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Spirit Awards Nominees: The 15 Biggest Surprises

The Independent Spirit Awards were never supposed to be a harbinger of the Oscars, but in recent years, the booze-infused celebration in Santa Monica — held the night before the Academy Awards — had become just that. All the acting winners at last year’s Oscar ceremony picked up a Spirit first, and so did best picture champ “12 Years a Slave.”

So it’s particularly confusing that this year’s Spirit nominations completely shut out what is supposed to be one of the season’s heavyweights: The Weinstein Co.’s “The Imitation Game.” It wasn’t a good day for Harvey Weinstein in general, since his entire awards season slate of “St. Vincent,” “Begin Again” and “Big Eyes” (which only got a screenplay nod) was left out.

While the Oscar voters and Spirit nominating committee don’t overlap, in a competitive awards season, these nominations do matter. It gently nudges voters on which screeners they should watch next and shapes the awards season narrative.

Here are the biggest surprises:

Nightcrawler” sneaks to the top
That “Birdman” (which picked up six nominations), “Boyhood” (five) and “Selma” (five) would be the frontrunners at the Spirits was expected. But “Nightcrawler,” which also grabbed five nominations, is the underdog winner from today. In fact, it’s possible that Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a LA paparazzo, could be a dark horse best picture nominee, since fans of the film are enthusiastic and it will be helped by the Oscars’ weighted ballots. After picking up a Spirit nod, Jake Gyllenhaal also becomes a serious contender in the best actor race.

Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game” completely shut out
Considered by many to be the frontrunner for Oscar, “The Imitation Game” should have earned nominations in all the top categories, including best feature, actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), supporting actress (Keira Knightley) and screenplay. The Weinstein Company often uses the Spirit Awards as a launchpad for their Oscar hopefuls — see “The Artist,” “Silver Linings Playbook” — but despite being eligible, “The Imitation Game” was completely shut out. If anybody is trying to meet up with Cumberbatch on the day before the Oscars, he’s free now.

Love is Strange” gets some love
The other winner from today’s nominations is Ira Sachs’ story about gay marriage between an elderly couple. The well-reviewed drama from Sony Pictures Classics fell short at the box office, but the Spirits could give it new momentum (it was among the first screeners sent out) with four nominations, including best feature, actor John Lithgow, supporting actor Alfred Molina and screenplay. The conventional wisdom had been that Lithgow was supporting and Molina was lead, so this new wrinkle could confuse voters — or help Molina launch a supporting campaign. The script by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias also gets a boost for best original screenplay.

Bill Murray doesn’t make the cut
Murray says he’s not campaigning for the Oscars, yet the Weistein Co. is still hoping that his strongest performance since “Lost in Translation” could get him in the best actor race. A Spirit nod would have helped, but a Golden Globe nomination could still rescue this campaign.

“Big Eyes” nominated for best screenplay
The Tim Burton biopic about Margaret Keane was supposed to be an awards season favorite, until it got hit with negative buzz from early screenings. Both Amy Adams (who was an early Spirits favorite with “Junebug”) and Christoph Waltz lost out in the performance categories. But given that, it is surprising that the film managed to snag a screenplay nomination.

These three under-the-radar performances
Though some big names were overlooked in the lead actor category, Andre Benjamin was a surprise nominee for his work as the rock legend in “Jimi: All Is By My Side.” Similarly, Rinko Kikuchi scored a lead actress nom for “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” and Andrea Suarez Paz was recognized in supporting actress for the virtually unknown “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors.”

Miles Teller, “Whiplash” and Oscar Isaac, “A Most Violent Year”
With such a crowded field, there were bound to be same names left off the best actor ballot. Both these performances seem tailor-made for the Spirit Awards.

Reese Witherspoon for “Wild” and Jennifer Aniston in “Cake” left off the menu
Despite being an Oscar frontrunner for best actress, Witherspoon failed to score a nod for “Wild.” In fact, “Wild” was completely shut out. And though the star of “Friends” landed a Spirit nomination in 2003 for her role in “The Good Girl.” She wasn’t so lucky this year, even though she’s been steadfastly campaigning for this gritty drama, where she plays a sufferer of chronic pain.

“Begin Again”
This musical comedy starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo may have been too mainstream for the Spirit Awards. It remains as one of the most underrated movies of the year.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Beyond the Lights”
The Brit had two fantastic performances in 2014, beginning with the historical drama “Belle.” That film was not eligible this year, but her star turn in “Beyond the Lights” was, and still got overlooked.

Foxcatcher” and “Inherent Vice” were ineligible but still honored
These films were deemed ineligible for individual awards consideration — likely due to budgetary reasons (the cap is $20 million, although exceptions are often made — see “Silver Linings Playbook.”) But “Foxcatcher” and “Inherent Vice” are being recognized with special awards. “Inherent Vice” will receive the Robert Altman award for the ensemble cast and casting director. And “Foxcatcher” earned something called a “Special Distinction Award,” which feels like a consolation prize.

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