Spirit noms on a budget
'Sunshine,' 'Nelson' lead less-expensive fare"Little Miss Sunshine," a comedy about a dysfunctional family on an ill-fated road trip, and "Half Nelson," a drama about the bond forged between a drug-addicted teacher and one of his students, lead the list of nominees for Film Independent's Spirit Awards, announced Tuesday.
Fox Searchlight's "Sunshine" and ThinkFilm's "Nelson" picked up five nominations apiece in the main categories, including best feature.
Previously known as the Independent Spirit Awards, the awards, sponsored by Los Angeles-based Film Independent, honor achievements in the indie film scene. The winners will be unveiled Feb. 24 at the group's annual awards luncheon, which takes place in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica.
In the best feature category, "Sunshine" and "Nelson" will compete with "American Gun," a drama about the proliferation of guns in the U.S.; "The Dead Girl," a mystery-thriller about a serial killer's victim; and "Pan's Labyrinth," a politically charged fantasy film.
While the awards celebrate American independent cinema, a film qualifies if two of the three principal filmmmakers reside in the U.S., which is why the group included the Spanish-language "Labyrinth."
Unlike past years, when some Spirit Awards nominees ap- proached moderately budgeted studio fare, this year's selection hewed more closely to the lower-budgeted indie line. "Sunshine," which was produced for about $8 million, has gone on to gross nearly $59 million domestically, while "Nelson," which cost less than $1 million, has collected $2.7 million. In all, the group's nominating committees reached out to embrace 41 films, about half of which were produced for less than $1 million.
Past Spirit Award winners Felicity Huffman and Don Cheadle announced the nominees at the Hotel Sofitel in Los Angeles.
"There really is an explosion of talent in the lower-budgeted films," Film Independent executive director Dawn Hudson said. "We saw more submissions of lower-budgeted films and better lower-budgeted films. Independent film is no longer confined to small character dramas. There are political films here, satires, comedies and fantasies. And there's (David Lynch's) 'Inland Empire,' which combines a lot of them."
Lynch and his frequent collaborator, Laura Dern, were singled out to receive a Special Distinction Award in recognition of their work together running from "Blue Velvet" through "Inland Empire."
"Sunshine" and "Nelson" also earned noms for their directors: the team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who helmed the comedy, and Ryan Fleck, who steered the drama. Their category also includes the late Robert Altman for "A Prairie Home Companion," Karen Moncrieff for "Dead Girl" and Steven Soderbergh for "Bubble."
Dayton and Faris were driving their kids to school ? in a blue van ? when they got the word.
"Our (twin) boys are 11, very into sports and very competitive ? they were cheering," Dayton said, laughing. Added Faris: "It's nice for them to know we are not moving out of our house. It gives them a small sense of security, even though there's no cash prize."
Alex Orlovsky and Jamie Patricof, producers of both "Nelson" and "Point & Shoot," were nominated for the Axium Producers Award, which rewards emerging producers with a $50,000 grant. Their competition is Julie Lynn, producer of "Nine Lives" and "10 Items or Less," and Howard Gertler and Tim Perell, producers of "Shortbus" and "Pizza."
"We were all kind of bummed when we didn't get any awards at Sundance ? we got nothing, not even a consolation take-home tote bag," Patricof said. "This is a 180-degree turnaround."
Said ThinkFilm exec Mark Urman: "We're actively engaged in a properly funded and credible campaign for the Oscars in certain categories, and this helps. These nominations are sweet enough on their own, but it's no secret they're part of an even larger agenda."
For best male lead, the Spirit Awards nominated Aaron Eckhart for his lobbyist in "Thank You for Smoking," Ryan Gosling for his teacher in "Nelson," Edward Norton as a betrayed husband in "The Painted Veil," Ahmad Razvi as a Pakistani rock star working as a coffee vendor in New York in "Man Push Cart" and Forest Whitaker as a high school principal in "American Gun."
Gosling, whose chances of snaring a corresponding Oscar nom received a boost, said: "We watched (the nominations) on streaming video on our computer, and it was coming through very stutteringly. It was fun to see Don Cheadle say 'Half Nelson' so many times. (But) for us, the real reward was getting a distributor who understood the film. Our main goal has always been to find a home for the film."
For best female lead, the nominees are Shareeka Epps as the young student in "Nelson," Catherine O'Hara as an actress with awards hopes in "For Your Consideration," Elizabeth Reaser as a mail-order bride in "Sweet Land," Michelle Williams as a former missionary in "Land of Plenty" and Robin Wright Penn as a troubled divorcee in "Sorry, Haters."
Two of "Sunshine's" supporting players scored noms in the best supporting male category: Alan Arkin for his outspoken grandfather and Paul Dano for the family's nearly silent son. They will face off against Raymond J. Barry for "Steel City," Daniel Craig for "Infamous" and Channing Tatum for "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints."
The best supporting female nominees include Melonie Diaz for "Recognizing Your Saints," Marcia Gay Harden for "American Gun," Mary Beth Hurt for "Dead Girl," Frances McDormand for "Friends With Money" and Amber Tamblyn for "Stephanie Daley."
Earning best screenplay noms were Neil Burger for "The Illusionist," Nicole Holofcener for "Friends With Money," Ron Nyswaner for "Painted Veil," Jason Reitman for "Thank You for Smoking" and Jeff Stanzler for "Sorry, Haters."
The Spirit Awards also recognize best first screenplay, and this year that category includes Michael Arndt for "Sunshine," Anna Boden and Fleck for "Nelson," Goran Dukic for "Wristcutters: A Love Story," Dito Montiel for "Recognizing Your Saints" and Gabrielle Zevin for "Conversations With Other Women."
For best first feature, an award given to the films' director and producers, the nominees are "Day Night Day Night," "Man Push Cart," "The Motel," "Sweet Land" and "Wristcutters."
Nominees for the John Cassavetes Award, given to the best feature made for less than $500,000, are "Chalk," "Four Eyed Monsters," "Old Joy," "Quinceanera" and "Twelve and Holding."
The cinematography nominees are Arin Crumley for "Four Eyed Monsters," Anthony Dod Mantle for "Brothers of the Head," Guillermo Navarro for "Labyrinth," Aaron Platt for "Wild Tigers I Have Known" and Michael Simmonds for "Man Push Cart."
In the best documentary category, the nominees are "A Lion in the House," "My Country, My Country," "The Road to Guantanamo," "The Trials of Darryl Hunt" and "You're Gonna Miss Me." Only "Country" and "Hunt" made the documentary shortlist this year for Oscar consideration.
Best foreign film nominees are "12:08 East of Bucharest" (Romania), "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" (the Philippines), "Chronicle of an Escape" (Argentina), "Days of Glory" (France/Morroco/Algeria/Belguim) and "The Lives of Others" (Germany). "Oliveros," "Glory" and "Others" also are potential Oscar contenders, having been submitted by their respective countries.
The Spirit Awards also will announce the winner of the IFC/Acura Someone to Watch Award, which includes a grant of $50,000 to a new filmmaker. The nominees are directors So Yong Kim ("In Between Days"), Julia Loktev ("Day Night Day Night") and Richard Wong ("Colma: The Musical").
The nominees for the Axium Truer Than Fiction Award, which will earn an emerging nonfiction filmmaker a $50,000 grant, are Adele Horn for "The Tailenders," Eric Daniel Metzgar for "The Chances of the World Changing" and AJ Schnack for "Kurt Cobain About a Son."
Among distributors, IFC Films emerged the champ with nine nominations, followed by Fox Searchlight with seven and a re-energized First Look Pictures with six.
Said IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring: "I said to Dawn Hudson that I'd love to be (her) harshest critic, but I can't this year. We're thrilled a lot of films were from smaller companies and that the awards really celebrated independent films. 'Little Miss Sunshine' aside, it's not like there were these juggernaut indies that really overwhelmed the nominees. The fact that small, quality, day-and-date releases from IFC First Take could make it to the marketplace and be honored is wonderful."
A complete list of nominees is available at www.hollywood reporter.com.
Gregg Goldstein in New York and Borys Kit in Los Angeles contributed to this report.