As Usual, Gotham Awards Nominations Send Mixed Messages About Indie Contenders (Analysis)

Bernie Diner Film Still - H 2012

Bernie Diner Film Still - H 2012

This morning, the IFP announced the nominees for the 22nd annual Gotham Independent Film Awards, which champion American indie films and will be presented on Nov. 26 at Cipriani Wall Street. As I say each year, it would be nice if I could tell you to read into the facts that:

  • Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bernie, The Master, Middle of Nowhere and Moonrise Kingdom led the field with two nominations each;
  • Bernie, The Loneliest Planet, The Master, Middle of Nowhere and Moonrise Kingdom were nominated for the best feature Gotham, but Arbitrage, End of Watch, Hyde Park on Hudson, On the Road, The Sessions and Silver Linings Playbook, were not;
  • Bernie and Moonrise Kingdom have followed in the footsteps of The Hurt Locker (2008), Winter's Bone (2009), and The Descendants (2011) -- three films that went on to score best picture, best director, best lead performance and best screenplay Oscar noms -- by nabbing Gotham noms for best feature and best ensemble;
  • Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), the highest-profile nominee for best breakthrough actor, will almost certainly win that category and go on to receive an Oscar nod, based on the fact that five of its last eight winners did so: Catalina Sandino Moreno for Maria Full of Grace (2004), Amy Adams for Junebug (2005), Rinko Kikuchi for Babel (2006), Ellen Page for Juno (2007) and Melissa Leo for Frozen River (2008).

But the reality is that I cannot, because:

  • Gotham nominations are really a reflection of nothing more than the tastes of five-person committees comprised of "distinguished film critics, journalists, festival programmers, and film curators," and winners are then determined by "separate juries of writers, directors, actors, producers, editors, and others directly involved in making films." Moreover, there is no coordination between the different committees, which results in nominations that are all over the map, send mixed messages and into which deeper meaning -- read: Oscar implications -- should not be read. In other words, Silver Linings Playbook, which was eligible to be nominated for best feature based on the fact that it was nominated for best ensemble, is still a safer bet to score a best-picture Oscar nomination than just about every film that was nominated in its place, despite the fact that the Gothams' committee didn't deem it worthy of their top five.
  • The nomination criteria for best feature, which is supposed to celebrate indie films, is incredibly vague. To be eligible, a film must be American, have a distributor and have been made "with an economy of means" -- nominees have included everything from Ballast (2008), a micro-budget film with a no-name distributor, to Into the Wild (2007), a $15 million Paramount film, to The Departed, a $90 million Warner Brothers film. The budget of this year's nominees range greatly, as well. The least expensive, Middle of Nowhere, cost just $200,000, whereas the most expensive, The Master, cost $30 million.
  • The nomination criteria for best breakthrough actor is equally suspect. For example, in 2008, The Visitor and The Wrestler were nominated for best feature, and Leo was nominated for best breakthrough actor, but Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) -- two veterans who, like Leo, experienced career breakthroughs that year -- were not also listed among the breakthrough actor nominees. This year's nominees range from Wallis, a nine-year-old who had never acted in a movie prior to the one for which she is nominated, to 35-year-old Melanie Lynskey (Hello, I Must Be Going), whose real breakthrough came 18 years ago when she won rave notices for her work in Heavenly Creatures (1994) and has subsequently accrued 50 other credits, including three prominent parts in 2009 alone: Away We Go, The Informant! and Up in the Air. It seems very strange to me to put those two in the same category, and to label someone like Lynskey as a "breakthrough" at this point in her career. Also, no love for the likes of Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Nate Parker (Arbitrage), Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), or, if we are considering older thesps who made the most of a bigger-than-usual part, Ann Dowd (Compliance)?
  • The winners of best breakthrough actor have sometimes predicted subsequent Oscar nominations, but not for the last three years, in two of which they nominated someone who would go on to score an Oscar nom but then awarded the prize to someone who never popped up again over the course of the awards season: Catalina Saavedra for The Maid over Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker (in 2009) and Ronald Bronstein for Daddy Longlegs over Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone (in 2010). Last year, they gave their prize to Felicity Jones for Like Crazy over two higher-profile contenders Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), and none wound up getting nominated. Of this year's nominees, Wallis strikes me as a very strong bet to score an Oscar nomination, whereas the other four individuals do not, so it will be interesting to whether or not the Gothams' committee chooses to recognize what everyone else has or try to be different and call attention to a lower-profile performance.

Still, despite their eccentricities, the Gothams can -- and often do -- serve an important purpose by calling attention to some films that might not otherwise receive it -- sometimes in the aforementioned categories, but always in the best documentary category. One can only hope that today's announcement will spur people to check out the five nominated docs -- Detropia (which was made and is being self-distributed by the co-directors of 2006 Oscar nominee Jesus Camp), How to Survive a Plague, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, Room 237 and The Waiting Room -- with which nobody can quibble.