After several years of honoring more mainstream fare, Film Independent's Spirit Awards returned to their indie roots for many of the nominations announced Tuesday in Los Angeles.
While one of the best feature nominees -- "Little Miss Sunshine" -- was a breakout hit and likely Oscar contender, the others -- "American Gun," "The Dead Girl," "Half Nelson" and "Pan's Labyrinth" -- had limited distribution or haven't been released.
The nominations for the 22nd annual Spirit Awards officially kicked off the 2006 movie awards season. But though the nominations are announced early, the awards aren't given out until Feb. 24, the day before the Oscars, at a ceremony that has become one of the season's premier events.
"Little Miss Sunshine," a comedy about beauty pageants for little girls, and "Half Nelson," a drama about the relationship between an inner-city teacher and a student, scored the most nominations with five each; "American Gun," "The Dead Girl," "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" and "Man Push Cart" followed with three each.
Over the last few years, Spirit Award winners have included such Oscar winners as "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," "Sideways" and "Monster."
Dawn Hudson, executive director of Film Independent, which gives out the awards, noted that more of last year's nominees were in wider theatrical release at the time of the nominations. She said she found the 2006 contenders exciting because they "cover the spectrum from the more widely distributed and popular independent films like 'Little Miss Sunshine' down to films that haven't received distribution."
She also lauded the explosion of new filmmaking talent in this year's nominees. "We saw a lot of first-time filmmakers," Hudson said. "As more and more filmmakers have access to the tools of filmmaking, you see a lot more talent and diversity of talent. It's an incredibly exciting time for film. I think it is the strength of the Spirit Awards that many of the films have gone unnoticed by the mainstream press or are not in theaters for long -- a lot of these films deserve a wider audience."
Director nominees include the late Robert Altman for "A Prairie Home Companion"; Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for "Little Miss Sunshine"; Ryan Fleck for "Half Nelson"; Karen Moncrieff for "The Dead Girl"; and Steven Soderbergh for "Bubble."
Moncrieff hopes the nominations will bring more attention to her psychological drama, which opens theatrically at the end of December.
"I am proud of the movie and actually to me [the nominations] are a validation that you can make a movie that challenges viewers and is about something -- violence against women and the community that is created by a violent crime," she said Tuesday.
Nominees for actor are Aaron Eckhart for "Thank You for Smoking," Ryan Gosling for "Half Nelson," Edward Norton for "The Painted Veil," Ahmad Razvi for "Man Push Cart" and Forest Whitaker for "American Gun."
"I like the Spirit Awards," Norton said Tuesday. "It is a celebration of auteur cinema and also cinema that is being made by people willing to work within a very different set of parameters."
Norton said he was drawn to "Painted Veil" because "I guess I felt it was such a grown-up love story for want of a better way of putting it." In the period piece based on the novel by Somerset Maugham -- the film opens around Christmas -- Norton plays a British doctor in China whose wife (Naomi Watts) has an affair.
Vying for female lead are Shareeka Epps for "Half Nelson," Catherine O'Hara for "For Your Consideration," Elizabeth Reaser for "Sweet Land," Michelle Williams for "Land of Plenty" and Robin Wright Penn for "Sorry, Haters."
"I play a woman named Marilyn Hack who is an independent film actress," said O'Hara of her role in the Christopher Guest comedy. "She's so yearning for recognition. So it's sad to admit, but my first thought was, 'Yay. I'm not Marilyn Hack.' "
Comic Sarah Silverman is returning as host for the star-studded awards ceremony, which takes place in a mammoth tent on the beach in Santa Monica. The ceremony will air live Feb. 24 on the Independent Film Channel at 2 p.m. and a re-edited version will air later that night at 10 p.m. on AMC.