What the Independent Spirit Award nominations mean for the Oscars
The Independent Spirit Awards love to spread the wealth. Within the nominations for next year's ceremony, announced Wednesday morning at the Line Hotel in Los Angeles, only one film, Uncut Gems, was represented across Best Feature and Best Director, and a vast array of contenders, from tiny indies to Oscar heavyweights, were recognized in the four acting categories. That, plus the fact that this is an awards body with eclectic tastes, renders this particular group a challenging one to gauge when it comes to how they could impact the Oscars.
For example: Marriage Story, the biggest Oscar player in the bunch, didn't score a single acting nomination — but only because it won the juried Robert Altman Award, which recognizes an exceptional collaboration between a director and an ensemble. So Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, and Laura Dern — all very likely to score Oscar nods, and in a few cases, win — are covered here. The Indie Spirits have bestowed this honor upon both eventual Best Picture winners (Moonlight, Spotlight) and movies that never really had an awards life otherwise (Suspiria, Starlet).
The breakout of this year's nominations slate has to be Uncut Gems, the feverish new film directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. It's tied with The Lighthouse for the most nods of the year (five), but crucially, most of them are in major categories: Best Feature, Director, Screenplay, Editing, and Actor — the latter of which is a crucial stepping stone for Adam Sandler, on the bubble for his first Oscar nomination. The Safdies have been a Spirits favorite for some time, but Gems is shaping up as one of the very best-reviewed movies of the year, and a dominant showing like this can position it as a stronger overall contender.
Still: This hardly makes Gems an Oscar frontrunner; the Spirits can be tricky to gauge in that way. Let's start with all the big contenders that are ineligible for the Spirits, which recognize independent films only and have a budget cap for consideration: The Irishman, Little Women, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Joker, Bombshell, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Within that list, almost certainly, are the majority of your Academy Award Best Picture nominees for 2020. Foreign films are also ineligible at the Spirits; of potential Oscar players, Parasite figured into the Spirits' International Film category, while Pain and Glory did not.
The absence of so many big contenders means smaller potential players can get a valuable moment in the spotlight. And so while nominations for likely nominees Renée Zellweger and Jennifer Lopez in lead and supporting actress, respectively, are worth noting, it's those we're less sure about that deserve headlines. Shia LaBeouf, aggressively campaigning for his supporting turn as a version of his father in Honey Boy, gets a key stamp of approval here; Zhao Shuzhen, who was recently in Los Angeles for the first time to make the circuit rounds, is importantly singled out on the female side. The latter's movie, The Farewell, is cited in Best Feature, too, important as it lobbies for the big Oscar category, where it's in the hunt. Same goes for the aforementioned Sandler, director Lorene Scafaria for Hustlers, Alfre Woodard in female lead for Clemency, and Willem Dafoe in supporting male for The Lighthouse. (His costar, Robert Pattinson, is also nominated for male lead, but he's still got a long path to an Oscar nod.) All get nice bumps here.
Given that the Spirits provide a nice showcase for underdogs, there are a few films here, inevitably, that were hoping for a better showing. A24 has been high on the prospects for its family drama Waves, but was blanked here save for a (deserving) supporting nod for breakout Taylor Russell; its best Oscar hope, Sterling K. Brown, was passed over. Other hopefuls including The Report, Harriet, and Dark Waters were shut out, which doesn't exactly improve their standings. Judy and Honey Boy have been angling for accolade opportunities beyond their respective actors, but got nothing outside of their buzzy performances. And while The Farewell showed up in multiple categories, misses for writer-director Lulu Wang and star Awkwafina have to sting.
But let's be honest — the Spirits don't often align with the Oscars. Last year, not a single Spirit nominee for Best Feature received a Best Picture nomination from the Academy; recent Academy favorites that the Spirits passed over in the big category include BlacKkKlansman, Room, Hell or High Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Looking to this group of contenders for tea leaves is appropriate up to a point, but neither snubs nor inclusions will determine anyone's fate in this race. Instead, this is an opportunity for terrific films and performances that will almost certainly not figure into this year's larger awards conversation — like Mary Kay Place (Diane), Elisabeth Moss (Her Smell), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce), and Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), all of whom are nominated — to get some love, to be seen a little more widely. That's the victory. And if it's an indication of building Oscar buzz? Call it a nice bonus.