Spirit Awards: Nominations Heavy on Oscar Frontrunners (Analysis)

Noting that only two films have ever won both the best feature Spirit Award and the best pic Oscar, THR's awards analyst wonders if "12 Years a Slave" will beat the odds?

The Film Independent Spirit Awards, which aim to celebrate the best work in American films that cost roughly $21 million or less, are usually good for a few surprises when they reveal their annual nominations. Their 29th set were announced this morning and proved to be no exception: If you predicted a best actress nom for Gaby Hoffmann for her work opposite Michael Cera in Crystal Fairy and/or a best supporting actress nom for Yolonda Ross for her turn in indie icon John Sayles' Go for Sisters, then you should probably catch the next plane to Vegas, because nobody else did. But, belying the handful of unlikely selections of that nature, Spirit Awards voters actually highlighted more of the presumptive frontrunners in more of the major Oscar categories this year than in any other that I can remember.

Fox Searchlight's 12 Years a Slave, the best picture Oscar frontrunner, continued its blaze through the season by racking up a field-leading seven Spirit noms, including all of the biggies for which it was eligible: best feature, best director, best actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), best supporting actor (Michael Fassbender), best supporting actress (Lupita Nyong'o) and best screenplay (John Ridley). Perhaps on Oscar weekend, it will become just the third film in 28 years -- after Platoon (1986) and The Artist (2011) -- to win the best feature Spirit Award and then win the best picture Oscar … or perhaps the rule will hold and Gravity will swoop in and claim the latter.

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Paramount's Nebraska had a pretty terrific day as well, finishing close behind 12 Years with six noms of its own, including best feature, best director (Alexander Payne), best actor (Bruce Dern), best supporting actor (Will Forte), best supporting actress (June Squibb) and best first screenplay (Bob Nelson). The black-and-white indie needed a big boost today and got it.

Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions' All Is Lost, meanwhile, got just about everything it wanted: In addition to best feature, it was nominated for best director (J.C. Chandor), best actor (Robert Redford) and best cinematography.

The category's other two slots went to films that received bizarrely mixed messages: CBS Films' Inside Llewyn Davis, which also scored a mention for best actor (Oscar Isaac), but oddly not for the Coen brothers in the best director and best original screenplay races; and IFC Films' Frances Ha, which, like Nebraska, is also in black-and-white, but which was snubbed in every other category except for best editing -- meaning that Greta Gerwig, who is essentially the face of independent film these days, scored neither a best actress nom nor a best screenplay nom (the latter of which she would have shared with the film's director, Noah Baumbach).

The most noteworthy snub in the top category, to me, was Sony Pictures Classics' Blue Jasmine, a presumptive best picture Oscar contender -- certainly more so than Frances Ha -- which did earn a best actress nom for Cate Blanchett and a best screenplay nom for Woody Allen.

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Dern, Ejiofor, Isaac and Redford are joined in the best actor race -- which was arbitrarily expanded to include six slots rather than five -- by Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club (which also nabbed a best supporting actor nom for Jared Leto, Fassbender's closest competition) and Michael B. Jordan for Fruitvale Station (which also bagged noms for best first feature, in recognition of writer-director Ryan Coogler, and best supporting actress -- surprisingly Melonie Diaz, not Oscar winner Octavia Spencer).

While it's quite possible -- and maybe even likely -- that the five eventual best actor Oscar nominees will come from the pool of six best actor Spirit Award nominees, the same cannot be said for the best actress category (which was afforded five slots by both groups). The Oscar favorite, Blue Jasmine's Blanchett, was nominated today, but her presumptive chief competition at the big show, Gravity's Sandra Bullock and Saving Mr. Banks' Emma Thompson, were ineligible. The category instead was filled out by the aforementioned Hoffmann, as well as Before Midnight's Julie Delpy and two eminently worthy up-and-comers, Short Term 12's Brie Larson (who would have my vote) and The Spectacular Now's Shailene Woodley. Oddly, Enough Said's Julia Louis-Dreyfus was not afforded a slot, even though her late costar James Gandolfini was nominated for best supporting actor and the film's screenwriter Nicole Holofcener garnered a nom for best screenplay (if not best director).

Speaking of the supporting categories, in the best supporting actor race, Fassbender, Forte, Gandolfini and Leto are joined by Short Term 12's other big revelation, Keith Stanfield, and in the best supporting actress race Diaz, Nyong'o, Ross and Squibb are joined by Blanchett's Blue Jasmine sparring partner Sally Hawkins.

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As for the best director field, Chandor, McQueen and Payne are joined by two indie mavericks, Mud's Jeff Nichols (whose film also will receive the annual Robert Altman Award, which is bestowed upon one film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast) and Shane Carruth, who directed the groundbreaking micro-budget hit Upstream Color.

In the best screenplay category, 12 Years' Ridley and Enough Said's Holofcener are joined by Blue Jasmine's Woody Allen (whose exclusion from the best director category is somewhat surprising), Before Midnight's Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater (whose magnificently reviewed film was inexplicably snubbed for best feature, just like the earlier two Before films) and Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber for their touching The Spectacular Now.

Then, as if to demonstrate their aversion to star-worshipping of the sort for which other awards groups are famous, Spirit Award voters declined to fill out the best first feature category with relatively high-profile names like Lake Bell (In a World), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon) and John Krokidas (Kill Your Darlings) -- although Bell and Gordon-Levitt did receive best first screenplay mentions. Instead, Fruitvale Station's Coogler is joined by Blue Caprice's Alexandre Moors, Concussion's Stacie Passon, Lucy Mulloy's Una Noche (which was championed and "presented by" Spike Lee) and Haifaa Al Mansour for the U.S.-Saudi Arabia coproduction Wadjda (she is the first Saudi female ever to make a film in the country).

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Voting to determine the best documentary feature Oscar short-list ended last Friday, so today's Spirit Award noms won't boost the chances that 20 Feet From Stardom, The Act of Killing, After Tiller, Gideon's Army and The Square will make the Academy's final 15 -- but all five films already stood strong shots of making that initial cut. If they do, they may be helped in the next round by having had their profiles raised today.

As for the five Spirit Award nominees for best international film, France's Blue Is the Warmest Color was not eligible for consideration for the best foreign language film Oscar this year due to its domestic release date, but the other four entries -- Chile's Gloria, China's A Touch of Sin, Denmark's The Hunt and Italy's The Great Beauty -- are their respective country's official submissions and can therefore benefit from today's attention.

Completely ignored across the categories were, among others: Ain't Them Bodies Saints (director David Lowery, lead actor Casey Affleck, lead actress Rooney Mara and supporting actor Ben Foster were all worthy); Sundance Selects' Gimme the Loot (writer-director Adam Leon is up for best breakthrough director at the Gotham Awards); and A24's Spring Breakers (they didn't bite at James Franco's crazy supporting perf).

For the record, the following serious Oscar contenders were ineligible for Spirit Award consideration due to nation of origin and/or budget: American Hustle, August: Osage County, Blue Is the Warmest Color, The Book Thief, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Her, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Lone Survivor, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Out of the Furnace, Philomena, Prisoners, Rush, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg