Independent Spirit Awards: Good News for 'Birdman,' 'Boyhood' and 'Selma'

THR's awards analyst breaks down the nominations' notable inclusions and snubs, as well as the history of the Spirit Awards and who votes to determine them
Atsushi Nishijima
'Birdman'

The nominations for the 30th Film Independent Spirit Awards — which aim to celebrate the best work in American films that cost roughly $20 million or less, and which will be dished out on Feb. 21 — were announced on Tuesday morning. Birdman — an indie movie about a former star of studio films, interestingly enough — led the field with six noms, while the indie passion projects Boyhood, Nightcrawler and Selma were hot on its heels with five apiece. Several other high-profile contenders, meanwhile, were left out entirely.

All of which begs the question: Does any of this mean anything?

Read more The Latest Feinberg Forecast for the Oscars

Yes and no.

Spirit Award nominations are determined by three nominating committees comprised of members of the independent film community — film critics, film programmers, actors, producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, editors, past nominees and winners, and members of Film Independent’s Board of Directors — one each for American Narrative films, Documentary films and International Narrative films. Their identities are not made public, so it is unclear how many people serve on these committees and/or the extent to which those people are also members of the Academy. While it's hard to know whose views the nominations represent, it is certain that they influence the viewing habits of the full memberships of Film Independent and IFP, who get to vote to determine the winners.

For many years, the Spirit Awards were largely dismissed as a curiosity — really just an excuse to drink in a tent by the beach in Santa Monica the day before Oscar's "D-Day" — since its winners so rarely overlapped with those at the Oscars. But that is no longer the case. Indeed, two of the three times that the winner of the best feature Spirit Award and the winner of the best picture Oscar have overlapped, during their 29 years of coexistence, came within the last four years, when 2011's The Artist and last year's 12 Years a Slave took both prizes. (The third sample of overlapping choices was 1986's Platoon.) At the most recent ceremony, all four acting awards, as well as the screenplay and documentary prizes, also went to the people who were awarded corresponding Oscars the following day, which should make people sit up and pay attention this year, another in which the vast majority of Oscar hopefuls are also, to some extent, indies.

In other words, today brought very encouraging news for Birdman — which, like last year's winner 12 Years a Slave, comes from Fox Searchlight — as well as its director Alejandro G. Inarritu, lead actor Michael Keaton, supporting actor Edward Norton, supporting actress Emma Stone and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, if not its screenwriters (Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolas Giabone and Inarritu) and film editor (Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise), who were all snubbed.

Boyhood, which is in many ways the year's ultimate indie triumph — financed by little IFC Films over the course of 12 years — landed just about everything it could have hoped for except for its lead actor Ellar Coltrane (a newcomer who was always a longshot) and its screenplay, written by Richard Linklater. In addition to best feature, noms also went to Linklater for his direction, as well as supporting actor Ethan Hawke, supporting actress Patricia Arquette and film editor Sandra Adair.

Paramount's Selma, which arrived late in the season, and Open Road Films' Nightcrawler, which is a genre film, both outperformed expectations. Selma bagged the feature nom, as well as mentions for its director Ava DuVernay (a vet of such indie productions such as Middle of Nowhere), lead actor David Oyelowo (who appeared in that same pic), supporting actress Carmen Ejogo and cinematographer Bradford Young (also a Middle of Nowhere alum). Nightcrawler's noms for lead actor Jake Gyllenhaal and director Dan Gilroy for both best first feature and screenplay were less surprising than its noms for supporting actor Riz Ahmed and film editor John Gilroy.

Joining Birdman, Boyhood and Selma in the best feature category are two Sony Pictures Classics pics: Whiplash (director Damien Chazelle, supporting actor J.K. Simmons and film editor Tom Cross are also along for the ride) and Love Is Strange (which also landed noms for lead actor John Lithgow, supporting actor Alfred Molina and screenwriters Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias).

Films that were denied best feature noms but are represented elsewhere include Still Alice (lead actress Julianne Moore), A Most Violent Year (supporting actress Jessica Chastain, J.C. Chandor's screenplay and film editor Ron Patane), Obvious Child (best first feature for Gillian Robespierre and lead actress for Jenny Slate), Only Lovers Left Alive (lead actress Tilda Swinton and screenwriter Jim Jarmusch, both icons of the indie scene), Dear White People (best first feature and best first screenplay for Justin Simien), Jimi: All Is by My Side (lead actor Andre Benjamin) and The Immigrant (lead actress Marion Cotillard and cinematographer Darius Khondjii for their work on indie fixture James Gray's period piece), as well as the lesser-known Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (the noms for director David Zellner and lead actress Rinko Kikuchi were among the more surprising of the day).

(Fun fact: Chandor, Chazelle, Cotillard, Gyllenhaal and Swinton all were guests on THR's Indie Contenders Roundtable at AFI Fest earlier this month.)

Some notably absent films that were not snubbed but were instead ineligible for recognition due to their budget or nation of origin, include Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher (which will nevertheless receive a Special Distinction Award, similar to the way it will be acknowledged at the Gotham Independent Film Awards on Dec. 1), Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice (though it will be honored with the Robert Altman Award), John Michael McDonagh's Calvary, Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, James Marsh's The Theory of Everything, Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The real, major across-the-board snubs included Jon Favreau's Chef (not even its screenplay), Ned Benson's The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (not even lead actress Chastain), Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild (not even lead actress Reese Witherspoon), Barry Levinson's The Humbling (not even lead actor Al Pacino or lead actress Greta Gerwig), Mike Binder's Black or White (not even lead actor Kevin Costner), Daniel Barnz's Cake (not even lead actress Jennifer Aniston) and Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman (not even lead actress Hilary Swank) — all of which received the same treatment from the Gothams noms — plus Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins (lead actor Bill Hader is a Gotham nominee).

Voting to determine the best documentary feature Oscar shortlist ended last Friday, so today's Spirit Award noms won't boost the chances that Citizenfour, The Salt of the Earth or Virunga will make the Academy's final 15 — but all three films already stood strong shots of making that initial cut. If they do, they — along with fellow Spirit Award nominees 20,000 Days on Earth and Stray Dog (from Winter's Bone helmer Debra Granik) — may be helped in the next round by having had their profiles raised today.

Academy members have not yet selected their foreign-language film shortlist, though, so today's best international film Spirit Award noms could boost the prospects of — or at least the level of interest in considering — Sweden's Force Majeure, Poland's Ida, Russia's Leviathan, Canada's Mommy and the Philippines' Norte, the End of History. The Spirit Awards' sixth nominee, the U.K.'s Under the Skin, was ineligible for Oscar submission in the foreign-language category because what little dialogue it features is delivered in English. The others are all their respective nations' official submissions and were already regarded as top-tier contenders.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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