Spirit Awards: Deciphering the Nominations, Snubs and Netflix Question

Who failed to make the cut was almost more telling than who did.
Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsay's 'You Were Never Really Here'

If an A-list movie star cannot land a Golden Globe nomination, that does not bode well for his or her prospects of popping up somewhere else during the awards season. The same is true for an indie darling who is unable to land a Spirit Award nomination.

And so when nominations for the 34th Spirit Awards were announced Friday morning, the films and filmmakers that failed to make a strong showing were, in many cases, more striking than those that did. Completely shut out were David Lowery's The Old Man & the Gun (this would appear to be the end of the line for lead actor — and Sundance kid — Robert Redford's campaign); Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate (not even a mention for lead actor Willem Dafoe); Karyn Kusama's Destroyer (not even lead actress Nicole Kidman); Joel Edgerton's Boy Erased (neither lead actor Lucas Hedges nor Kidman for, in this case, supporting actress); Mimi Leder's On the Basis of Sex (no lead actress mention for Felicity Jones); and Jason Reitman's Tully (no lead actress nom for Charlize Theron).

Chloe Zhao's The Rider, highlighted by Joshua James Richards' cinematography, was also among the missing, but that's because it was included in last year's awards, where it received four noms.

Additionally, Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman was recognized only for supporting actor Adam Driver; Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me? had to settle for a supporting actor nom for Richard E. Grant and a screenplay nom; and Wash Westmoreland's Colette received a mere screenplay nom.

In the positive column, major noms were accorded to Debra Granik's Leave No Trace (feature, director and supporting actress Thomasin McKenzie, but not lead actor Ben Foster); Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk (feature, director and supporting actress Regina King, but not leads Stephan James or KiKi Layne); Paul Schrader's First Reformed (feature, director, lead actor Ethan Hawke and screenplay); Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade (feature, lead actress Elsie Fisher, supporting actor Josh Hamilton and first screenplay); and Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here (feature, director, lead actor Joaquin Phoenix and film editing).

Some films had very targeted aims and achieved them: Paul Dano's Wildlife (nominated for first feature, lead actress Carey Mulligan and cinematography); Bjorn Runge's The Wife (it would have been a blow had Glenn Close not landed a lead actress nom); Ari Aster's Hereditary (first feature and lead actress Toni Collette); Carlos Lopez Estrada's Blindspotting (lead actor nom for Daveed Diggs); Aneesh Chaganty's Searching (lead actor nom for John Cho); and Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You (first feature and screenplay — although I wish lead actor Lakeith Stanfield had also been recognized).

Meanwhile, Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria, which is far from everyone's cup of tea, was handled diplomatically — with a cinematography mention and the Robert Altman Award, which in one fell swoop recognizes the director, cast and casting director.

You can be sure that some campaigns will be reconsidering their game plans after Friday morning — but is that logical? While people tend to write about Spirit Award nominations in broad terms (e.g., "The indie community did not embrace..."), that is not quite right. Spirit noms are chosen by a nominating committee comprising only a few dozen people. I think there is a certain desire to try to help people who "need" a boost, which may explain how Can You Ever Forgive Me's Melissa McCarthy was excluded, while other talented individuals with much lower profiles, even among cinephiles, were included — e.g., lead actress nominees Regina Hall for Support the Girls and Helena Howard for Madeline's Madeline (both are also Gotham Award nominees), lead actor nominee Christian Malheiros for Socrates, supporting actress nominee J. Smith-Cameron for Nancy and supporting actor Raul Castillo for We the Animals. That is understandable and admirable enough.

I come away from Friday's announcement with only a couple of nagging questions. What is going on with Tamara Jenkins' Private Life? Jenkins received director and screenplay mentions, plus a supporting actress nom for her discovery Kayli Carter, but her film and its indie-icon stars, lead actress Kathryn Hahn and supporting actor Paul Giamatti, were all left out. Is this because the nom-com wasn't crazy about the film but still wanted to celebrate Jenkins' return to the arena 11 years after her last feature, The Savages? Or is it reflective of reservations within the indie community about Netflix, which is streaming the pic? Or something else?

Also, have we all been underestimating You Were Never Really Here, for which Ramsay's screenplay and Phoenix's performance were awarded prizes at Cannes, and which clearly has enthusiastic supporters months later? If so, Amazon might be wise to divert some of the resources that it has been focusing on Beautiful Boy, Cold War and Suspiria to supporting this campaign, too.

For the record, films made for more than about $20 million were not eligible for Spirit noms. They include Felix van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy, Bryan Singer's Bohemian Rhapsody, George Tillman Jr.'s The Hate U GiveJohn Krasinski's A Quiet Place, Jacques Audiard's The Sisters Brothers, Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born, Adam McKay's Vice and Steve McQueen's Widows.

Several other movies were only eligible in the international film category, having been deemed non-American productions because two of three key creative roles — writer, director or producer — were not handled by U.S. citizens. They include Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite (U.K.) and Alfonso Cuaron's Roma (Mexico), which were nominated for international film along with Lee Chang-dong's Burning (South Korea), Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro (Italy) and Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters (Japan) — plus Paul Greengrass' 22 July or Josie Rourke's Mary Queen of Scots, which failed to score noms.

All of the thousands of members of Film Independent will have an opportunity to pick the winners from Friday morning's nominees, with the 34th Spirit Awards set to take place Feb. 23 on the beach in Santa Monica.