Spirit Award Nominations Spotlight Indie Films in Need of a Boost

Oscar contenders such as 'Uncut Gems,' 'Clemency' and 'The Lighthouse' will face off against frontrunners such as 'Marriage Story,' while A-listers like Jennifer Lopez share categories with breakouts like Lauren 'LoLo' Spencer.
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Music Box Films' 'Give Me Liberty' scored an impressive four mentions, including best supporting female for Lauren 'LoLo' Spencer (left) and best male lead for Chris Galust (right).

Film Independent's Spirit Awards nominating committee clearly tried to give as many worthy films as possible a taste of the spotlight in the nominations for the 35th annual Spirit Awards that were announced on Thursday morning, while prioritizing films that truly needed a boost.

The Spirit Awards honor the year's best achievements for U.S. films made within a budget of $22.5 million.

It was a big day for indie studio A24, which led with 18 noms, including a field-leading five each for Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie's Uncut Gems and Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse.

Noah Baumbach's critically praised Marriage Story, which Netflix is pushing as hard as any indie is being pushed this season, was nominated for only two awards, but they are biggies: best feature and best screenplay. And the low tally is not because the nominating committee didn't like it, but because they found a way to show how much they liked it without having to deprive other films of more needed recognition: giving it the Robert Altman Award, which celebrates a director, cast and casting director, while also taking those individuals — among them Adam DriverScarlett JohanssonAlan Alda and Laura Dern — out of competition. I would imagine that all parties are pleased about that.

Apart from Marriage Story, Uncut Gems and Chinonye Chukwu's Clemency (Neon) are the only films to receive both feature and screenplay noms. The other feature nominees are The Farewell (A24) and A Hidden Life (Fox Searchlight), both very much on-the-bubble best picture Oscar contenders; and the other screenplay nominees are To Dust (Good Deed), which was written by Jason Begue and Shawn Snyder, and High Flying Bird (Netflix), penned by Tarell Alvin McCraney, both Oscar long shots.

Alma Har'el's Honey Boy (Amazon) landed four nods but disappointingly missed out on a feature nom. Har'el was nominated for directing, and the film's two principal stars, Shia LaBeouf and Noah Jupe, were both nominated in the supporting category. LaBeouf is continuing to build momentum towards an Oscar nom, which would cap a remarkable comeback. But perhaps we have been underestimating Jupe's prospects — the 14-year-old Brit very capably carries a large part of a film that many clearly love.

The Honey Boy duo is joined in the supporting male category by The Lighthouse's Willem Dafoe, an indie darling who may well be headed toward his third Oscar nomination in three years, plus Jonathan Majors for The Last Black Man in San Francisco (A24), a wonderful little film which probably needed a better showing on Thursday to remain even in the Oscar mix, and Wendell Pierce for Burning Cane (Array).

Kirill Mikhanovsky's Give Me Liberty (Music Box) landed a very impressive four nominations, thanks largely to a grassroots campaign being mounted by the boutique PR firm Robertson Taylor Partners, including one in the supporting female race acknowledging the excellent work of Lauren 'LoLo' Spencer, who plays a young woman with ALS on an unusually crazy day. (The actress has ALS in real life as well.)

Spencer is joined in the category by The Farewell's 'Nai Nai,' Zhao Shuzhen, a veteran Chinese actress who is chugging along towards what would be a feel-good Oscar nom; Oscar winner Octavia Spencer for Luce (Neon); Taylor Russell, a breakout from Waves (A24), which otherwise performed disappointingly with the nom-com; and the wild-card in the group, Jennifer Lopez for Hustlers (STX), who does not generally hang in indie circles, but who is undeniably amazing in this role and is probably en route to an Oscar nomination, at least.

Hustlers was also nominated for best director (Lorene Scafaria) — she and Har'el will compete against the Safdies, Eggers and Luce's Julius Onah — and best cinematography, a show of considerable strength for a film that was on few pundits' awards radar prior to breaking out at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Speaking of people not usually associated with indies, Adam Sandler's turn in Uncut Gems impressed the nom-com enough to land a best male lead nom, which keeps him very much in the mix of a hotly contested best actor Oscar race. He is joined in the category by Robert Pattinson for The Lighthouse, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. for Luce, Matthias Schoenaerts for The Mustang (Focus) and Chris Galust for Give Me Liberty, all much longer shots for Academy recognition.

Renee Zellweger was always a slam-dunk female lead nominee for Judy. She is joined by two genuinely on-the-bubble contenders, Clemency's Alfre Woodard and Elisabeth Moss for Her Smell (Gunpower & Sky), plus three others from much lower-profile films, for whom this will almost certainly be the highlight of the season: Mary Kay Place for Diane (IFC), Karen Allen for Colewell (still seeking U.S. distribution) and Hong Chau for Driveways (still seeking U.S. distribution).

And then there is the international feature category. Film Independent voters nominated the Oscar entries from South Korea (Neon's Oscar frontrunner Parasite), France (Amazon's Les Miserables), Brazil (Amazon's Invisible Life) and Peru (Wolfe Releasing's Retablo), plus another film from France (Neon's Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and the U.K. (A24's The Souvenir) — but did not invite Jojo Rabbit, The Two Popes or any other English-language films which were actually eligible in that category.