By Don Simpson | February 24, 2012
The 2012 Spirit Awards is meant to be Film Independent’s antidote to the Academy Awards. There has historically been some crossover between the two awards ceremonies, but not much. Film Independent tends to nominate “edgier” and “darker” films (such as Drive, Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene) — films that are typically deemed to be too “independent” or “art house” for the multiplexes…and The Academy.
To qualify, a film must: be at least 70 minutes long; have screened at least one week in a commercial theater in 2011 or shown at a qualifying film festival (Los Angeles Film Festival, New Directors/New Films, New York, Sundance, Telluride, or Toronto); and have been made for no more than $20 million (including post-production).
Compared to the Golden Globes and Academy Awards, the Spirit Awards nominations tend to be more in line with my way of thinking about cinema. (Several of the Spirit Awards nominees landed on the Smells Like Screen Spirit’s Top 10 Films of 2011 and well as my Favorite Narrative Films of 2011.) Strangely enough, this makes the Spirit Awards much more difficult for me to predict. This is as good of a time as any to point out that I am truly amazed that The Tree of Life and Weekend were completely overlooked by the Spirit Awards.
As I go through each of the categories below, I will give my two cents about each of the categories. The Smells Like Screen Spirit writing staff has reviewed a majority of the films, and you can get to any of our reviews via the hyperlinks.
I like 50/50, especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance, but I don’t think it is the best feature of 2011. Beginners is ranked higher on our year-end lists than any other Spirit Award nominee (#2 on Smells Like Screen Spirit’s Top 10 Films of 2011 and #6 on my Favorite Narrative Films of 2011). My heart is with Beginners, but I don’t believe it has a chance of actually winning. Drive is our Editor-in-Chief’s pick for the best film of 2011 and I will be very happy if Drive wins the Spirit Award for best feature, but I suspect that Drive might be too dark even for Film Independent’s voting committee. Take Shelter is another favorite of the Smells Like Screen Spirit crew, ranking #4 on Smells Like Screen Spirit’s Top 10 Films of 2011 and #14 on my Favorite Narrative Films of 2011. Along with Beginners and Drive, I will be happy if Take Shelter wins, but I suspect that its chances are fairly slim. The Artist is probably the first silent film to ever be nominated for a Spirit Award for Best Feature. It is also the only Best Feature nominee to receive a 10/10 rating from a Smells Like Screen Spirit scribe. However, the voting committee for the Spirit Awards have proven to be devout lovers of Alexander Payne (Sideways and Election have won this award), so I think The Artist will probably play second fiddle to The Descendants tomorrow. (Cue my diatribe against The Descendants…) I still do not understand why everyone (especially film critics and awards ceremonies) seems to love The Descendants. I think it is Payne’s worst film — not a bad film, but certainly not one that is worthy of a Best Feature award. Unfortunately, this race is going to come down to the two films that are also nominated for Best Picture Oscars — and though The Artist will probably go home with the Oscar, The Descendants is the overwhelming favorite for the Spirit Award. On a side note, I am disappointed that Miranda July’s The Future was overlooked in this category.
Considering that all five of the Best Director nominees’ films also appear in the Best Feature category, you can ditto most of my comments from that section. Basically Alexander Payne is the clear (not to me) favorite. That said — Drive, Beginners and Take Shelter feature such strong directing that maybe they will have a better chance to win here than they do in the Best Feature category. Personally, I believe that Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) is most deserving of this award.
Best First Feature
In The Family
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Admittedly, we have only reviewed one of the five Best First Feature nominees — Martha Marcy May Marlene. So you might say that I am talking out of my ass, but I find it very difficult to believe that any of the other nominees would have reached #3 on Smells Like Screen Spirit’s Top 10 Films of 2011 and #8 on my Favorite Narrative Films of 2011.Martha Marcy May Marlene is not only an astounding First Feature, but it should have been nominated as one of the Best Features of 2011 as well. So, yeah, Martha Marcy May Marlene is my personal pick — and I consider it to be the clear favorite in this category. 2011 was an amazing year for first features, but I specifically think that Bellflower, Green, Hesher and Without all deserved nominations in this category.
Best Male Lead
I have not seen A Better Life or Rampart, but of the other three nominees I think they are all drastically different (and incomparable) yet equally deserving. Ryan Gosling (Drive) would be my personal favorite here, but I suspect that this category will also come down to the two Oscar nominees for Best Actor — Demian Bichir (A Better Life) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist). At least the Indie Spirits recognized Gosling, but where the heck is Michael Fassbender (Shame)?!?!
Best Female Lead
I think Michelle Williams is one of the most talented actors working today, and this is her fourth Best Female Lead nomination at the Spirit Awards (she deserved to win for all three of her prior nominations — Land of Plenty, Wendy and Lucy, Blue Valentine); but I am happy that she won the Golden Globe for My Week With Marilyn (and I would not be surprised if she walks away with the Best Actress Oscar on Sunday), so I am not picking her for this Spirit Award. Elizabeth Olsen‘s performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene is by far the best acting I witnessed in 2011. If Olsen does not win this Spirit Award, there will be hell to pay. That said — I would not be too surprised if Adepero Oduye (Pariah) sneaks away with this one.
Best Supporting Male
The 2012 Golden Globes winner Christopher Plummer (Beginners) is the man to beat in this category — and he has a very good chance of walking away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor on Sunday as well. Albert Brooks (Drive) is the only other contender here, unless Film Independent is going to give this award to John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) two years in a row. The oddest nominee here is Corey Stoll (Midnight In Paris). There were certainly more memorable supporting roles than his turn as Ernest Hemingway.
Best Supporting Female
To be honest, I am pretty disappointed by this list of Best Supporting Actress nominees. For one, I would have expected Carey Mulligan to be nominated for either Shame or Drive. Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter) is the only one of these five that deserved a nomination (I would have even given her a second one for The Tree of Life). I wouldn’t be too surprised if Angelica Huston (50/50) or Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) run away the trophy though.
John Cassavetes Award
To qualify for this award, the film’s budget must have been less than $500,000. Being that this is more in line with how I would define an independent film, this category has historically been my favorite at the Spirit Awards. Because only at the Spirit Awards could films like Bellflower, Circumstance, The Dynamiter, Hello Lonesome and Pariah get nominated for an award. My favorite in this category would be Bellflower (they definitely got the most bang with their buck) with The Dynamiter and Hello Lonesome very close by…but honestly, I think all five films have an equal chance of winning this Spirit Award. As with the First Feature category, 2011 was a phenomenal year for micro-budget films. Personally, I believe The Color Wheel, The Dish and the Spoon, Green, Treatment, You Hurt My Feelings, Without and Wuss would have all fit perfectly in this category.
An African Election
Bill Cunningham New York
The Redemption of General Butt Naked
We Were Here
Of the nominees for the Best Documentary category, only one of them appears on the year-end list of my Favorite Documentary Films of 2011, and that is We Were Here — which is also my favorite for this category. Of the nominees, I expected to see The Interrupters, The Redemption of General Butt Naked and We Were Here; but I was also hoping that The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, How To Die In Oregon, Incendiary: The Willingham Case, or Project Nim would make the cut. I am pretty confident that The Interrupters will win.
Best International Film
The Best International Film category is certainly a much stronger field than the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2012 Academy Awards. (Of course they have different qualifications associated with them, which explains why three of these films were not nominated for the Oscar.) While I am 99% certain that A Separation will take home the Oscar on Sunday, I can see any of these five Indie Spirit films winning on Saturday. My pick would be Shame, but I would not be surprised if Film Independent gives this one to Melancholia.
As much as I would love to see the very talented Joel Hodge (Bellflower) or Benjamin Kasulke (The Off Hours) walk away with the Best Cinematography Spirit Award, I think it will be very difficult to beat Darius Khondji (Midnight In Paris) and Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist) here, with Schiffman almost definitely beating out Khondji. Of course if Sean Bobbitt (Shame), Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Newton Thomas Sigel (Drive), Manuel Alberto Claro (Melancholia) or Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life) were nominated, they would be my favorites for this category.
I want to see Mike Mills (Beginners) win the Spirit Award for Best Screenplay — I love the narrative structure of Beginners and the dialogue is top-notch. But… I suspect it will go to Tom McCarthy (Win Win) or maybe The Descendants trio. I should point out that my least favorite aspect of The Descendants is its screenplay.
Best First Screenplay
Mike Cahill & Brit Marling (Another Earth)
J.C. Chandor (Margin Call)
Patreck DeWitt (Terri)
Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids)
Will Reiser (50/50)
I think J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) is a sure-thing for the Best First Screenplay Spirit Award, but Will Reiser (50/50) or Patreck DeWitt (Terri) might just sneak away with it.
Truer Than Fiction Award
Heather Courtney (Where Soldiers Come From) is my favorite for this category, because…well…Where Soldiers Come From is one of the best documentaries I have seen in a long time. And guess what? Courtney was already announced the winner during a brunch ceremony in January 2012. Yay!!!
Piaget Producers Award
I think Sophia Lin (Take Shelter) and Josh Mond (Martha Marcy May Marlene) both deserve the Piaget Producers Award, because both producers were able to squeeze blood from stones, as they say… But this award can only go to one of them… This award has also already been announced, and it went to Lin.
Someone To Watch
Simon Arthur (Silver Tongues)
Mark Jackson (Without)
Nicholas Ozeki (Marnitas)
If I had seen Mark Jackson’s Without during 2011, it would have easily made the top 10 of my year-end list of favorite narrative films. So, I would obviously lean heavily towards Jackson winning the Someone To Watch award…and it has already been announced that HE WON!!!