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Independent Film Awards Circuit Livens Up Studio-Heavy Oscar Race

With this year’s best picture Oscar race set to feature a number of major studio releases, the independent film awards circuit is making for a lively sidebar affair. As ever, it’s an opportunity for bubble contenders to find their corner of the spotlight ahead of the holiday rush, when voters will hopefully be diligent about viewing their screeners before settling in with ballots in the new year. But this year in particular, the absence of so many expected Academy heavyweights from these proceedings is providing a wide berth that should go a long way toward ensuring events like the Independent Filmmaker Project’s Gotham Awards and Film Independent’s Spirit Awards don’t feel like a rehearsal dinner for the Oscars. (Recent Academy drama suggests that will be a relief for some.)

Let’s start with the Spirits. Film Independent’s 46-member nominating committee revealed its nominations for the 34th annual event Friday morning, and the top category filled out like a throwback to previous years when the studios, perhaps rightly, sat it out on the sidelines. Even Fox Searchlight failed to crack the lineup with films like “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “The Old Man & the Gun.” (The perennial Spirits staple’s other major play, “The Favourite,” was relegated to the international film category, like Netflix’s “Roma.”)

The best-feature players were A24 (“Eighth Grade” and “First Reformed”), Amazon (“You Were Never Really Here”), Annapurna (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), and Bleecker Street (“Leave No Trace”). Previously, the New York-based Gothams settled on “First Reformed” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” along with “The Favourite,” Oscilloscope’s “Madeline’s Madeline,” and Sony Classics’ “The Rider.”

Oscar-contending performances from Glenn Close (“The Wife”), Toni Collette (“Hereditary”), Adam Driver (“BlacKkKlansman”), Ethan Hawke (“First Reformed”), and Richard E. Grant (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) have been singled out by these groups, joining an array of other hopefuls that ought to find their way into the consideration pool with these early notices: Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in “Leave No Trace,” Elsie Fisher in “Eighth Grade,” Carey Mulligan in “Wildlife,” and Joaquin Phoenix in “You Were Never Really Here” among them.

That’s already an exciting mix, and to it we can add studio fare like “Black Panther,” “Green Book,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” “A Star Is Born,” “Widows” — maybe even “A Quiet Place,” which was eligible for the Spirits but was ignored. That assortment includes performances from Mahershala Ali, Emily Blunt, Bradley Cooper, Viola Davis, Sam Elliott, Lady Gaga, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Viggo Mortensen, and Meryl Streep. What a slate!

And at the Spirits, by the way, none of the above was this year’s nominations leader. That honor went to the Orchard’s “We the Animals” from director Jeremiah Zagar. Bully for them. Meanwhile that director category, featuring three women, almost feels like a referendum.

Not to reiterate what is an oft-stated point at this stage, but this is just the kind of organic balance the Academy was trying to manifest with its “popular Oscar” idea. Alas, look: there it is!

This all sends us headlong into the critics awards circuit, where regional groups have two options: fall in lockstep with whatever consensus might develop or hang it out there for unsung players in the race. They generally do a good job of highlighting the fringe, and could even add a few more names to the hat. We’ll see what they’re thinking beginning with the New York Film Critics Circle’s announcement on Nov. 29.

Buckle up!

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