With this year’s Academy Awards choosing to focus on more mainstream films this year, especially compared to last year’s indie-centric lineup, which included Birdman, Boyhood, Selma, and Whiplash in the Best Picture category, it comes as a welcome change to see the Independent Spirit Awards, which celebrates the best of independent American cinema that is budgeted under $20 million, really digging deep to find truly the best of what film is offered to the general public, no matter how small their release. While the Oscars have gone for big blockbuster epics like action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road, survival drama-epic The Revenant, and sci-fi adventure The Martian in the Best Picture category, the Indie Spirits have chosen films that hit closer to home, despite their low budgets and box office totals, such as transgender comedy-drama Tangerine, and the stop-motion animated Anomalisa. While both sets of lists are very strong, it is peculiar to see the lack of crossover, with journalism drama Spotlight the only film to get into both lists.
While all the focus this awards season has been leading up to the Academy Awards on Sunday, I still think that the Independent Spirit Awards is still my favourite awards show, especially as they have named the brilliant Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani and the Emmy-nominated Saturday Night Live cast member Kate McKinnon as co-hosts. There just seems to be a lot of feelings of it being a foregone conclusion at the Oscars this year, in both the major categories, and how the ceremony will pan out with Chris Rock back as host, the first time a person of colour has hosted this Oscars since Rock last hosted back in 2005. It looks like The Revenant will sweep the 3 major awards (Picture, Director, Actor), with Actress and the Screenplay categories locked up for Brie Larson, Spotlight, and The Big Short, respectively. All of this while we get lengthy monologues from Rock, spewing forth some out of date stand-up related to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. But what should be talked about is #OscarsSoMainstream, following the ignorance of some Academy members that are rigid voters, forgetting to watch some very special indie films from the last year.
Granted, you can’t expect the films that no one has seen to get into the Oscars, and that is the main appeal of the Independent Spirit Awards, where they aren’t afraid to nominate people of colour (5 of the acting nominees are POC, including Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, and Koudous Seihon), transgender actresses (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, and Mya Taylor are both nominated for their roles in Tangerine), first time actors (Attah, Seihon, Rodriguez, and Taylor all make their film debuts in their nominated performances) and even voice performances (Jennifer Jason Leigh is nominated for Best Supporting Female for her voice role in Anomalisa). It’s true to say that Spirit Awards haven’t been this daring in the past; 7 out of the last 8 acting winners have gone onto win the Oscar the following night. But, since the voting body has been widened, and you can now become a full Film Independent member, with voting rights, for $95, it has led to a wider variety of nominees.
That being said, we have seen a couple of Oscar contenders represented here, but far fewer than anyone expected. In fact, it is only the Best Actress category that has any crossover, with Brie Larson (the likely winner of both) nominated for Room, and Cate Blanchett nominated for Carol, with her co-star Rooney Mara rightfully nominated in lead at the Spirits, and in Supporting at the Oscars. But the crossover should have been much higher. At the Golden Globes, the crossover was increased to 6, with Paul Dano, Idris Elba, and Michael Shannon nominated in Best Supporting Actor. Are the Golden Globes really more in touch with independent cinema than the Oscars? Well, the Globes managed to give some kind of recognition to Spotlight, Carol, Room, Trumbo, Infinitely Polar Bear, Beasts of No Nation, 99 Homes, Love & Mercy, and Grandma, all in the major categories, and all of which were eligible at the Spirit Awards. Are the group that said that The Martian was the best comedy of the year more appreciative of indies than the Academy?
Let me get this straight, I love the Oscars. Predicting them, analysing them, and researching them takes an awful lot of my time, and when I see them give no notice to films as phenomenal as The End of the Tour, Beasts of No Nation, and Love & Mercy, while they nominate the likes of 50 Shades of Grey, and The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed the Window and Disappeared, albeit in minor categories, it hurts, especially as I find myself defending the Academy a lot. That’s why it pleases me that something like the Independent Spirit Awards exist, and are held just a day before Hollywood’s biggest night. It’s so great to see my 2 favourite performances of the year, Jason Segel in The End of the Tour, and Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation, face off in the Best Lead Male Actor category, and Paul Dano in Love & Mercy, and Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation square up for Best Supporting Male Actor, instead of foregone conclusions like Leonardo DiCaprio, for a performance that doesn’t hold a candle to Segel’s or Attah’s, and Sylvester Stallone for playing Rocky again, winning. Many would consider these deserving winners, and they are entitled to that decision, I just feel that they probably haven’t explored all that cinema has to offer, whether that be distribution (for example, the Indie Spirit nominated films James White, and The End of the Tour are set for a straight-to-DVD release in the UK in the next month), or lack of buzz (how many people would have seen The Revenant if it starred someone like Christopher Abbott in Leonardo DiCaprio’s role?).
If you’re are tired of the formality of the Oscars, or just need to see other films get rewarded, instead of the same names popping up over and over again, make sure you watch the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday night. I’ll be following both them and the Oscars online this weekend, as the UK doesn’t provide terrestrial coverage of either, and I suggest you do to, especially if Kumail Nanjiani’s, and Kate McKinnon’s potential as co-hosts is fulfilled, it will be a fun watch.
The Independent Spirit Awards, hosted by Kumail Najiani and Kate McKinnon, are on IFC (in the U.S.) on Saturday 27th February 2016. The Academy Awards, hosted by Chris Rock, are on Sky Movies (in the U.K.) on Sunday 28th February 2016.