Indie Spirit Awards shift to bigger films

Nominations reveal org's trend of lauding pricey movies

Ever since 1996, when “Jerry Maguire” stood alone as the single studio film up for best picture, the Academy has had no shame celebrating its independents. Naturally, the shift that began that year has resulted in a certain amount of overlap with Film Independent’s Spirit Awards, designed to recognize the achievements of smaller American-made movies.

However, while Oscar expands its purview to include such films as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Sideways,” Film Independent has been drifting in the opposite direction, including bigger, more expensive entries in its kudofest with each passing year.

(Technically, the budget ceiling for qualifying entries stands at $20 million, ruling out such costly would-be contenders as “Defiance” and “Revolutionary Road,” and yet there’s a certain squishiness afforded other films, such as “Synecdoche, New York,” which will receive this year’s Robert Altman Award for top ensemble.)

According to producer Gail Mutrux, who chaired the org’s 15-member American narrative committee this year, “We very clearly point out: Do not think in terms of Oscars. What can happen in that case is you think this movie will get Oscar nominations, that it will get its recognition, so we don’t need to do it as well, but you never know what will happen.”

Instead, the nominating crew — a mix of film critics, fest programmers and independent film professionals — champion, debate and eventually cast their votes as if no other award shows exist, functioning more like a festival jury than a group like the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

Sometimes the Academy and Film Independent seem to be thinking in concert, as in 2006, when four out of five of the lead actor noms were the same for both kudos, with “Capote’s” Philip Seymour Hoffman winning a Spirit Award the day before collecting his Oscar. Two years later, only two of the 20 Spirit-nominated performances also nabbed Oscar attention (Ellen Page for “Juno” and Cate Blanchett for “I’m Not There”).

This year seems to fall somewhere in between, with the Spirits recognizing a fair number of perfs that have legitimate Oscar chances, including “The Visitor’s” Richard Jenkins, “Milk” star Sean Penn and “The Wrestler” comeback candidate Mickey Rourke in the lead actor category alone, along with 2008 Oscar winner Javier Bardem for his seductive turn in “Vicki Cristina Barcelona.”

But according to Film Independent tradition, the category also is open to films that haven’t received their Oscar qualifying runs by end of year, which explains Jeremy Renner’s nomination for “The Hurt Locker” (playing at the Toronto Film Festival makes it eligible for a Spirit, even though Summit won’t release the film theatrically until 2009).

The male supporting category used “The Hurt Locker’s” Toronto preem to acknowledge another of the film’s cast, Anthony Mackie, but counted “The Visitor” as a 2008 contender (despite its ’07 Toronto debut), allowing the Spiritsto honor Haaz Sleimanthis year.

Other honorees hail from firstrun indies of varying financial means, ranging from Lance Hammer’s low-budget “Ballast” to Gus Van Sant’s specialty-division-produced “Milk,” which earned James Franco a spot on the ballot. Two of the noms, “Ballast’s” Jim Myron Ross and “Frozen River’s” Charlie McDermott, are still minors, a demographic not recognized by Oscar among male actors since Haley Joel Osment in 2000 (though they face Oscar competition this year from “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel).

“Ballast” — a popular choice with the Spirit committee, earning six nominations overall — also saw lead actress Tarra Riggs recognized, alongside Summer Bishil, star of Alan Ball’s controversial “Towelhead” (another leftover from the 2007 Toronto Film Fest that got a second shot at Spirit love after opening theatrically in September). Michelle Williams earns her third Spirit nom for playing the noncanine half of “Wendy and Lucy,” a film about a drifter and her golden retriever.

“Rachel Getting Married” dominates the two femme-driven acting categories, with Anne Hathaway’s narcissistic maid of honor being considered for lead and co-stars Rosemarie DeWitt and Debra Winger up for supporting actress. Also acknowledged for their support were “Frozen River’s” Mindy Upham, Rosie Perez in “The Take” and Penelope Cruz for her critically lauded turn in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

True to their design, the Spirit picks represent creative and financial independence, and yet, given the caliber of work represented, could once again dovetail with the more mainstream-minded Academy in several key categories. At the very least, they point voters to smaller movies not to be overlooked.

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