality that only the "major" awards matter. How about giving it up for two  fantastic films that made their mark any way they could?

"Because that's awards season," I guess is the answer. It makes winners and losers of all of us. Only if WE see it that way, I say. How's that for a silver lining?


Best Feature: "Silver Linings Playbook"

Best First Feature: "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"

Best Director: David O. Russell, "Silver Linings Playbook"

Best Male Lead: John Hawkes, "The Sessions"

Best Female Lead: Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"

Best Supporting Male: Matthew McConaughey, "Magic Mike"

Best Supporting Female: Helen Hunt,  "The Sessions"

Best Screenplay: David O. Russell, "Silver Linings Playbook, "

Best First Screenplay: Derek Connolly, "Safety Not Guaranteed"

Best Cinematography: Ben Richardson, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Best Foreign Film: "Amour"

Best Documentary Feature: "The Invisible War"

John Cassavetes Award: "Middle of Nowhere"

Truer Than Fiction Award: "The Waiting Room"

Producers Award: Mynette Louie

Someone to Watch Award: Adam Leon – "Gimme the Loot"

Robert Altman Award: "Starlet"

Special Distinction Award: Harris Savides