Independent Spirit Awards — Original, Independent and Perplexing

Awards season is upon us once again with the culmination of the Oscars on March 10 at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. There are only so many Saturdays and Sundays to go around and this year the Independent Spirits will occur on Saturday, Feb. 24, the same night at the SAG Awards. Even time travel will not allow nominated actors to be in both places at the same time, and I warrant that they’ll opt for the warmth of the Shrine Auditorium and the possibility of being seen on Netflix rather than at the Independent Spirits under a tent in the parking lot of the Santa Monica Pier, televised on

I love the Independent Spirits because their mandate is to recognize diversity, innovation and uniqueness of vision. This is not so much an effort to be woke but to try and see what the mainstream media doesn’t. Economy of means is another criterion. Can you see every penny at work on screen? The budget maximum for movies competing for an Independent Spirit is $30 million, which sounds like a lot but not when you compare it to “Oppenheimer” ($100 million), “Barbie” ($140 million) and “Killers of the Flower Moon” ($200 million). You will, no doubt, marvel like me at what the Spirit-nominated films were able to accomplish on considerably less money, sacrificing neither production values nor, in some cases, star-driven casts.

Chosen by special committee, there is one award specific to the Independent Spirits, and that is the John Cassavetes Award given to a first feature budgeted under $1 million. Past winners, like Tom McCarthy, Mike White and Ava DuVernay have gone on to make an indelible mark on the industry.

That there are films nominated for both Academy Awards and the Independent Spirits make them, as far as I’m concerned, even more extraordinary. And many of the lesser-known independent films, by virtue of a nomination, will be picked up for distribution. I do have to say, sheepishly, that I’ll often look at nominations I’ve never heard of and roll my eyes. And so often I’ve been wrong. If the film was reviewed for the Courier, the date will be in parenthesis as will my vote.

This year I watched every movie and TV submission that was available to be screened. I found some worthy and exceptional films that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In a nod to expediency, I will pass on Editing, the John Cassavetes Award, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Documentary and all 40 of the acting nominations. I keep wishing that Film Independent would find a better way to support gender inclusion other than lumping all actors together.

Best Feature 

“All of Us Strangers” (Dec. 15) is a dense, existential treatise on life and death and its intersection. With a cast of major British actors, Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell and Claire Foy, it’s definitely worth considering.

“American Fiction” (Dec. 22), nominated for multiple Oscars, was a truly wonderful character study that dared to delve humorously into family drama and racial stereotypes. (My vote) (VOD)

“May December” is the challenging story of a woman and her husband 20 years after they had an affair when she was his teacher, and he was a middle schooler. A movie is about to be made about the scandal, sending a major Hollywood star to their doorstep doing research for her role as the teacher. The cast includes Julianne Moore, remarkable newcomer Charles Melton and Natalie Portman, who brings a subtle malevolence to her role as the intruder. (Netflix)

“Passages” follows the breakup of a marriage when Tomas (Franz Rogowski) betrays his husband (Ben Whishaw) as he begins a passionate but ill-thought-out affair with a woman. I was unmoved by the actions and characters in this unconvincing threesome. (Mubi)

“Past Lives,” nominated for several Oscars, is a moving character study of a woman who left Korea as a child but held onto the memory of one special friend to whom she is still inexorably drawn. Bittersweet, this film is a lovely dissection of what it takes to become an adult, and how sometimes that path is interrupted in unanticipated ways. (Showtime)

“We Grown Now” is a lovely and sometimes harrowing story about two best friends as they navigate childhood, dangers and small joys under the cloud of the notorious Cabrini Green housing project in 1992 Chicago.

Best First Feature

Like last year’s entries, this is a category of surprisingly sophisticated films. For me, it was hard to choose just one.

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” put me to sleep (seriously). Theoretically (remember, I fell asleep) this is the story of a woman’s life in rural Mississippi as told through cinematographic memories, all beautifully filmed and all impossible to follow chronologically. (VOD)

“Chronicles of a Wandering Saint” is the amusing tale of Rita who wants to gain sainthood at any price. In conversation with the spirits, she learns what she must do to ascend to the heavens. One false move, however, will keep her locked to this world forever in a form not of her choosing.

“Earth Mama” is a bleak look at what one single, pregnant mother must face while navigating what the state social service system demands of her. (Showtime)

“A Thousand and One” tells the story of one woman’s devotion to her child against a foster service system that would tear them apart (I’m sensing a theme here). Inez disappears into the wind with her son Terry, trying hard to provide the best for her gifted son. I guarantee you won’t guess the twist at the end. (Amazon Prime)

“Upon Entry” is the whole package. A young married couple has arrived in Miami from Spain, visas in hand. They are about to embark on a whole new life, one with endless promise. The only thing standing in their way is the customs and immigration officer who has pulled them aside for questioning that is grueling, tense and psychologically frightening. (My vote) (VOD)

Best Director 

Celine Song, who won the DGA Award for first time feature film, is nominated for “Past Lives” (my vote). Also nominated are Ira Sachs for “Passages;” Todd Haynes, “May December;” Andrew Haigh for “All of Us Strangers” and William Oldroyd for the very fine thriller, “Eileen.”

Best International Film

Not restricted to films submitted by their respective countries, this is a more competitive and interesting category than its counterpart for the Oscars.

“Anatomy of a Fall” (Oct. 13) (my vote) from France is actually Oscar-nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year and “The Zone of Interest” (Dec. 8) is nominated for the International Film Oscar. “Godland,” a Danish film was unavailable to view; “Mami Wata,” a Nigerian movie with a supernatural aspect; and “Tótem,” Mexico’s submission about a family tragedy seen through the eyes of a child.

The Best Screenplay and Best First Screenplay nominations were full of worthy contenders. Those that were also Oscar-nominated were “The Holdovers”  by David Hemingson; “American Fiction” by Cord Jefferson (my vote); and “Past Lives” by Celine Song. Also nominated for Best Screenplay were “Birth/Rebirth” by Laura Moss and Brendan J. O’Brien and “Bottoms” by Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott. For Best First Screenplay, the Oscar-nominated “May December” by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik; “Theater Camp” by Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman and Ben Platt (July 21); Tomás Gómez Bustillo for “Chronicles of a Wandering Saint;” Laurel Parmet for “The Starling Girl;” and Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez for “Upon Entry” (my vote).


For the reasons mentioned above, I will not cover the performing categories.

Best New Non-Scripted or Documentary Series

“Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court” is a lesson in the history of the United States illustrating how the more things change, the more they remain the same (my vote). (Showtime)

“Dear Mama,” the story of Tupac Shakur, a complex and inspirational young man who made a lasting impact and was gone too soon. (Hulu)

“Murder in Big Horn” is the story of Native American girls who go missing and are ignored by the criminal justice system. Not as urgent as it should be. (Showtime)

“Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence” is the fascinating story of a paunchy middle-aged man of no distinction who infiltrated his daughter’s dorm and recruited her roommates as his acolytes, spreading fear and loathing wherever he went. (Hulu)

“Wrestlers” is about a mid-level professional wrestling organization undergoing a change in ownership, as the stars, male and female, continue to try to make their marks and get to the next level. (Netflix)

Best New Scripted Series

“Beef,” the Emmy-lauded series, starts with a road rage incident and morphs into so much more. (my vote). (Netflix)

“Dreaming Whilst Black.” Clever, dry, substantive, it follows the adventures of a young Black would-be filmmaker who faces microaggressions every day from well-meaning bosses uninterested in hearing what he has to say. (Showtime)

“I’m a Virgo” is the fantasy tale of a 13-foot-tall boy who leaves the smothering of his concerned parents to experience life with kids his own age. Not my demographic. (Amazon Prime)

“Jury Duty,” already the winner of Best Ensemble, is about a fake legal case and its fake jury panel where everyone but one member is in on the joke, with actor James Marsden, in on the ruse, playing himself. One note, but it’s a funny one. (Amazon Freevee)

“Slip.” I must confess that I have no idea what this is about. Apparently, it’s on the Roku Channel and involves the fantasies of a bored wife. (I guess it wouldn’t be a show if she wasn’t bored.)

I can’t wait to see who wins. I wish I could say I was always in the vanguard but my record thus far is pretty poor. 

Neely Swanson spent most of her professional career in the television industry, almost all of it working for David E. Kelley. In her last full-time position as Executive Vice President of Development, she reviewed writer submissions and targeted content for adaptation. As she has often said, she did book reports for a living. For several years she was a freelance writer for “Written By,” the magazine of the WGA West, and was adjunct faculty at USC in the writing division of the School of Cinematic Arts. Neely has been writing film and television reviews for the “Easy Reader” for more than 10 years. Her past reviews can be read on Rotten Tomatoes where she is a tomato-approved critic.

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