Outside the system: In the mix

Indie features that might enter the kudo race

Variety weighs in on a dozen indie features* that could find themselves in the kudo mix.

Fox Searchlight
Scribe Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal could have a shot at a nom in the adapted screenplay competition. But it’s little Flora Cross who might lift Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s adaptation of Myla Goldberg’s bestselling novel, about a mystical spelling bee champ, to Oscar level with a supporting actress mention. The 12-year-old with pouty lips steals the show from Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche, and even from an overpowering story. Financed and distributed by Fox Searchlight, and produced by Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa’s Bona Fide, pic traveled to Deauville and Toronto. Limited B.O., however, could hold it back.

Sony Pictures Classics
A Telluride, Toronto, New York and Denver film fest traveler, Neil Jordan’s infectious mix of “The Crying Game” and “The Butcher Boy” is a “Candide”-like adventure, featuring a star-makeover turn by Irish actor Cillian Murphy (“Batman Begins,” “Red Eye”). Wearing heavy mascara, Cillian plays wide-eyed Kitten, a cross-dresser searching for his long lost mother as Ireland’s political violence unfolds around him. Stephen Rea offers a brilliant supporting performance as a forlorn magician with a fondness for the lost young Kitten.

Focus Features
Bill Murray did it before with an understated, captivating performance in an indie, so why not another actor mention for Jim Jarmusch’s intellectual romance/road movie? The accessible nature of the film from this usually impenetrable filmmaker might make the pic palatable for other awards, such as screenplay and director, as it’s been winning over critics since it debuted at Cannes, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Jeffrey Wright is nommed for an Indie Spirit Award. The Focus-financed and -distributed pic has outgrossed the helmer’s earlier pics, earning $17 million domestically.

Sony Pictures Classics
Rejected by the Academy’s foreign-lingo branch as Austria’s submission (the film is in French), Michael Haneke’s latest menacing masterpiece — about a bourgeois French family haunted by surveillance tapes and a repressed colonialist past — is hoping for recognition in other categories. The film stunned audiences at its Cannes 2005 premiere, where Haneke won the director prize.

Capital Entertainment
Ira Sachs’ cool, despondent three-hander, about a Memphis music mogul, his alienated Russian wife and estranged son, left Sundance with the fest’s top prize and went on to nab high-profile slots at the Berlin and Deauville festivals. Rip Torn’s tour-de-force portrayal of the imperious patriarch, sympathetic and monstrous, lights up the screen, as does luminous Russian actress Dina Korzun, who’s nommed for an Indie Spirit Award, and Julian Whatley’s evocative cinematography.

Paramount Classics
If the Academy is going to take a chance on any new face in the actor competition, Terrence Howard could be at the top of the list for his portrayal of a Memphis pimp with rap star dreams. Craig Brewer’s film, which won the audience and cinematography awards at Sundance is certainly a showcase. The $3 million production went on to gross more than $22 million at the domestic B.O. Howard has been nommed for an Indie Spirit Award.

Sony Pictures Classics
A respected, quirky debut from writer-director Phil Morrison, the breakout star that could get this film Oscar attention is supporting actress Amy Adams, who won a jury award at Sundance, a breakthrough actress Gotham Award and has been nommed for an Indie Spirit Award for her performance as a clingy, pregnant Southern ditz. She stole scenes from stars Embeth Davidz and Alessandro Nivola, who play a mismatched couple visiting the in-laws in the South. The film, financed by commercial house Epoch as its first feature, made $2.7 million.

This tense psychological thriller, about a man reeling from the abduction of his daughter, features a gut-wrenching portrait by British actor Damian Lewis. Nominated but did not win the pic prize at the Gotham Awards, “Keane” had a string of festival triumphs in 2004: at Deauville, where director Lodge Kerrigan took home critics and special jury awards; and Toronto and New York, where it was singled out as one of the strongest American indies in their lineups. D.P. John Foster nommed for an Indie Spirit Award.

Sony Pictures Classics
With bravura action sequences and a big heart, Stephen Chow’s martial-arts crowdpleaser is a dazzling visual extravaganza. Starring Chow as a down-and-out street bum who becomes a kung-fu superhero, the film’s special f/x range from the wildly cartoonish to the breathlessly lyrical — all worthy of recognition in this year’s tech categories.

IFC Films
After winning a special jury prize at Sundance for originality of vision, Miranda July took her first feature to Cannes, where she shared the Camera d’Or and won the Critics Week prize. It’s also nommed for two Indie Spirit Awards. Pic’s best chance with the Acad could be the its original screenplay. But the experimental narrative movie, financed by IFC Films and Britain’s FilmFour, and distributed by IFC (reaping nearly $4 million), isn’t typical Acad fare. Then again, July’s specialty is wowing people with her newness.

Focus Features
BAFTA’s British film of 2004, this bittersweet sun-dappled wonder failed to resonate with U.S. audiences — but it was their loss. Newcomers Nathalie Press and Emily Blunt — award winners in the U.K. — deliver outstanding perfs as, respectively, Mona, a working-class lass, and Tamsen, a snotty rich girl on summer vacation. While Mona’s brother (a memorable supporting turn by Paddy Considine) faces his own bogus religious rebirth, Mona learns the painful truths of trumped-up adolescent passion.

Tartan USA/TLA Releasing
Film’s adapted screenplay might attract attention for filmmaker Gregg Araki, who turned a difficult book into a trenchant feature. Financed by Antidote Films, Fortissimo and Araki’s Desperate Pictures, pic grossed $713,000 after debuting at Venice, playing at Tribeca and going on to win the jury prize at Bergen and Grand Prix Asturias at Gijon. Araki nommed for Indie Sppirit Award.

Intertwining stories of women in stressful situations put the focus of Rodrigo Garcia’s film on the acting, which could snag a supporting mention for one of the many impressive women involved, most notably Robin Wright Penn, Holly Hunter and Sissy Spacek. Produced by Julie Lynn’s Mockingbird Pictures and exec produced by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, film debuted at Sundance and won the top prize at Locarno. Picked up three Indie Spirit Award noms.

Tartan USA
The latest bizarro offering from South Korean cult helmer Park Chan-wook tells the story of a man who is inexplicably held hostage for 15 years, then given the chance to exact revenge on his tormentor. A favorite on the international fest and award circuits, it took home the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year and was released by Tartan in March.

Warner Independent Pictures
A favorite at Berlin this year, this deeply compassionate drama looks at two Palestinian men recruited to commit suicide bombings in Israel. A contender in the race for foreign-language film, “Paradise” achieves the miraculous: Through intelligent scripting and fresh performances (particularly by newcomer Kais Nashef), the film portrays a situation often depicted in the starkest of terms with sympathy, humanity and complexity.

Fox Searchlight
Oscar-winning scribe Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) made his directorial debut with this intricate, meditative, tough-minded mystery based on Nigel Balchin’s novel “A Way Through the Woods.” Three kudo vets — Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Rupert Everett — each command suspense in their turns, respectively, as a noble lawyer; his adulterous wife; and a debonair neighbor, who not only steals the wife’s heart, but makes her party to manslaughter.

Sony Pictures Classics
Artist/musicvid whiz Mike Mills (adapting the novel by Walter Kirn) spins a funny, angry nugget about the great American subject of growing up. Lou Pucci won acting honors at Sundance and Berlin for his performance as Justin — a struggling 17-year-old desperate to shed his thumb sucking while navigating a world dominated by a dysfunctional debate coach (Vince Vaughn); a guru orthodontist (Keanu Reeves); and two clueless parents (Vincent D’Onofrio and Tilda Swinton), who must sort out their stalled marriage at midlife. Mills is nommed for an Indie Spirit Award for first-time director.

the Weinstein Co.
Felicity Huffman recently took home an Emmy for actress, and could take a run at that category at the Oscars as well, with her portrayal of a preoperative male-to-female transgender on a quest to connect with her biological son. Duncan Tucker’s debut film, financed by Rene Bastian and Linda Moran’s Belladonna Prods., was Weinstein Co.’s first acquisition, after it unspooled at Tribeca, where Huffman won an actress kudo; she’s also nommed for an Indie Spirit Award, while Tucker is tapped for two: first director and screenplay. Pic picked up prizes at Berlin and Deauville.

Magnolia Pictures
Pic chronicles the true story of Burt Munro, an elderly New Zealander obsessed with his 1920 Indian motorbike who dreams of setting a world’s record for speed. Writer-director Roger Donaldson thrillingly illuminates the soul of Munro, a man he knew. Anthony Hopkins, no Oscar stranger, gives a heart-stirring performance that could get kudo notice. Pic, which traveled to San Sebastian, AFI Fest and Denver, like Munro himself, is the kind of underdog auds and Academy voters could fall madly in love with, given half a chance.

*Foreign-language features not opening in 2005 and documentaries were excluded from this list.