Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Oscar Narrative: The Indie Spirits Weigh In

So this year's independent scene is clearly one of the more competitive years in recent memory. And like last year, many of these nominees, and eventual winners could have a major impact on the upcoming Oscar race. Leading the pack this afternoon was 12 Years a Slave. This should be no surprise to anyone paying attention, but it does solidify itself as one of the major frontrunners in the upcoming months. It hit all the major points it needed to including Feature, Director, Actor, Supporting Male/Female, Screenplay, and Cinematography. The only category it missed was the newly created editing, which went way outside the box, missing most of the top contenders, so we won't worry about that one for now.

But if 12 Years a Slave dominated, the real winner today was Alexander Payne's Nebraska. This film has quietly been gaining ground since Cannes, and many wondered about its Oscar chances. Well, it has gotten a huge boost of confidence today with six nominations for Feature, Director, Actor, Supporting Female/Male, and First Screenplay. I hate that its beautifully filmed black and white cinematography was left out, but the inclusions of both Squibb and Forte show a lot of confidence in the film. I still maintain that if they can get this film into the hands of the older members of the Academy, it could be easily a top Oscar contender. The themes and storylines explored here will resonate with all ages, as we all age, or watch our parents age, and Alexander Payne is an Oscar favorite.

Rounding out Best Feature: All is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis, and surprisingly Frances Ha. The first two also have Oscar on the mind. But Inside Llewyn Davis was not as strong as some may have hoped. It got Oscar Isaac, Cinematography, and Feature, but that's it. No directing or writing nods, no supporting nods. Maybe, they didn't want to go too mainstream with the selection of the Coens, but I also get the sense that while they liked the movie, it wasn't their favorite. And yes, I am still worried about its Oscar chances, and think that by the end of the year it maybe be shut out. All is Lost needed a major boost after its box office kind of sidelined it. With a feature, director, actor, and cinematography, I think it got the boost it needed, with positive press coming its way right as the critics are about to vote. It is probably the third film (besides 12 Years and Nebraska), that really stood out among the pack.

Other winners in today's nominations include, Jeff Nichols for Mud. Although the film missed out for McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, and other nods, the Robert Altman Award is all inclusive, and the Director nomination might actually help the film in the category it has a shot at, screenplay. Frontrunners in the Oscar race like Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jared Leto, Matthew McConaughey, Lupita Nyong'o, and Michael Fassbender, all helped their cases for what will probably be assured nominations. But other outside contenders like James Gandolfini, Michael B. Jordan, Sally Hawkins, Brie Larson, Shailene Woodley, Will Forte, Oscar Isaac, and Julie Delpy, all have put their names back in the conversation in the hopes of upsetting as the season goes on.

Of course, with every nomination list, there are losers as well as winners. The biggest ones for me were Before Midnight and Fruitvale Station. Coming out of the hot summer months, both looked like the early indie films that might have the staying power to impact the race. Both getting excluded here is a real setback, as is the miss for Dallas Buyers Club which also has Best Picture aspirations. All three films got some key nods, and some of their stronger contenders continue to fight another day, but I wonder if these three films might not be able to survive the long haul that is about to take off in a few days. Some may wonder why I put Fruitvale Station as a loser with a couple of nods including First Feature. I just think that no writing/directing nods shows a lack of depth of love for the film. In the acting races, Greta Gerwig's snub probably takes away her outside chances at Best Actress, although a Globe nod would erase this oversight. And the biggest one is Octavia Spencer. Her co-star Melonie Diaz made the cut, which is great, but Spencer was the real contender for the film in supporting actress, and I think after this omission, I am moving June Squibb in the final five for the first time this season. Once again, some critics nods and wins, plus Globe/SAG could easily put her back in, but for now, she has taken a hit.

I have made a lot of bold assumptions about how the Indie Spirits will impact the Oscar race. And I know that many of them are not as definitive as I have made them sound. Those snubbed could easily regain traction with critics and the guilds, and those with nominations could fade as quickly as they rose. But for some contenders, if their independent film counterparts won't reward them, then the giant film industry that still dominates AMPAS will probably overlook them as well. As always though, take these nominations (and this analysis) with a grain of salt and hang on to faith for your favorites that may have missed the cut. We still have a long season ahead of us, and as always, we'll just have to wait and see what happens next.

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