The Film Independent Spirit Awards solidified the candidacy of one Oscar contender and boosted the hopes of another when the group announced its nominees on Tuesday.
“Precious,” the harrowing inner-city tale that's already earned $32 million at the box office, and “The Last Station,” a drama about Leo Tolstoy that arrives in theaters Friday, earned five nominations each.
The nominations for "Last Station," which stars Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, means one more possible contender for the best picture Oscar in a year already overspilling with hopefuls.
The movie was nominated for best film, best director and screenplay for Michael Hoffman, best female lead for Mirren and supporting actor for Plummer.
The story of how art, materialism and ideology collide in Tolstoy's final year of life had been on the radar of few awards observers before Sony Pictures Classics acquired it in October. While the film's milieu -- a writer and his family in pre-revolution Russia -- runs counter to many of the contemporary dramas likely to fill awards slots, the distributor said the film's appeal went beyond that of the typical period picture. "This movie is intellectual but it's entertaining. It deals with more than costumes and queens," said Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Tom Bernard.
While "Precious" was snubbed by the Spirits' East Coast counterpart, the Gotham Awards, that movie had already been high on the list of Oscar handicappers. The Spirits' nominations -- they include best film, best director for , best first screenplay for Geoffrey Fletcher, best female lead for Gabourey Sidibe and supporting actress for Mo'Nique -- will continue the forward momentum.
"Both ["Precious" and "Last Station"] are testament that whether movies have heightened expectations or none whatsoever, they can get attention from the Spirit Awards," said Film Independent executive director Dawn Hudson.
Two films dealing with immigration -- "Amreeka" and "Sin Nombre" -- were nominated for best film. Breakup dramedy "(500) Days of Summer" rounded out the category.
Notably absent from the Spirits was Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker." The film was ineligible because it was submitted by distributor Summit last year, when the company was still contemplating a 2008 awards run. It received two '08 nominations for acting.
Some Spirits voters expressed regret at not being able to include the film in this year's ceremony. "What do they say about hindsight?" said producer Stephanie Allain, who chairs the committee overseeing many of the categories. "There's no way to look back and say what would have happened. I'm just happy we were the first [group] to say the movie is good."
In addition to Daniels and Hoffman, the Spirits nominated for best director Ethan and Joel Coen for "A Serious Man," Cary Fukunaga for "Sin Nombre" and James Gray for "Two Lovers."
The Spirits also made the rare move of recognizing a genre movie, nominating horror sensation "Paranormal Activity" for best first feature. Joining it was "A Single Man," "Crazy Heart," "Easier With Practice" and "The Messenger." (For a complete list of nominees, go to www.filmindependent.org.)
Although the Spirits and Oscars often diverge -- only films made for $20 million or less qualify for the Spirits -- the indie awards can be a bellwether of the big show. Its best film winner has been nominated for the best picture Oscar five of the last six years, and Spirit winners such as Penélope Cruz ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") and Diablo Cody ("Juno") have won Oscars.
The laid-back award ceremony usually takes place the Saturday afternoon before the Academy Awards in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica. But this year, the ceremony is moving to Friday evening, March 5, in a tent on the event deck at L.A. Live downtown. Hudson, however, said attendees shouldn't be concerned by the change in time and venue. "Just keep picturing that we're having an all-night party downtown," she said.