The first measuring stick in a marathon leading to the Oscars — the Spirit Awards for independent films — announced its nominations Tuesday. Don't be surprised if several nominees do double duty on Hollywood's splashiest weekend, with the Spirits handed out Feb. 26 and the Oscars a night later.
Debra Granik's Ozark Mountain daredevil act Winter's Bone led with seven nominations: best feature, director, screenplay, female lead (Jennifer Lawrence), supporting actors John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, and cinematography. Winter's Bone winning the Gotham Award for best feature Monday night adds momentum to that scrappy gem.
Runner-up with five Spirit nominations is Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, a dramedy about same-sex parents (Julianne Moore and nominee Annette Bening) and the sperm donor (nominee Mark Ruffalo) returning to their lives. Cholodenko's direction and co-written screenplay were also nominated.
The Kids Are All Right joins Winter's Bone, 127 Hours, Black Swan and Greenberg in the best feature category, with all but Ben Stiller's latter, mumblecore comedy generally pegged as major Oscar contenders. It's years like this that prompted the academy to expand its best picture finalists to 10.
(Only films costing under than $20 million to produce are eligible for Spirits; a drop in the bucket compared to many studios' works.)
The acting categories are a different story, with both the Spirits and Oscars featuring five finalists — although in a break from tradition the Spirits nominated six lead female performances this year. Bening, Lawrence, Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole) and Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) are getting the buzz that award campaigns are built upon. Bening's bypassed co-star Julianne Moore is further proof of the category's depth.
The lead actor Spirit list leaves the academy some wiggle room. James Franco probably sewed up an already deserved nomination for 127 Hours by agreeing to co-host the Academy Awards show. Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole) is the only other finalist with any degree of Oscar buzz. But the Spirits often draw attention to smaller films, letting Oscar voters feel like they discovered something.
Those voters will do more digging than usual in the supporting actor categories, with only four Spirit choices (Dickey, Hawkes, Ruffalo and, to a lesser extent, Bill Murray in Get Low) starring in movies that got anything more than cursory limited releases. Familiar names and faces — Samuel L. Jackson and Naomi Watts in Mother and Child, and Allison Janney (Life Before Wartime) will make plugging in a DVD easier.
One caveat in using the Spirits as an Oscar barometer, concerning the awards' emphasis on American filmmaking: That leaves only the foreign film category to a frontrunner like The King's Speech, and nothing for its brilliant cast. (Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are Oscar favorites at the moment.)
With the exclusion of The King's Speech and other laudable imports, the Spirits remind us that it's a long way to the Kodak Theatre stage. This is but a first step.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.