Little films live large

Three tie for Spirit noms lead

Three dramas landed six nominations apiece Tuesday to lead the field for Film Independent's Spirit Awards. "Ballast," about the struggle for survival in the Mississippi Delta, "Frozen River," a portrait of two women smuggling immigrants across the Canadian border, and "Rachel Getting Married," the account of a dysfunctional family wedding, are up for best feature along with "Wendy and Lucy" and "The Wrestler."

Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," a twisty, M.C. Escher-like film, was singled out for the group's Robert Altman Award, given to one film's director, casting director and ensemble cast. Kaufman will share the award with casting director Jeanne McCarthy and actors Hope Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest and Michelle Williams when the Spirit Awards are handed out Feb. 21.

"It's very much in the spirit of Robert Altman — great ensemble cast, with a director working with so many actors and pulling them together in a really original vision," FIND executive director Dawn Hudson said.

"Synecdoche" also figures in the best first feature lineup, along with Antonio Campos' "Afterschool," Barry Jenkins' "Medicine for Melancholy," Christopher Zalla's "Sangre De Mi Sangre" and Alex Rivera's "Sleep Dealer."

While such high-profile studio specialty division films as "Milk" and "Wrestler" popped up among the nominees, FIND's nominating committees reached out to an eclectic group of smaller films from the U.S. and abroad.

With 18 noms and "Rachel" and "River" in the best feature circle, Sony Pictures Classics outdistanced its fellow distributors.

"We just buy movies that we like, so I guess we're in tune with the American independent film community, its taste and what's playing in theaters," SPC co-president Tom Bernard said. "I think it's great that people are looking for something different."

IFC Films also saw its commitment to indie features pay off; it boasts 11 noms spread among seven films, including three of the five nominees for best foreign film.

In that category, IFC's "Gommora" (Italy), "Hunger" (U.K./Ireland) and "Secret of the Grain" (France) will compete against SPC's "The Class" (France) and Palisades Pictures' "Silent Light" (Mexico/ France/Netherlands/Germany). The most notable omission was the Mumbai-set "Slumdog Millionaire," one of the critical hits of the season.

"We feel incredibly proud to have three of the five foreign films because we really stepped in to fill a void for those films," IFC vp marketing Ryan Werner said.

Up for best female lead are Anne Hathaway ("Rachel"), Summer Bishil ("Towelhead"), Melissa Leo ("River"), Tarra Riggs ("Ballast") and Williams ("Wendy").

Vying in the best male lead category are Javier Bardem ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor"), Sean Penn ("Milk"), Jeremy Renner ("The Hurt Locker") and Mickey Rourke ("Wrestler").

"Rachel" also scored two nominations in the supporting female category for Rosemarie DeWitt and Debra Winger. Also nominated are Penelope Cruz ("Vicky"), Rosie Perez ("The Take") and Misty Upham ("River").

Nominated for best supporting male are James Franco ("Milk"), Anthony Mackie ("Hurt Locker"), Charlie McDermott ("River"), JimMyron Ross ("Ballast") and Haaz Sleiman ("Visitor").

The director noms mixed it up a bit. Of the five best feature nominees, Jonathan Demme ("Rachel"), Lance Hammer ("Ballast") and Courtney Hunt ("River") all earned noms. But "Wendy" helmer Kelly Reichardt and "Wrestler" director Darren Aronofksy missed the cut. Instead, the noms embraced Ramin Bahrani for "Chop Shop" and Tom McCarthy for "The Visitor."

Hammer and Hunt also are nominated for best first screenplay, along with Dustin Lance Black ("Milk"), Jonathan Levine ("The Wackness") and Jenny Lumet ("Rachel").

The announcements held a few other surprises. While "Milk" earned four noms, it didn't make it into the best feature or director heats. On the other hand, Kathryn Bigelow's "Hurt Locker," an Iraq-set thriller that bowed at Toronto but won't be released threatrically until next year, picked up two acting noms.

Surveying the field, Hudson said: "I think it's an incredible range of films. You've got veterans like Woody Allen and Jonathan Demme, and you've got newcomers like Lance Hammer and Courtney Hunt. And two of the best features were directed by women."

Allen will be invited to visit the awards, which take place in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica, because he was nominated for his "Vicky" screenplay. His fellow nominees in the screenplay category are Zalla ("Sangre"), Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck ("Sugar"), Kaufman ("Synecdoche") and Howard A. Rodman ("Savage Grace").

Borys Kit contributed to this report.
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