Spirit Awards: 'Spotlight' Wins Big in Diverse Show

Tom McCarthy Spirit Director - GETTY - H 2016
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Tom McCarthy's drama about the reporters who exposed the Catholic Church took home five trophies, while first-time performers Abraham Attah and Mya Taylor were welcomed into the limelight.

Spotlight, which recounts The Boston Globe's efforts to expose the clerical sex abuse that had been hidden by the Catholic Church, was the big winner at the 2016 Spirit Awards, capturing the award for best feature as well as four other trophies.

Film Independent, which puts on the awards show celebrating independently produced film, also made something of a show of diversity by rewarding a couple of first-time performers: Abraham Attah, the young actor from Ghana who was hailed as best male actor for playing a child soldier in Beasts of No Nation, and Mya Taylor, the transgender actress who was singled out as best supporting female for her work in Tangerine.

Rounding out the top prizes, Brie Larson took home the award for best female lead for playing a fiercely protective mom in Room, and Idris Elba was hailed as supporting actor for playing a fearsome African warlord in Beasts of No Nation.

Although Larson is considered the favorite to capture best actress honors at Sunday's Oscars, and Spotlight is very much in the Oscar hunt, the ceremony, which took place in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica, did its best to present itself as the anti-Oscars. In recent years, the Spirit Awards have played more like a casual dress rehearsal for the Oscars, with Spirit best feature winners like last year's Birdman and, the year before that, 12 Years a Slave, going on to win the best picture Oscar.

But this year there was less overlap between the two sets of nominations, making the Spirit Awards, which were broadcast live on IFC, more of an Oscar alternative. The five features nominated for top honors at the Spirits included only one Oscar best picture nominee, Spotlight, alongside an inclusive group of nominees that included the lesbian romance Carol, the transgender tale Tangerine, the Africa-set Beasts of No Nation and the adult animation film Anomalisa. Going into the awards show, Carol, with six nominations, led the field, followed by Beasts and Spotlight, with five each.

Inevitably, the show's two hosts, Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon and Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani, took potshots at the Oscars' lack of diversity. "We're going to do everything you can't do at the Oscars," McKinnon promised. "We're going to nominate some nominees that aren't white."

As if underscoring the diversity on view throughout the Spirit Awards, Taylor made history by becoming the first transgender actress to claim a major film award when she was named best supporting female for playing a sex worker on the streets of Hollywood in Tangerine. The movie was her first film, and she admitted that while she "had come from almost nothing," over the past year, her "life did a total 360." She concluded by saying, "There is transgender talent. There is very beautiful transgender talent. So you better get out there and put it in your next movie."

Accepting the best feature award for Spotlight, producer Michael Sugar said, "It's very rare to make a movie that impacts the world as significantly as this one has."

Spotlight director and co-writer Tom McCarthy became a frequent visitor to the Spirit Awards podium. In addition to the feature award, his film earned directing honors and took home awards for the screenplay he wrote with Josh Singer, best editing by Tom McArdle and the Robert Altman Award. "This is an incredible bounty of riches," McCarthy said as he accepted his directing prize.

Some moments earlier, when Singer and McCarthy won the screenplay award, McCarthy first asked the reporters and editors from The Boston Globe who were present to stand and take a bow, thanking them for giving "so much of their time and energy to this story," and Singer then did the same for Phil Saviano, one of the survivors of clerical abuse, who, Singer said, "helped break the story."

Film Independent's annual Robert Altman Award, which goes to a film's director, casting directors and ensemble cast, and whose winner had been previously announced, went to Spotlight — specifically to McCarthy, casting directors Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee and the movie's cast. McCarthy paid tribute to his actors, saying "I needed this cast, and these guys signed on so quickly," and gave a big shout-out to indie production company and distributor Open Road, testifying, "They really wanted to make the film we wanted to make."

Attah made two trips to the stage as the afternoon progressed. Winning the award for best support male, Elba brought the young actor up to the podium with him. "I'm not here on my own," said Elba. "I supported Abraham." And then, near the ceremony's inclusion, Attah was again summoned to come up — to accept the best lead actor prize. Among his thank-yous, the first-time actor cited the film's director, Cary Fukunaga, "for letting me play this role."

In her turn on the stage, Room's Larson, who had previously been nominated for 2013's Short Term 12, expressed her indebtedness to independent film. "It's what helped me grow up," she said. "I'm so excited to be in a room with such brave filmmakers."

Carol's Ed Lachman was awarded the best cinematography trophy. He thanked director Todd Haynes for providing the vision, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy for providing a poetic framework, and the movie's stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, saying, "You created the most emotional frames with visual detail for me to capture."

Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, set in 1970s San Francisco, claimed the prize for best first feature. Said Heller, "Sometimes a project comes along that changes your whole life, and this project was that for me."

Jacob Tremblay, the young star of Room, did the honors of announcing the best first screenplay award, which, as fate would have it, went to Room's Emma Donoghue, the Irish-Canadian author who adapted her own novel for the screen. Donoghue thanked her partner of 22 years, Christine Roulston and cited their two children as her inspiration.

Laszlo Nemes' holocaust drama Son of Saul was named best international film. Referring to the movie's close-quarters aesthetic, Nemes said, "It means a lot to us that the language of film, the grammar of film, is not something that stopped evolving. We wanted to explore, and I think it's an encouragement."

The prize for documentary feature was awarded to Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence, which like his 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, examines the aftermath of the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s.

The John Cassavetes Award, given to a first feature made for under $500,000, was presented to writer-director Trey Edward Shults' Krisha, shot in just nine days at the director's mother's house and starring his aunt.

Film Independent also announced several of its filmmaker grants in January at its annual Spirit Awards Nominees Brunch.

Mel Eslyn received the Piaget Producers Award, honoring "emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality, independent films. Felix Thompson, director of King Jack, received the Kiehl's Someone to Watch Award, which goes to "talented filmmakers of singular vision who have not yet received appropriate recognition." And Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, director of Incorruptible, received the Truer Than Fiction Award, presented to "an emerging director of nonfiction features who has not received significant recognition."

Among distributors, Open Road, thanks to Spotlight, led the field with five wins. A24, which was represented by Room and Krisha, claimed three, while Bleecker Street/Netflix and Sony Pictures Classics had two each.

Wrapping up the show, Nanjiani joked, "No reason to watch the Oscars tomorrow."