As I also mentioned yesterday, this year I actually managed to see every film that received a Spirit Award nomination, so my voting was pretty informed. Unlike the Oscars or even the Razzies, the nominees for the Spirit Awards are determined by "expert" committees who both decide whether a film is eligible for Spirit Award consideration as well as good enough to be nominated. Unlike the Oscars where a film has to play commercially in either LA or New York for at least a week, many Spirit Award nominees often have not yet had commercial distribution, instead simply playing at various film festivals around the country. With nominees ranging from widely publicized and seen films such as Sideways to no-budget, no-distribution, hardly seen pictures like Unknown Soldier and Robbing Peter. When IFP members vote, instead of simply picking their favorite in each category, one ranks their choices in order of preference. That way, when a weighted average of scores is computed, a film that 100 people saw has as much chance as one viewed by 1000.
With that preamble aside, here's how I voted. Note, these aren't predictions, just how I ranked things:
One problem these days with the Spirit Awards is that a huge independent movie like Sideways or, last year, Lost in Translation that gets widespread notice and Best Picture nominations at the Oscars can often overshadow some smaller releases that deserve the recognition of the Spirits. Last year, while I loved Lost in Translation, I ranked it number 2 because I thought American Splendor was even better. Although American Splendor received some Oscar notice with a screenplay nomination, it certainly didn't get the attention Lost in Translation did with its higher profile nominations.
Of course, the issue runs the other way too. Lost in Translation sort of took over last year's Spirits, and in a way, that was its consolation prize because it didn't really have a chance at the big prize. Well, this year isn't that different, except that I believe Sideways is the best film in this group of nominees, and therefore it got my highest ranking, followed by Maria Full of Grace, Primer, Baadasssss! and Kinsey. I wasn't a huge fan of Kinsey other than the great performances of Laura Linney and Peter Sarsgaard. The other three films all fell right around the same area for me, each having great qualities but just missing that extra something that I thought made Sideways so wonderful.
It's always a little difficult to figure out what one thinks should have received nominations but didn't because the criteria for what qualifies as an "independent" film is so malleable. Before Sunset and The Door in the Floor both should have received "Best Feature" nods over everything else in this category other than Sideways. And the only reason I'm not complaining about the omissions of I (Heart) Huckabees and, especially, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is because I believe those two films $20 Million budgets actually where above the high-teen threshold set by the IFP.
Best First Feature
This category always seems a little weird to me, kind of like a consolation prize for people who have made their first films but maybe they just weren't good enough to be considered for "Best Feature." Both Maria Full of Grace and Primer were directing debuts, so that sort of implies that all the films in this category aren't quite as good as the films in the "Best Feature" category.
I don't know that I agree with that. I really liked Garden State, at least more than Kinsey and maybe even Baadasssss! and Primer. I don't think it was the best movie of the year or anything, and obviously this is a judgment call. And as a way to support new filmmakers, the award makes sense. But there are always a few titles in both "Best Feature" and "Best First Feature" that seem like they deserve to or should be in the other category.
My highest ranking went to Garden State, but I actually found this category to be a bit week. At #2, I went with Saints and Soldiers, a very good, independent World War II drama about a bunch of soldiers caught behind enemy lines, followed by The Woodsman, Napoleon Dynamite and Brother to Brother. I know many people were crazy for both The Woodsman and Napoleon Dynamite, but I had a ton of problems with each film. I loved Kevin Bacon, and the park bench scene near the end of the film was incredibly painful to watch, but I found the actual story a bit tiresome, and I thought the ending was a bit of a cop-out. And while Napoleon Dynamite has its moments, I just didn't think it was all that funny. It's a perfectly fine movie, just nothing to special. As for Brother to Brother, I just found it kind of dull.
The John Cassavetes Award
This award is given to the best feature made for under $500,000. In a way, this award is what the IFP Spirit Awards is really all about – those films that people manage to put together really against all odds; certainly with relatively little money. Mean Creek is the only nominee to actually have a commercial release, and it's the best one in this category as well.
There have been several movies with similar stories -- Bully, River's Edge -- but I liked the naturalism of this one, and I especially applaud the filmmakers for not going the normal route with the ending: bad kids, cover-up, getting caught, blah blah blah. Unknown Soldier is also a pretty remarkable achievement: made for under $100K with a cast of novices, it's certainly rough, but it also tells a story that we don't see often enough in modern urban dramas: it's a Book of Job story about a black teen left on his own when his father dies, he becomes homeless, and still manages (we hope) to overcome his situation without following the stereotypical path into drugs and crime, even though it's available to him.
Down to the Bone has won several festival awards for director Debra Granik, and it has a great lead performance (more on that later), but I found the script kind of weak and inconsistent. Still, I ranked it number three ahead of both Robbing Peter and On the Outs, which both have their good points, but I ultimately found very derivative of other, better stories and just kind of bleh.
The "Best First Feature" award goes to the director, so these nominees match-up with the "Best Feature" category, with the exception of Walter Salles getting a nod for The Motorcycle Diaries. I have no problem with the omission of Bill Condon, and in fact, The Motorcycle Diaries has more right to be a "Best Feature" nominee.
Still, Salles came in last in my rankings. As with "Best Feature," I'd like to give this prize to Sideways, elegantly and artfully directed by Alexander Payne. I didn't copy my "Best Feature" rankings exactly, however. While Baadasssss! was number 4 on my "Best Feature" list, I gave my second ranking here to Mario Van Peebles who really did a great job not just telling his father's story but really recreating the look and feel of that time and place, and at times, even some of the stylistic element's of dad Melvin's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. I gave the third slot to Shane Carruth for the complex but fascinating Primer followed by Joshua Marston for Maria Full of Grace.
Sideways will be winning this award at the Oscars tomorrow night, but hopefully at the Spirits, it's Oscar co-nominee Before Sunset will take home the screenplay award. Not receiving director or feature nominations here is truly the biggest oversight of all these nominations, but hopefully this brilliant film (and yes, it is a brilliant film, made even better if one watches it in tandem with its predecessor) will get some of the recognition it deserves.
I ranked Sideways second, followed by Tod Williams" almost equally overlooked The Door in the Floor, Mario Van Peebles & Dennis Haggerty's script for Baadasssss! and Bill Condon's Kinsey.
Best First Screenplay
Like "Best First Feature," this category is a bit like a second chance for first-time filmmakers. Both Shane Carruth and Joshua Marston received "Best Director" and "Best Feature" nominations for their films Primer and Maria Full of Grace, respectively, yet we find their screenplays nominated in this category as opposed to the one without the "first" qualifier. I gave Carruth my second slot and Marston the third, followed by Mario F. de la Vega for Robbing Peter and Rodney Evans for Brother to Brother. But my top vote went to Zach Braff for Garden State. The scripts only real flaws are a bit too much sweetness and, as strange as it may sound, that everything was a bit too streamlined, neat and clean. Still, I was pleasantly surprised with just about everything in this film, and it definitely started with a wonderfully tight and cleverly written script.
Best Foreign Film
To me, this was absolutely one of the two most competitive categories for this year's spirits. I loved Bad Education, so obviously it received my top vote, and The Sea Inside actually underwhelmed me, with the exception of Javier Bardem's fantastic performance, so it received my lowest ranking. But Yesterday from South Africa, Oasis from South Korea and Red Lights from France are all fantastic films.
I was particularly enamored with Yesterday -- which I ranked second and also happens to be an Oscar nominee for "Foreign Language Film" -- which tells the story of a woman living in a Zulu village who discovers she is HIV positive. Every now and then we hear about the AIDS crisis in Africa, but Yesterday takes that basic, dry, plain news blurb that occasionally appears inside the paper, as opposed to on the cover, and turns it into a remarkably moving and powerful personal story about a reality that few, if any, of us can even imagine. The most amazing thing about Yesterday, though, may be that this touching, emotional film was directed by Darrell Roodt who must be one of the most schizophrenic directors working today. I would suggest he stick with films shot in or about Africa, such as Cry, the Beloved Country and Sarafina! rather than some of his other efforts like Father Hood and Dracula 3000.
Oasis, which I ranked third, is another phenomenal film, this one telling a love story unlike any you've ever seen; and Red Lights is a little bit thriller, little bit relationship drama that packs its own punch. I'd recommend seeing any of these films, and I'd be happy to see any of them receive the notoriety, as small as it may be, of a Spirit win.
Along with "Best Foreign Film," this category is the other most competitive. Again, one film, in this case the remarkable Tarnation, stood above the rest for me, but Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Bright Leaves, Hiding and Seeking: Faither and Tolerance After the Holocaust and Chisholm '72 – Unbought and Unbossed, which I ranked in that order, all were excellent films, compelling, interesting, and entertaining in their own rights.
Best Male Lead
I'm sure Paul Giamatti will win this award, after his snub by Oscar, but I simply couldn't give him higher than my number two ranking. I loved him in Sideways, but the other actor who I believe really got ripped off by the Academy this year was Jeff Bridges in The Door in the Floor who has rarely (maybe never) had a part that was tailored more perfectly to his abilities. I know people raved about Liam Neeson in Kinsey, but his slight accent on an Indiana boy actually distracted me, so I ranked him last after Kevin Bacon for The Woodsman and Jamie Foxx in Redemption.
Best Female Lead
The truth is, there simply weren't as many great female roles this year as male ones. The proof is in the Oscar nominations as well: it's hard to think of many female performances other than the ones nominated that should have been there, and as much as I love Annette Bening, the fact that she's a front-runner for a performance in such a weak movie proves that point as well. The case is true for the Spirits as well; not that any of the nominated performances are bad, but really few of them blew me away.
Catalina Sandino Moreno outstanding performance in Maria Full of Grace earned my top ranking. After that, I found the rest of the nominees relatively interchangeable: Vera Farmiga for Down to the Bone was great at showing the complexities of her character – a mother dealing with drug addiction – but I felt the role was underwritten, and a bit of a stereotypical addict, so in a way, we never really learn so much about her. I ranked her second above Kimberly Elise for Woman Thou Art Loosed, Kyra Sedgwick for Cavedweller and Judy Marte who is virtually unrecognizable from her role in Raising Victor Vargas (a much better movie than On the Outs), but that's really the best I can say. Keep on the lookout for Marte, though. Hopefully she has a larger film in her future; she can handle it.
Best Supporting Male
It's very unlikely that Thomas Haden Church will win Sunday night, but like Giamatti, he'll probably take home this award, and as much as I love Peter Sarsgaard, I think Church deserves it. I put him and Sarsgaard one-two, followed by Jon Gries from Napoleon Dynamite (one of the more consistently funny elements of that film), Aidan Quinn from Cavedweller and Roger Robinson from Brother to Brother.
Best Supporting Female
The Oscar race will probably be pretty close, with Cate Blanchett being the frontrunner for her role in The Aviator. Blanchett is nominated for a Spirit supporting award as well, but in this case it's for Coffee and Cigarettes. She was one of the best things in one of the three or four good segments of that film, but she comes in second on my list. I'm not predicting the Spirits, but if I was going to try, I think a Sideways sweep is a pretty safe bet, and Virginia Madsen would likely, and rightfully, be a part of that. I used to hate Madsen. If she was in a movie, I was pretty sure I would hate it only less than her performance in it. But she's wonderful in Sideways, and deserves this award.
Madsen and Blanchett kind of tower above the rest of this category. I followed the two of them with Yenny Paola Vega from Maria Full of Grace, Loretta Devine from Woman Thou Art Loosed and Robin Simmons from Robbing Peter.
Best Debut Performance
This is often a really great category at the Spirits, showcasing breakthrough performances by unknown/first-time actors. This year, not so much. I don't mean to say any of the nominees are bad – they're not – but with the exception of Rodrigo De la Serna who was excellent opposite Gael García Bernal in The Motorcycle Diaries, none of the others really stood out to me. I ranked them in descending order as follows: David Sullivan in Primer, Hannah Pilkes in The Woodsman, Louie Olivos Jr. in Robbing Peter and Anthony Mackie in Brother to Brother.
The only technical Spirit award, I would be that this category will be dominated by Tim Orr as long as he shoots indie films that qualify. He's shot all of David Gordon Greene's films (which means expect a nomination next year for Undertow, and this year he was nominated for his gorgeous work on Dandelion, an otherwise unremarkable movie.
While all the cinematographers nominated here did some great work, Orr led the pack, and deserves the award. I ranked the other nominees as follows: Eric Gautier for The Motorcycle Diaries, Ryan Little for Saints and Soldiers, David Greene for Redemption and Maryse Alberti for We Don't Live Here Anymore
THERE are a few other awards given out at the Spirits every year, but members don't get to vote on them. Specifically, the "Turning Leaf Someone to Watch Award" which goes to a promising narrative feature director, the "DirecTV/IFC Truer Than Fiction Award" which goes to a documentary filmmaker, and the "Bravo/American Express Producers Award" which goes to, obviously, an independent producer who, quite simply, manages to get things done.