In its earliest days, the Film Independent Spirit Awards’ choices appeared to emanate from a parallel universe to those of the Academy Awards. In its first decade, the fledgling organization’s best picture winner lined up with the Oscars only once, but the distinction went even further that that: Aside from both awards bodies naming “Platoon” best picture in 1986, there was not a single overlap between the Academy and the Indie Spirits’ nominees for the latter’s first nine editions.
Needless to say, things have changed. The American indie film movement managed to break its way into the august halls of the Academy in the 1990s, gradually took over, and the Spirit Awards have never seemed quite so radical since then. For the past three years in a row, the Spirits and the Oscars have lined up in the best pic category, and only three times in the current millennium have the Spirits’ ultimate winner failed to be at least Oscar-nommed in the big category.
But if the Spirits seemed at risk of losing their wild mojo over the years, the emphasis on emerging helmers, and the awards’ more consistent view of diversity, has helped keep it a vital presence on the kudos calendar. Last year, as the Oscars were embroiled in hashtagged controversy over their racial makeup, the Spirits presented a striking counter-argument: recognizing “Beasts of No Nation’s” Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in the lead and supporting actor categories, and “Tangerine” actress Mya Taylor as supporting actress — the first transgender person to win a major film award.
As for this year, only two of the Spirits’ contenders — “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” — will also be up for the big prize the following night. The Spirits also found room to spread love to such extremely under-the-radar films as Michel Franco’s best-film-nominated drama “Chronic,” whose two nominations at the Spirits represent its only non-festival award attention. In 2014, four of the Spirits’ five nominees came from major studios’ indie divisions; this year, only one.
Few organizations have a better track record with recognizing promising filmmakers at the dawn of their careers than the Spirits. Its first feature prize has given everyone from Spike Lee to David O. Russell, Kenneth Lonergan, and Ryan Coogler their first major awards. And though it’s a much younger kudo, the John Cassavetes Award, established in 1999 for films made under $500,000, has had a rather remarkable track record for finding emerging diamonds in the film festival rough. Among its past winners are the then-unknown likes of Ava DuVernay, up for documentary at this weekend’s Oscars; Tom McCarthy, director of last year’s best picture winner, “Spotlight”; Dee Rees, now a DGA winner and Emmy nominee, whose newest film “Mudbound” just sold for big money at Sundance; and indie darlings Lynn Shelton and Mike White.
This year, the prize is up for grabs among So Yong Kim’s “Lovesong,” Jake Mahaffy’s “Free in Deed,” T.W. Pittman and Kelly Daniela Norris’ “Nakom,” Andrew Ahn’s “Spa Night,” and Josh Locy’s “Hunter Gatherer.” They rep an incisive cross-section of last year’s festival programming, with debuts from Sundance, SXSW, Berlin, and Venice all recognized. The first feature prize has a wealth of particularly recognizable contenders, from Robert Eggers’ wide-release horror hit “The Witch” to Chris Kelly’s Molly Shannon-starrer “Other People,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s wonderfully divisive Sundance entry “Swiss Army Man,” Anna Rose Holmer’s eye-opening “The Fits,” and Brady Corbet’s existentialist festival favorite “The Childhood of a Leader.”
Add to that the vast numbers of nominees in other categories that one simply wouldn’t see in any other televised award show: David Harewood and Tim Roth in the male lead slot; Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s portrait of an Afghan refugee with eyes on a music career, “Sonita”; and Vitaly Mansky’s sui generis North Korea portrait “Under the Sun” in the doc category; or the six noms — including picture, director, and actress — for Andrea Arnold’s Cannes sensation, “American Honey.”
So even if a few Spirits’ acceptance speeches end up serving as better-lubricated warm-ups for Oscar night, keep an eye on the earlier races: Chances are, that’s where tomorrow’s mainstream discoveries are already being made.