Tuesday, November 28, 2006

AWARDS—The 2007 Independent Spirit Nominations

Allison Willmore at IFC News has announced this year's nominees for the Independent Spirit Awards (via Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily) and—since this is the year I have seen more independent features than ever before—I'd like to riff a bit, offer my comments and forecasts, and solicit your own.

Best Feature:

American Gun
The Dead Girl
Half Nelson
Little Miss Sunshine
Pan's Labyrinth

Of these five features, I've only seen the last three but have had the welcome opportunity to interview co-creators Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck for Half Nelson and directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton for Little Miss Sunshine. I reviewed Pan's Labyrinth at the Toronto International Film Festival and look forward to interviewing Guillermo del Toro early next month. Without having seen American Gun or The Dead Girl, I am already deeply conflicted between the three I have seen. They are all outstanding on their own merit. I'm surprised to see Pan's Labyrinth among the nominations, which is undoubtedly due to some misguided equation I have in my mind that independent means small. Pan's Labyrinth doesn't strike me as a "small" movie at all. It seems, in fact, to be in a whole separate category than its competitors and, for my money, is not only the best movie I have seen this year but the best feature among this quintet. That being said, however, and catering to my notions of what I perceive an independent to be, Half Nelson has my vote as being the singularly most effective piece of independent filmmaking this year.

Best Director:

Robert Altman, A Prairie Home Companion
Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine
Ryan Fleck, Half Nelson
Karen Moncrieff, The Dead Girl
Steven Soderbergh, Bubble

I feel sorry for the living directors in this category who might just possibly forfeit their win to an elegiac tribute. I'm hoping that will not be the case because, first of all, as great as he was Robert Altman's Prairie Home Companion was not his best film. Ryan Fleck truly deserves this honor this year. I'd rather see the award encourage some young talent rather than extol the virtues of the deceased.

Best First Feature:

Day Night Day Night
Man Push Cart
The Motel
Sweet Land
Wristcutters: A Love Story

I've only seen two in this category: Man Push Cart—which I just saw this afternoon at a press screening and hope to write up in the near future—and Wristcutters: A Love Story—which I caught at the Mill Valley Film Festival and which, though admittedly entertaining in a limited kind of way, left me keenly aware of its limitations, and even more of its strained contrivances. Without the benefit of having seen the other three, I would have to lobby for Man Push Cart, which I likewise found problematic for being dissatisfyingly irresolute, but, without question a much stronger film than Wristcutters.

Best Documentary:

A Lion in the House
My Country, My Country
The Road to Guantanamo
The Trials of Darryl Hunt
You're Gonna Miss Me

Having only seen The Road to Guantanamo, I nonetheless suspect it has a good chance of walking away with the Independent Spirit because of the timeliness of its topic in the wake of anti-Bush sentiment. Has anyone seen the others?

Best Foreign Film:

12:08 East of Bucharest
The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros
Chronicle of an Escape
Days of Glory
The Lives of Others

Here's another tight category. I didn't see 12:08 East of Bucharest but it seemed like every other member of my online blogging fraternity did at the Toronto International and I did not hear a single rave review so I've moreoreless even lost enthusiasm for seeing this until it's basically dropped in my lap somehow. Neither have I caught The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros the two times I've had opportunity to see it; first, because it seemed to be opposed each time to something I wanted to see much more and, second, because its theme—even though I'm queer—just didn't pique my interest. I've heard some people who really liked it and others who didn't. I saw Days of Glory at the Mill Valley Film Festival and thought it was highly overrated. I think the Cannes award for best male acting ensemble was something of a PR stunt to offset the more appropriate award of best female acting ensemble for Almodóvar's Volver. As a whole, the film lacked a necessary tension for me to maintain interest in an obvious narrative. I will be seeing The Lives of Others next week and haven't seen Chronicle of an Escape, but, my gut instinct is that these are the two true contenders here and I don't know how I can say Chronicle of an Escape is likely to win but, for some reason, that's what I'm picking up from the vapors.

Best Female Lead:

Shareeka Epps, Half Nelson
Catherine O'Hara, For Your Consideration
Elizabeth Reaser, Sweet Land
Michelle Williams, Land of Plenty
Robin Wright Penn, Sorry, Haters

I've only seen Shareeka's performance among these nominees, but, I don't care. I want her to win. I thought she was radiant and, again, I would love to see her talent encouraged and promoted.

Best Male Lead:

Aaron Eckhart, Thank You For Smoking
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
Edward Norton, The Painted Veil
Ahmad Razvi, Man Push Cart
Forest Whitaker, American Gun

When I interviewed Boden and Fleck after seeing Half Nelson at the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival, I commended them then and there for providing Ryan Gosling such a good turn and likewise predicted he would be nominated for this year's Independent Spirit Award. You heard it here first and now listen up, kids: he's going to win! I haven't seen Eckhart's performance and can't seem to care and, though I'm looking forward to interviewing Edward Norton for Greencine next week, and consider his performance in Painted Veil a fine one (as I wrote in my earlier review), The Painted Veil just seems too big a movie for this category. I can't give it credence in this context. As I mentioned earlier, I just caught Razvi's performance in Man Push Cart this afternoon and certainly feel it's a more appropriate nomination in this context but he doesn't have a chance against Gosling. As for Forest? I haven't even heard of this movie and wonder if he isn't being respectfully acknowledged by the Independent Spirit community when we know full well he's likely to win the Oscar for his performance in The Last King of Scotland? Just a hunch.

Best Supporting Female:

Melonie Diaz, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
Marcia Gay Harden, American Gun
Mary Beth Hurt, The Dead Girl
Frances McDormand, Friends With Money
Amber Tamblyn, Stephanie Daley

Of this quintet, I've only seen Melonie Diaz's performance and, respectful of how the talent of her competitors has already been securely established, I can't just call this one until I've seen at least a few more of the other performances. I liked Melonie in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, don't get me wrong, but I just don't have anything with which to compare and gauge her performance.

Best Supporting Male:

Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Raymond J. Barry, Steel City
Daniel Craig, Infamous
Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine
Channing Tatum, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

I haven't seen Steel City so I can't say a word about Raymond J. Barry. I haven't seen Infamous either though I hear Daniel Craig was charismatic as Perry; but, because he's the latest Bond with a secure toehold in the franchise, I'm prone to pass. I have seen both Arkin and Dano in Little Miss Sunshine and Arkin's performance is the undisputed better of the two and a strong contender in this category. But, I have to admit that Channing Tatum's breakout in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints was so virile and riveting that he has my vote hands down. I should have predicted he'd be nominated for a Best Supporting Independent Spirit Award when I interviewed Dito Montiel but I guess the cat got my tongue.

Best Screenplay:

Neil Burger, The Illusionist
Nicole Holofcener, Friends with Money
Ron Nyswaner, The Painted Veil
Jason Reitman, Thank You For Smoking
Jeff Stanzler, Sorry, Haters

Hmmmm. The only two I've seen feature the same actor in the lead role. That's kind of odd. Of the two, I think The Painted Veil was more masterful in execution. From such a limited perspective, that would be my druther.

Best First Screenplay:

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Half Nelson
Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine
Goran Dukic, Wristcutters: A Love Story
Dito Montiel, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
Gabrielle Zevin, Conversations with Other Women

Oh man, this is a rough category. With all due respect to Zevin, because I haven't seen Conversations with Other Women, and pitching out Wristcutters (again for its strained contrivances guised as plot points), I'm left with three very good scripts, all of which I admired. I think Half Nelson has the best chance, followed by A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (though I would have preferred to see that in some kind of adaptation category), but I'd like to divvy up the glory a little bit and hand it to Little Miss Sunshine.

Best Cinematography:

Arin Crumley, Four Eyed Monsters
Anthony Dod Mantle, Brothers of the Head
Guillermo Navarro, Pan's Labyrinth
Aaron Platt, Wild Tigers I Have Known
Michael Simmonds, Man Push Cart

I haven't seen Crumley's cinematography or Platt's, but, of those remaining Navarro is stunningly beautiful; but, again, I'm having a little trouble accepting Pan's Labyrinth as an independent (what is my problem?). But accepting things the way they are, Pan's Labyrinth should win this one.

Someone to Watch Award:

So Yong Kim, In Between Days
Julia Loktev, Day Night Day Night
Richard Wong, Colma: The Musical

In Between Days won my heart when I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival and now, more than ever, I should follow through on So Yong Kim's willingness to let me interview her. I'm hoping In Between Days will be secured for this year's Asian-American International Film Festival. Among these three, she's certainly the one I have my eye on.

John Cassavetes Award:

Four Eyed Monsters
Old Joy
Twelve and Holding

I have to admit to being a little stunned that this is the only category in which Quinceañera is nominated. Out of sheer loyalty and love for the project, I want it to win. I sure enjoyed speaking with directors Glatzer and Westmoreland and their talent Emily Rios and Jesse Garcia earlier this year.

Truer Than Fiction Award:

AJ Schnack, Kurt Cobain: About a Son
Adele Horne, The Tailenders
Eric Daniel Metzgar, The Chances of the World Changing

No thoughts, cares or concerns whatsoever.

Producers Award:

Julie Lynn, Nine Lives, 10 Items or Less
Alex Orlovsky and Jamie Patricof, Half Nelson, Point&Shoot
Howard Gertler and Tim Perell, Shortbus, Pizza

What can I say? Half Nelson has me in a half nelson.

So there you have it. But to paraphrase Bette Midler: enough of what I think. What do you think about what I think?


Paul Martin said...

I just saw Pan's Labrynth at a media screening today, and I understand your apprehension about this film's categorisation. It does have the hallmarks of a large production.

I have some reservations about the film, but found it very enjoyable. I'll get a review on my blog in the next few days (it's not released here until 18 Jan 2007).

Anonymous said...

Oh you MUST see The Motel! To me, it epitomizes what independent film is all about.

Funny about The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveras. I've missed that a couple of times too. My-cousin-who-never-sees-movies has somehow seen it, which is so embarrassing. Can't wait for DVD, or something.

Yay, Richard Wong!


Anonymous said...

Before anything else, I second Steve's recommendation for The Motel!

Now, about the nominations:

I enjoyed Half Nelson, which seems to be nominated for a bunch of awards. I'm glad its getting recognition. I also enjoyed reading your piece about it.

I haven't seen Pan's Labyrinth, which looks to be a main contender, as well, but I'm looking forward, if it opens here. If not, I'm sure the Internet will help me out. I've done a bit of reading on Franco and Spain, so I'm interested to see how Guillermo del Toro's worked with the history and politics.

I also managed to catch a screening of American Gun, but didn't like it one damn bit. It must be Crash's independent doppelganger.

Of the documentary an foreign nominees, I've only watched The Road to Guantanamo. Like you, I think it's timely, and not a bad film; but I'd argue about its inclusion as a documentary.

Two others I remember seeing, but don't remember much about, are Friends with Money and Man Push Cart. I don't remember liking them more than I don't remember dislking them.

I'm also kind of surprised to not see Down in the Valley up for anything (unless it was eligible last year, and not this one). Rather, it's another Edward Norton Class 5 Films production, The Painted Veil that's been singled out. I can only speculate about The Painted Veil, but, based on that speculation, I'd conclude that I'd rather see, and reward, a film like Down in the Valley, ambition, faults and all.

Anonymous said...

Surprisingly, this has also been a good year for me and independent film. Here are a few of my thougts:

In general, American Gun is a film to see. It's not a fantastic movie but it does have some excellent moments and a few good performances. I have to admit that Whitaker's nomination seems a bit off kilter since his isn't one of the strong ones I remember. I recently reviewed it here:

Best Feature: I'm with you on this one. I haven't seen Pan's Labyrinth but I have to agree that it seems a bit 'big' for independent film. Half Nelson is a great selection.

Best Director: Concur. Altman has this one in the bag. Too bad because there are a couple of good nominations here.

Best Foreign Film: I've only seen 12:08 East of Bucharest and The Lives of Others and both are very good but The Lives of Others is by FAR my favourite of the two. It's well on my list of top 10 of the year. Really, a brilliant film.

Best Female: dito.

Best Male: Gosling for sure. He was awesome. It's an amazing role for him. This is the film that's going to put him on the map as a 'serious' actor.

Best Screenplay: I loved The Illusionist. Seriously, I'm biased here. If it's on the list, I'm likely to choose it simply because I loved it so much. Yes, it has some problems but for some reason, it really got to me.

And I can't say anything about the rest! Excellent discussion topic!

Anonymous said...

Ivana Baquero was snubbed!!!! Best Performance of 2006!

How the frick did Little Miss Sunshine get nominated for Direction? Eww.

At least the 3rd worst film of the year, United 93 didn't get in there

Michael Guillen said...

Thank you all so much for the feedback!! I love it. Keep 'em comin', y'all!

Brian Darr said...

Michael, with the quote "Robert Altman's Prairie Home Companion was not his best film" you just pushed one of my buttons! Are you saying that a filmmaker like Altman should only be rewarded with honors when the work lives up to his own topmost potential; that he's not so much competing against other directors as he is competing against his former self?

Or are you saying that, comparing the direction of the films head-to-head (admittedly a somewhat ludicrous exercise, but arguably it's what these awards are supposed to be about) you find that Fleck did a better job with his material than Altman did with his?

Obviously winning an award like this does more good to a living person than to a dead one. But if advancing careers is what awards like these are for, the organizers should disqualify the deceased from competing. Since they didn't do that, the suggestion seems to be that judgments ought to be made based on the quality of the work at hand. I hope that all voters take that to heart when making their selections. In other words, if they think a Prairie Home Companion is genuinely the best-directed film, they vote for it. And if not, they don't.

Personally I think Fleck and Altman both did terrific jobs, though Fleck was lucky to have a superior screenplay to begin with (and since he was a co-writer, it's an instance of "making one's own luck"). For my part, I'd lean towards picking Altman at this point, but if I were actually a voter I wouldn't do it without rewatching Half Nelson first.

As for your comments on the John Cassavetes Award. If it weren't for the appearance of Four Eyed Monsters in the Cinematography category (a film that, according to Anthony Kaufman claims doesn't have a cinematographer!) this category would officially be a ghetto for inexpensive films. As if to say: if you don't spend $500,000, you're not allowed to eat at anything other than the kids' table. For me, the affronted party is Old Joy, which I thought deserved nominations in at least a few other categories. Sorry to say, I somehow let Quinceañera slip through my fingers this year.

Michael Guillen said...

Brian, not that pushing your buttons should make me chuckle, but it did. Your second supposition is more accurate. I'm "comparing the direction of the films head-to-head [and] find that Fleck did a better job with his material than Altman did with his." And I would regret that Fleck didn't gain due recognition because of the sway of sentiment (which, believe me, I understand; I loved Altman's work too). But mileage varies, of course.

I have "Old Joy" in queue to watch, but, seem thin on time lately.

Brian Darr said...

Thanks for clarifying, Michael. I do think you're right to warn against voting by "sentiment", but I also want to recognize that it's possible to be sentimental about the living too. In other words, I hope Altman's death doesn't change anyone's votes one way or the other (though I allow it may spur some awards voters to watch or rewatch a Prairie Home Companion).

As someone who has considered the film among my favorites of the year for months now, I'm a bit sensitive to the implication that any success it has this awards season will be due to sentiment and not merit. Though I probably need to get over that, as I bet I'll be hearing it a lot. I know there are many who didn't like this one nearly as much as I did.

Michael Guillen said...

Did you review PRAIRIE HOME, Brian? I don't recall off the top of my head if you did and would welcome the chance to review your comments if you did.

Brian Darr said...

I wrote a meager paragraph on it back in June (here) but I could, and probably should, argue my case for the film in greater detail than that. To put it quickly for now, I found the rhythms of the gently gliding camera movements and the cadences of the actors' exchanges of dialogue (not necessarily what they said but how they said it) with music to be simlutanaeously delicately intricate and soothingly simple. Something like a piece of Bach music. I know some consider the film slight, but I guess I also appreciated that it didn't try to say a whole lot, but rather showed a little slice of life in the face of death (and death in the face of life).