With the Independent Spirit Award nominations announcement comes the first significant marker for awards season, as pundits and prognosticators read the tea leaves for signs of relative health (or ailment) in each film’s march towards the Oscars.
Given the Independent Spirit awards are not handed out until the day before the Oscars, they get in there early and, with US independent films always a substantial part of the Academy Awards’ own nomination make-up, they are significant and frequently predictive.
At the 2014 Indie Spirits, 12 Years A Slave, Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong’o and Jared Leto all won before repeating the trick at the Oscars, while earlier this year Birdman, Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette and JK Simmons were the big matches (Ida also took best foreign-language film at both).
Thus the big victors this week, as selected by the Spirit nominating committee, were Todd Haynes’s Carol (six nods in total), Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts Of No Nation and Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (five each). All three films landed nominations for best picture and best director. Spotlight and Carol also bagged screenplay noms.
In an intriguing development, so far as the rest of awards season is concerned, the Indie Spirits ignored the Weinstein Company’s declared intention to promote Rooney Mara’s delicate performance in Carol in the supporting category to leave the main space for co-star Cate Blanchett’s titular turn.
I’m not a fan of this sort of category ‘cheat’ (fraud is a too strong a word, although that’s what some pundits call it) and, having seen the film for a second time this week (and marvelled at how beautifully crafted and lensed it is), it’s clear that Mara and Blanchett have nearly identical screen time - and in fact it may tip slightly in Mara’s favour.
Both performances deserve to be recognised for what they are - leading actress turns - and I hope other critics groups follow the Spirits’ lead.
Brie Larson joined Blanchett and Mara in the same category for her performance in Room, although Lenny Abrahamson’s film - which had been tipped early on as a best picture contender - suffered a setback in failing to land a picture or director nomination.
Idris Elba, Paul Dano and Michael Shannon all received timely fillips to their supporting actor hopes with their nominations for Beasts Of No Nation, Love & Mercy and 99 Homes, respectively.
This category is already crowded with legitimate contenders, so much so that the Spirits didn’t nominate any of the individual actors in Spotlight - Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci - instead rewarding them with a best ensemble nod.
Mustang, Embrace Of The Serpent and A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence all had their Oscar foreign-language hopes boosted with nominations for best international film.
But the most exciting fuel injection was delivered to Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion animation Anomalisa, which landed best picture, best director (for Kaufman and Duke Johnson) and best screenplay nominations.
When Paramount acquired the film at Toronto (Curzon Artificial Eye are releasing in the UK), they always had their eye on more than animation prizes, and the Spirit nominations will have put them in a champagne mood.
You can read our feature on Kaufman and Johnson’s intensely creative vision here, as part of Screen’s animation contenders issue.
I’m always surprised that more animated films don’t get recognised with Oscar best picture nods - the best of them are among the greatest films in any year - but Anomalisa and even Pixar’s Inside Out certainly have outside shots landing nominations this year.
Matt Mueller is editor of Screen International