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Why It Pays to Be Independent of the Academy

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going to an Oscar party in a few weeks.  I’d also be lying if I said that I haven’t been trying to watch as many Best Picture nominees as I can before the big day.  But, well, here’s the thing.  Like any other film lover, yes, I will be watching the Oscars.  But here’s a little secret, there’s award show that I love even more than the Academy Awards — the Independent Spirit Awards.

I first watched the Independent Spirits in 1999, a year I became enamored with a film called High Art.  The film starred former Brat Pack phenom, Ally Sheedy, in a gorgeous and moving role, where Sheedy, possibly for the first time in her career, fully demonstrated her raw talent.  Many people believed that Sheedy’s performance warranted an Academy Award nomination.  But 1998 had been a year packed with great female performances.  With only five slots set for Best Actress, the nominations went to Emily Watson in Hilary and Jackie, Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station, and Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth, Meryl Streep in One True Thing, and Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love.  The nominations were largely unsurprising with Fernanda Montenegro being the most inspired choice in the bunch. To no one’s surprise, Paltrow won the top prize.  Predictable Oscar business as usual.

However, nominating Sheedy, who plays a drug addicted gay photographer, would have shown that the Oscars were willing to think a bit more outside the box. However, Sheedy’s work didn’t go unnoticed because she won Best Actress at the Spirit Awards. In a touchingly long monologue where she proceeded to thank as many people as possible, Sheedy even said, “This may not happen again so I’m going to take my time.”  That’s what the Spirit Awards do – find the gems in the overstimulated film industry machine.

Take this year, for example.  Take Shelter, directed by Jeff Nichols, is the most daring film of last year, yet the film didn’t gain a single Oscar nomination.  Not even for Michael Shannon, who delivered a masterful and understated performance as a man that fears the apocalypse is coming.  While the Oscars ignored Take Shelter, the Spirit Awards deservedly nominated the film for Best Feature, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.

The Spirit Awards also gave due recognition to Drive, a slick and intelligent movie about a stunt driver that goes to extremes to help the woman and child he loves.  The best thing about the film is Albert Brooks, who gave the performance of his career as the movie’s cool and calculating villain.  Many people thought Brooks was a lock for Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod.  Again, the Oscars ignored Brooks, but the Spirits duly nominated him for Best Supporting.  Drive also garnered deserved nods for Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Male Lead.

In the Best Actress Category, the Academy frequently likes to give recognition to one young ingenue.  However, instead of recognizing the work of Elizabeth Olsen for Mary Marcy May Marlene or Adepero Oduye in Pariah, they granted the nomination to Rooney Mara for the multimillion blockbuster, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Not that Mara wasn’t great in her own way, but she was the more predictable choice. Again, the Oscars ignored, but the Spirits duly nominated both Olsen and Oduye.

What’s also great about the Spirit Awards is that it makes a concerted effort to recognize the up and coming artists with awards like Best First Screenplay, Best First Feature, and the Someone to Watch Award.  They recognize that they can have so many nominees per category, but they still want to show new artists that their work has been recognized and rewarded.

While I’ll be watching the Oscars with everyone else come the big day, I’m still looking forward to the Independent Spirit Awards the most.  What can I say?  Sometimes, I just like to watch award shows that deliver a little of the unexpected.