Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Oscar Narrative: Indie Spirits Weigh In, The Critics Are Next

The Independent Spirit Awards have weighed in early, as usual, and they give us an early indication of which of the independent films will be big players this year, which ones have some work to do. It also gives us a path forward before the critics bombard us with a constant stream of awards for the next month, including the biggies like the BFCA and the HFPA. So before we look forward, let's take a look at this year's Indie Spirit Nominees, the winners and the losers, and their impact on this year's Oscar race.

First, I'd like to mention some great nods for films that will probably not be in the Oscar race, but were worthy of recognition. Nods for films like Dear White People, Obvious Child, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Love is Strange, and for performers such as Tilda Swinton, Andre Benjamin, Jenny Slate, John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Rinko Kikuchi, were welcome inclusions into the race. While so many of these films are on the Oscar track, and the Indie Spirits in general have gotten on the Oscar track as of late, it is nice to see they still have that independent streak in them that is bold enough to reward films that identify with the spirit of these awards.

Now onto Oscars. Birdman and Boyhood were expected to do well, and all of them hit all of the important categories they should have. Both will also be critical favorites among several groups, and could rack up considerable honors going into the guilds. The other big inclusion was Whiplash, a film a lot of people are predicting, but I have personally held off on. The film looks fantastic, and J.K. Simmons is far ahead of his competition in the Best Supporting Actor race. But it is the type of film that needs more for me to finally include it. It will not make a mark across many categories at the Oscars, and its box office has been a bit understated. The Indie Spirits are a fine first step, but it is going to need a few more before I include it in my Best Picture predictions.

But none of those three were unexpected. If they had not done well, I would have been shocked. There was one film that really surprised me, not becuase it wasn't worthy, but because not enough people have seen it yet. Of course I am talking about Ava DuVernay's Selma, which racked up a total of five nominations, hitting all of its big awards (missing screenplay was probably its only semi-snub), and including nominations for David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo who are both hoping to break through into this Oscar race. I know for a fact that not a lot of people have seen Selma, and I do not think that the independent film crowd are the type for vote for a film they have not seen. That means that those voters out there who had seen it must have absolutely loved it, enough to break past a dozen of earlier contenders which had widespread access. The film must just be phenomenal, and if it is getting that kind of passionate support, it could easily become the front runner for the big prize.

Other films that did well, but not extraordinary include A Most Violent Year (which surprisingly missed out on Oscar Isaac, but managed a screenplay nod and one for editing and Jessica Chastain). Nightcrawler actually did better than many expected including a First Feature nod, and a nod for Jake Gyllenhaal, who is really aiming for a dark horse slot. Finally, Julianne Moore began her march to what could be an overdue Oscar with a nod here, I expect more recognition to follow.

For every film that got one step forward, there were some that were left standing in the dust. Harvey Weinstein is the master, but even he sometimes takes it too far. He bullied The Imitation Game into an American production, and an independent film to try and pull off another Silver Linings Playbook. But alas, he walked away with zero nods for the film, even a snub of Benedict Cumberbatch who seemed like a shoo-in. I have three theories about this. One, is that they simply didn't like the film, which is entirely possible. Two, is that voters resented the fact that a film that does not really represent an independent spirit was forced onto their ballots by a strong-arm campaigner, and they refused to vote for it on principle. Or third, and probably most likely, is that this is simply not their type of film. Silver Linings, thanks in large part to David O. Russell, had an edge too it, and grittier feel on its camera work, and therefore, actually felt more like an independent film. By all accounts, The Imitation Game is a slick, glossy film that probably simply did not appeal to these edgier voters. That doesn't mean that its out of the game, it just means it will have to wait its turn for the older crowd. Wild was another one that I thought would do well here, but it was surprisingly snubbed as well. This was does sting in its road to Oscar, especially since it had great reviews out of the festival circuit, and its director, Jean-Marc Vallee had such luck with Dallas Buyers Club just a year before. This year's Best Actress race is pretty slim, so I expect Reese Witherspoon to still snag a nod, and probably the Globes and SAG as well, but I am starting to think that the film's chances across the board are simply not as good as people assumed.

Of course the Indie Spirits are just the first step. They are becoming an increasingly important first step, but nonetheless we have a lot of big awards coming out that could easily completely change the landscape. New York, LA, Boston, Washington DC, and the NBR are usually the first major ones to announce, and they will quickly set the tone for the season. Remember last year when American Hustle was a marginal contender. The NYFCC put it on the map and started its journey to ten Oscar nominations. I am not going to try to predict these awards, because they are entirely unpredictable. After Dec. 1st not only do we start the critical circuit, but we finally get to see what people think about Unbroken, the last big contender left out there. Into the Woods actually got decent reactions, and proved it could be a player, and so after Monday, the deck is set, and its time to start the race. Anything could happen. As always, we'll have to wait and see...

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