Surprise noms make Spirit list

Perfs from smaller pics resonate with voters

It wouldn’t be Film Independent’s Spirit Awards without a case of strange bedfellows amongst the acting nominees, and the 2010 roster is no exception. Just ask one of those nominees herself.

“My friends all called me and they were like, ‘Your name looks very odd on that list,’ ” says a laughing Greta Gerwig, who was tapped by the awards’ narrative committee in the female lead category for her turn as a soft-spoken single girl in Noah Baumbach’s wry comedy “Greenberg.” “I genuinely did not expect it.”

Says Ryan Werner, VP of marketing and publicity at IFC Films, “That kind of recognition is great, because you have Gerwig, who was great in ‘Greenberg,’ competing against Nicole Kidman (‘Rabbit Hole’) and Annette Bening (‘The Kids Are All Right’).”

In fact, all of Gerwig’s category mates — who include rising star Jennifer Lawrence playing a determined daughter in “Winter’s Bone,” Natalie Portman as a disturbed ballerina in “Black Swan” and Michelle Williams as an emotionally beleaguered wife in “Blue Valentine” — could take the grand prize in the Oscar race. Gerwig, though, who hails from the fiercely indie mumblecore movement, reps the kind of unique spotlight the Spirits can offer for emerging, lesser-hyped talent.

For the actress, she’s thrilled to be in the same category as Portman (“She was like a spiritual medium in that film, or a performance artist. Just amazing.”) and one of her acting heroes, Williams. “When her character is alone on film, you really feel her being alone,” says Gerwig. “It’s not performing. She’s what I strive to be.”

The female supporting category is a decidedly more eclectic and off-mainstream bunch, veering from the suburban worries of Alison Janney’s housewife in Todd Solondz’s dark satire “Life During Wartime” to the tough-as-nails vibe Dale Dickey offered in “Winter’s Bone” and Ashley Bell’s terrifying embodiment of demonic possession in “The Last Exorcism.” Of Bell, Newsweek film critic and Film Independent’s L.A. Film Festival artistic director David Ansen says, “The Spirits definitely showed their independence by nominating someone from a horror film. I really liked her in it.”

Though it was perhaps little surprise to see John Hawkes’ acclaimed turn in the indie hit “Winter’s Bone” and Mark Ruffalo’s sympathetic homewrecker in “The Kids Are All Right” get nods in the supporting male race, less expected was Samuel L. Jackson for his quiet portrayal of a lawyer in the ensemble drama “Mother and Child.”

“He breaks out of his cool Sam Jackson thing and creates a real character, which you haven’t seen him do in a long time,” says Ansen. “I think they recognized that.”

Landing supporting noms as well were a couple of big stars — Bill Murray as a funeral director in “Get Low” and Naomi Watts for her prickly career woman in “Mother and Child” — but also under-the-radar names Jack Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega for “Jack Goes Boating,” the film version of an Off Broadway play for which the pair originated their roles.

“Most people know them as theater actors,” says IFC’s Werner, “so it’s nice to see them getting some attention for a movie.”

The lead male category, meanwhile, saw Ben Stiller join Gerwig as a “Greenberg” nominee.

“I thought Ben and Greta were amazing,” says “Rabbit Hole” director John Cameron Mitchell. “That film made me so uncomfortable in the best way. We all know (people like Stiller’s character), critical people who freeload. I loved it.”

Mitchell’s own film — about a married couple coping with the loss of their child — also saw a lead male nomination for Kidman’s co-star Aaron Eckhart. “It’s nice to see him get some recognition,” says Ansen, “because (Kidman’s) gotten all the attention, and he’s really good.”

Eckhart is joined by James Franco for “127 Hours,” John C. Reilly for “Cyrus” and Ronald Bronstein — known primarily as a writer-director (“Frownland”) in the do-it-yourself indie world — for his galvanizing turn as a hapless, self-centered father in Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Cassavetes-esque “Daddy Longlegs.”

“I was very glad to see him nominated,” says film critic Ella Taylor. “It ‘s a pretty courageous performance of somebody more or less completely narcissistic, and he really went for it. It’s a knowing portrayal of a clueless person.”

Gerwig, a friend of Bronstein’s, couldn’t be happier about his inclusion.

“This isn’t a film with a lot of bells and whistles around it, or a campaign,” she says. “It feels as if the jurors are making decisions with their heart, with what they responded to, and not what a studio is telling they should respond to. It’s great to see.”

Overall, says Werner, this year’s Spirit Awards acting nominations reveal the breadth of American independent film.

“They really covered everyone, from Nicole Kidman to new filmmakers like the Safdie brothers,” he adds. “In the past they’ve been criticized for going Hollywood, but this time they did a really good job.”

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