'Ballast,' 'Frozen River,' 'Rachel' lead the pack

Small films got a big push in the 2009 Spirit Award nominations, in which a lot of little-seen pics got more attention than some high-profile indies this year.

In the noms unveiled Tuesday, “Rachel Getting Married,” “Ballast” and “Frozen River” led the field with six nominations each including best feature and director (Jonathan Demme, Lance Hammer and Courtney Hunt, respectively.)

Overall, the nominating committee turned away from marquee specialty films and toward micro-budgeted indies with Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” joining Sundance winners “Ballast” and “Frozen River” as a nominee for best feature; all three were produced for less than $500,000. Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” and “Rachel” rounded out the group.

Film Independent exec director Dawn Hudson feels the slant toward ultra-low-budget films may be due to the economy.

“There was a writers strike, a tough economy, and the specialty distributors have faded or shrunk. In a way, it was a great year for new filmmakers.”

The desire to recognize small-scale films could be the reason that Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” failed to earn noms for director or picture, though thesps Sean Penn, James Franco and tyro scribe Dustin Lance Black made the cut.

Also left out was Fox Searchlight’s hit “Slumdog Millionaire.” The U.K. production was ineligible for best film since its financing came from outside the States, but its absence from the foreign pic list had some scratching their heads.

The org defines a U.S. film by its key components: If two of the three key creative positions (director, writer, producer) are U.S. citizens or permanent residents of the U.S., then the film qualifies as a U.S. feature — no matter in what language or country the film is made.

The director category was filled out by Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor”) and Ramin Bahrani (“Chop Shop”) for their small-budget efforts.

While helmer Aronofsky didn’t make the cut, his “Wrestler” star Mickey Rourke garnered an actor nom along with Javier Bardem (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”). Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq war thriller “The Hurt Locker” was repped in the acting categories by lead Jeremy Renner and supporting thesp Anthony Mackie.

Nominees for female lead include “Rachel’s” Anne Hathaway and newcomer Summer Bishil for her turn in “Towelhead.” Otherwise, the low-budget club earned more esteem with lead actress noms for Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”), Tarra Riggs (“Ballast”) and Michelle Williams (“Wendy and Lucy”).

Cannes alums dominated the foreign film list, with Palme d’Or winner “The Class” joining “Hunger,” “Gomorrah” and “Silent Light.”

The Robert Altman Award, honoring a director, casting director and ensemble cast, went to “Synecdoche, New York’s” Charlie Kaufman and thesps including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener.

The John Cassavetes Award noms for pics budgeted under $500,000 are “In Search of a Midnight Kiss,” “Turn the River,” “Prince of Broadway,” “Take Out” and “The Signal.”

Sony Pictures Classics harvested the most nominations with 18, followed by IFC with 11.

The announcements were made by Sandra Oh and Jason Bateman at the Hotel Sofitel in Los Angeles at 8 a.m.

The 2009 Spirit Awards will be held in Santa Monica on Feb. 21.

The 2009 Spirit Award nominees are:

FEATURE (Award given to the producer)
“Ballast” – Producer: Lance Hammer, Nina Parikh
“Frozen River”
Producers: Chip Hourihan, Heather Rae
“Rachel Getting Married” – Producers: Jonathan Demme, Neda Armin, Marc Platt
“Wendy and Lucy” – Producer: Larry Fessenden, Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani
“The Wrestler” – Producers: Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin

DIRECTOR
Ramin Bahrani, “Chop Shop”
Jonathan Demme, “Rachel Getting Married”
Lance Hammer, “Ballast”
Courtney Hunt, “Frozen River”
Tom McCarthy, “The Visitor”

FIRST FEATURE (Award given to the director and producer)
“Afterschool”
Director: Antonio Campos
Producers: Sean Durkin, Josh Mond
“Medicine for Melancholy”
Director: Barry Jenkins
Producer: Justin Barber
“Sangre De Mi Sangre”
Director: Christopher Zalla
Producers: Per Melita, Benjamin Odell
“Sleep Dealer”
Director: Alex Rivera
Producer: Anthony Bregman
“Synecdoche, New York”
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Spike Jonze, Charlie
Kaufman, Sidney Kimmel

MALE LEAD
Javier Bardem, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor”
Sean Penn, “Milk”
Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”
Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”

FEMALE LEAD
Summer Bishil, “Towelhead”
Anne Hathaway, “Rachel Getting Married”
Melissa Leo, “Frozen River”
Tarra Riggs, “Ballast”
Michelle Williams, “Wendy and Lucy”

SUPPORTING MALE
James Franco, “Milk”
Anthony Mackie, “The Hurt Locker”
Charlie McDermott, “Frozen River”
Jim Myron Ross, “Ballast”
Haaz Sleiman, “The Visitor”

SUPPORTING FEMALE
Penélope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Rosemarie DeWitt, “Rachel Getting Married”
Rosie Perez, “The Take”
Misty Upham, “Frozen River”
Debra Winger, “Rachel Getting Married”

SCREENPLAY
Woody Allen – “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck – “Sugar”
Charlie Kaufman – “Synecdoche, New York”
Howard A. Rodman – “Savage Grace”
Christopher Zalla – “Sangre De Mi Sangre”

FIRST SCREENPLAY
Dustin Lance Black, “Milk”
Lance Hammer, “Ballast”
Courtney Hunt, “Frozen River”
Jonathan Levine, “The Wackness”
Jenny Lumet, “Rachel Getting Married”

CINEMATOGRAPHY
Maryse Alberti, “The Wrestler”
Lol Crawley, “Ballast”
James Laxton, “Medicine for Melancholy”
Harris Savides, “Milk”
Michael Simmonds, “Chop Shop”

JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD (Given to the best feature made for under $500,000; award given to the writer, director, and producer)
“In Search of a Midnight Kiss”
Writer/Director: Alex Holdridge
Producers: Seth Caplan, Scoot McNairy
“Prince of Broadway”
Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Darren Dean
Producer: Darren Dean
“The Signal”
Writer/Directors: David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry
Producers: Jacob Gentry, Alexander Motlagh,
“Take Out”
Writer/Director/Producers: Sean Baker, Shih-Ching Tsou
Turn the River” Writer/Director: Chris Eigeman
Producer: Ami Armstrong

DOCUMENTARY (Award given to the director)
“The Betrayal’ – Director: Ellen Kuras & Thavisouk Phrasavath
“Encounters at the End of the World’ – Director: Werner Herzog
“Man on Wire’ – Director: James Marsh
“The Order of Myths’ – Director: Margaret Brown
“Up the Yangtze’ – Director: Yung Chang

FOREIGN FILM
“The Class” (France) – Director: Laurent Cantet
“Gomorra” (Italy) – Director: Matteo Garrone
“Hunger” (UK/Ireland) – Director: Steve McQueen
“Secret of the Grain” (France) – Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
“Silent Light” (Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany) – Director: Carlos Reygadas

ROBERT ALTMAN AWARD (Given to one film’s director, casting director, and its ensemble cast)
“Synecdoche, New York”
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Casting Director: Jeanne McCarthy
Ensemble Cast: Hope Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Michelle Williams

IFC/ACURA SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD
Barry Jenkins, director of Medicine for Melancholy
Nina Paley, director of Sita Sings the
Blues
Lynn Shelton, director of My Effortless Brilliance

TRUER THAN FICTION AWARD
Margaret Brown, director of The Order of Myths
Sacha Gervasi, director of Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Darius Marder, director of Loot

PIAGET PRODUCERS AWARD
Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy, producers of Treeless Mountain and I’ll Come Running
Jason Orans, producer of Goodbye Solo and Year of the Fish
Heather Rae, producer of Frozen River and Ibid

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