It’s rather wonderful that the New York-based Independent Filmmaker Project is always the one to get the awards season ball rolling with its nominations for the annual Gotham Awards. The organization’s process, recognizing a narrow field of categories decided by separate, tight-knit juries, is unusual, and certainly nowhere near the film Academy’s methodology. So the result is often a breath of fresh air before the inevitable avalanche of traditional fall Oscar fare begins dominating the conversation.
Movies like “Good Time” and “I, Tonya” aren’t likely to bask in the glory of best picture status, for example, but here they’re right at home. Nominations leader “Get Out” can grab more headlines before diving headlong into a season where it’s still an Oscar question mark (and perhaps the most exciting one in a year that promises to be filled with them). These and other critically acclaimed indie dramas like “Call Me by Your Name” and “The Florida Project,” not the massive machinery of a “Darkest Hour” or a “Dunkirk,” are the big men on campus.
A field like IFP’s best actor category (which combines lead and supporting performances) is crucial, too, in a year like this, which is as lacking in strong contenders as it’s ever been. Could James Franco also find support from the Academy’s acting branch for his committed portrayal of the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist?” Could Harry Dean Stanton get a posthumous tip of the hat for his swan song performance in “Lucky?” The whole category, save Willem Dafoe’s supporting work in “The Florida Project,” is a great cheat sheet for any voter seeking options.
Meanwhile, the lead actress category features two women who are sure to be in the Oscar conversation, “Lady Bird’s” Saoirse Ronan and “I, Tonya’s” Margot Robbie. But the field’s reach beyond that reminds that this incredibly stacked category has even more buried treasures if you’re willing to stray from the pack. In particular, “Marjorie Prime’s” Lois Smith would be as lovely a character-actress story for the Oscars as Ann Dowd turned out to be for the Emmys.
It would have been great to see one of the female-directed efforts find purchase in the best feature category, though Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”) and Maggie Betts (“Novitiate”) got some love as breakthrough directors, and Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” is set for a special ensemble honor. The presence of Timothee Chalamet (“Call Me by Your Name”) and 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince (“The Florida Project”) in the breakthrough acting ranks, meanwhile, keeps their visibility up as they look to crack their respective races. And yes, both are viable leading contenders this year.
But I keep coming back to “Get Out.” It really feels like the test case for an evolving Academy. My first weekly column of the season, arriving next week, digs into the drastically shifting demographics of the organization. Whether that’s anything more than a flutter is left to be seen, but a 1,500-body bump in membership numbers over the past two years is nothing to sneeze at. And Universal is as primed as it possibly could be with a prospect, armed with glowing reviews and massive box office. “Get Out” is the crossover opportunity of the season, but how far can a satire about the black experience in America really travel with Oscar voters?
“Moonlight” certainly blew open the doors of assumption eight short months ago, so I’m not out to set any boundaries. And that, again, is why the annual Gotham Awards announcement is such a nice way to ease into the clutter every year. They remind you — and hopefully Academy members, too — of the possibilities.