Spirit Awards Noms Suggest Indie Community Is Uniting Behind 'Carol,' 'Spotlight' (Analysis)

The announcement also indicates, with five noms for 'Beasts of No Nation,' that Netflix is being embraced rather than resisted by independent filmmakers.
'Carol'

Talk about independent spirit.

Film Independent announced its nominees for the 31st Spirit Awards — which honor American films made for $20 million or less for "uniqueness of vision, original and provocative subject matter" — on Tuesday morning and included among its five best feature nominees a stop-motion animated film (Anomalisa), a Netflix production (Beasts of No Nation) and a film shot entirely on iPhones (Tangerine), as well as two films directed by favorites of the indie community, Todd Haynes' Carol and Tom McCarthy's Spotlight.

The nominations — determined by nominating committees composed of "writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, editors, actors, critics, casting directors, film festival programmers and other working film professionals" — brought especially encouraging news for Carol, the great hope of The Weinstein Co. this awards season (along with, perhaps, the as-yet-unseen The Hateful Eight).

The lesbian drama led the field with six noms — including mentions for Haynes' direction, Phyllis Nagy's adapted screenplay and the performances of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara — on the heels of an opening weekend in which the pic scored the year's third-highest per-theater average. It is noteworthy that the nom-coms categorized both leading ladies as lead actresses, as TWC has, somewhat controversially, been pushing Mara as a supporting actress.

Beasts of No Nation, the Netflix release, garnered five mentions, including one for supporting actor Idris Elba and three for filmmaker Cary Fukunaga, who was recognized for his work as a producer, director and cinematographer. Collectively, this is precisely the sort of badge of legitimacy that this day-and-date release needs to convince skeptical voters from other awards groups that the pic, despite being gruesomely violent and released in an unusual way, is worthy of their consideration.

Spotlight, Open Road's big contender this season, was recognized not only as a feature, but also for its direction, screenplay, film editing — and it will receive the Robert Altman Award, which, since 2008, has gone to a single film in recognition of its director, casting director and ensemble. No film this year has a more impressive ensemble than this one, which is the only Altman honoree ever to also land an editing nomination (a nom considered crucial for a film with best picture Oscar hopes).

The fact that Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's Anomalisa is a feature nominee — and also was nominated for its direction, screenplay and supporting actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (the first voice performance ever nominated by the Spirit Awards, as far as I can tell) — is a testament to Paramount's faith in the unusual pic, which is a tough sell, but a little less of a tough sell after this showing.

Magnolia's Tangerine, meanwhile, made history in its own way: In addition to its feature and directing noms, it also landed mentions for its two leading ladies (lead actress Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and supporting actress Mya Taylor), who happen to be transgender. As far as I can determine, no transgender performers have ever been recognized in this way previously by the Spirit Awards or Oscars. (Oddly, the film's innovative cinematography was not nominated.) It's a movie that lacks the profile of the other aforementioned contenders, despite the unwavering efforts of its publicists, and is probably running up against a certain degree of transphobia — but never say never!

(Celebrating diversity is high on the mandate provided to SAG nom-com voters, which may partly explain the strong reception for Carol, Beasts, Tangerine and others.)

It should be noted that another big winner on Tuesday was A24, which tied Magnolia as the distributor that bagged the most noms, with seven. While a feature nom wasn't among them, these were: Brie Larson (Room) for best actress, who's probably the one to beat; Jason Segel (The End of the Tour) for best actor, despite being campaigned as a supporting actor; The End of the Tour (David Margolies) for best screenplay; and Room (Emma Donoghue) for best first screenplay.

Michael Shannon (99 Homes) and Paul Dano (Love & Mercy) managed to dodge a Segel-like recategorization — but their films otherwise registered disappointingly.

A few films that face steeper climbs to the Oscars but got a boost on Tuesday include The Diary of a Teenage Girl — the leading nom-getter at the other coast's big celebration of indies, the Gotham Awards, which will be presented on Monday — for best first feature and best actress (Bel Powley); James White for best first feature, best actor (Christopher Abbott) and best supporting actress (Cynthia Nixon); Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews) for best first screenplay; Meadowland (Reed Morano) for best cinematography; and recent Emmy nominee Ben Mendelsohn (Mississippi Grind) for best actor.

English-language productions on a small scale that were not eligible for any noms because of their national affiliation included 45 Years, Brooklyn, The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, Suffragette and Youth, among others. (The eligibility of Room, which has an Irish director and English screenwriter, was reportedly approved late in the process, which may have hurt its overall performance.)

The Spirit Award winners will be announced at a ceremony in Santa Monica on Saturday, Feb. 27. As always, the Oscars will take place the following day.

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