Win on Saturday, lose on Sunday? That was the industry maxim that evolved over much of the three decades the independent cinema celebration the Spirit Awards and the annual Academy Awards stood as season-ending foils to one another. But six short years ago, that went out the window as one Spirit winner after another began to march right on into the Oscars the next day and win top honors there, as well: “The Artist,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight” and, just last year, “Moonlight.”
The thinking behind all of that was laid out a year ago in a column that, quite frankly, was written assuming the journey had reached its end for writer-director Barry Jenkins and company. As you probably heard, it had not. But the stunning eventual “Moonlight” Oscar victory also signaled a potential shift with implications that continue to ripple throughout this season, adding a whole other variable to the interminable “awards convention,” as Frances McDormand so perfectly put it Saturday afternoon at the 33rd annual Spirit Awards: Change.
Is it real? Is it more than merely palpable? It was certainly in the air Saturday. Lead actor winner Timothée Chalamet evoked the word, speaking directly to the roster of hungry talents who took bold new steps in 2017, including Dee Rees, who also used the platform to speak straight from the heart. Jordan Peele painted a picture of exhilarating evolution, receiving honors from both those who paved the way (Spike Lee) and those who are leading a very current charge in their wake (Chadwick Boseman). Everyone certainly feels like they’re a part of a shift. But again, is it real?
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Peele’s momentous film “Get Out,” which won awards for director and best feature Saturday, could absolutely win the best picture Oscar. And though it would be in line with recent Spirits history, it would also obviously be a historic moment. (The statistical hurdles it faces have been thoroughly illustrated.) Spirit Awards attendees being shuttled from the waterlogged beachfront tent setting back to the Santa Monica Civic Center parking lot couldn’t help but speculate if we were in for a repeat on Sunday. But would that mean change? It’s hard to say, but it’s definitely exciting.
That the best picture race remains such a tingly mystery is all the more fascinating considering how firmed up most of the other major races are (or at least, appear to be). Every acting frontrunner who was up for a Spirit Award Saturday walked away with one. Other winners that could double up on Sunday include “A Fantastic Woman” (foreign language film) and “Faces Places” (documentary feature). It’s agreed that at least one screenplay race is sewn up, though others might argue both are (which makes the Spirit win for “Lady Bird” all the more interesting). The directing prize sure seems to be spoken for as well.
But whatever the data might imply, five films have a definitive shot at winning the top Oscar this year.
It could be “Get Out.” It could be “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which showed plenty of strength on the circuit all the way up until Boseman called out Peele’s film Saturday. It could be “Lady Bird,” which lingers as a popular favorite, or it could even be “Dunkirk,” with a lot of passion from the rank-and-file. Or, it could be a film that by all rights should have been represented at the Spirit Awards, but inexplicably wasn’t: “The Shape of Water,” produced for $19.4 million and made to look like three times as much.
Come what may, that variable, “change,” and how it’s become both tangible (1,400 new Academy members in two years) and nebulous, is what will continue to hang in the air long past the 90th annual Academy Awards.