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2018 Spirit Awards

Photo: Armie Hammer (left) and Timothee Chalamet (right) star in ‘Call Me By Your Name’, which has six Spirit nominations

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

For the last nine years, I have attended the Toronto International Film Festival, intent on using it as an opportunity to get ahead of the award season buzz. I want to be in a position to jumpstart the critical conversation about the films that regional audiences will invest time and money into between the end of October through mid-to-late February. It has been an honor and a privilege to share my early reactions about films like “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and “Moonlight” with readers in September, sometimes literally a few hours after walking out of press and industry screenings.

We have dubbed this time of the year “awards season,” since critics’ groups, filmmaking guild branches, and the collective artistic community bestows honors on its many practitioners. Yet, so often, one elephant in the room, the Academy Awards, seem to suck up all of the oxygen in the awards discussion, which makes a certain degree of sense, because the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences is THE grand prize, the accolade critics pin next to a winner’s name like a Presidential Medal of Honor. But I wonder, with the recent unveiling of the 2018 Spirit Award nominations, why we don’t embrace the recognition of independent film, in its own right, rather than co-opting it as just another barometer for the Oscars?

One of the primary eligibility requirements for the Spirit Awards is the budgetary limitation that states qualifying production costs cannot exceed $20 million. While, in the past, that has prevented films like last year’s presumptive favorite “La La Land” from adding to their seasonal haul, the Spirits have been able to provide much needed fuel to extend the campaign drives of several little engines in the race. And it helps, from a symbolic standpoint, that the Spirit Awards presentation takes place the day before the Academy Awards, each year, on the Santa Monica beach; a decidedly more low-key event than the stuffy and quite glamorous Oscar telecast. At each step of the way, there seems to be a teasing bit of prognostication going on, a delicious sense of foreshadowing.

The Spirits have been able to provide much needed fuel to extend the campaign drives of several little engines in the race

And so, all of the buzz (there’s that word again) of the announcement zeroed in on the six nominations for “Call Me By Your Name” (Luca Guadagnino’s film leads the pack) followed by five for the black social horror of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” and the frenzied escapade of “Good Time.” Not far behind, indie darling Greta Gerwig notched four nominations for her coming-of-age dramedy “Lady Bird.”

I caught “Call Me By Your Name” and “Lady Bird” at TIFF; each film bore the burden of heavily favored status, although Gerwig’s film eased its way into awards season conversations more and more as critics searched for that elusive front runner that, this year, didn’t seize the spotlight. “Lady Bird” feels like the little engine that could, the not-so hidden indie gem—not unlike the recent Best Picture winners “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” “Birdman,” and “12 Years a Slave” that emerged from the ranks of the Spirit Awards’ winner’s circle—plus, it has the added social and political cache of rising female writer-director in Gerwig, who would provide a strong and necessary counter-narrative to the weekly deluge of sexual harassment reports.

But where the buzz fails, it seems to do so in quite a critically spectacular fashion. This year, the Robert Altman Award, which celebrates one film’s director, casting director, and ensemble cast, is a singular distinction, falling upon “Mudbound” (Dee Rees’s stellar adaptation of the Hilary Jordan novel about Southern race relations in the 1940s). The decision, one of profoundly good intentions, shuts key performers—in particular, worthy supporting efforts from Mary J. Blige and Jason Mitchell—from consideration in the individual acting categories. The film already faces a huge uphill challenge as a Netflix release, which limited its critical impact thanks to its unspooling in only a handful of theaters around the country at the same time it dropped on the streaming service.

The creation of social and cultural buzz requires having the chance to linger in our consciousness, like the proverbial “haunting refrain.” For a film, especially a period indie drama tackling the thorny issues of race relations in these trying times, to get to the head and heart of audiences and gatekeepers, under the best of circumstances, demands a calculated and targeted theatrical rollout by a public relations genius. And even then, there is no guarantee.

Look no further than this year’s outsider class—Fox Searchlight’s “Battle of the Sexes” and “The Shape of Water” (a pair of TIFF darlings), “Wind River” from Cannes Un Certain Regard Best Director winner Taylor Sheridan, which featured a slow-burn of a performance from Jeremy Renner, and “The Beguiled” from Sofia Coppola (another best director winner at Cannes)—who find themselves hoping for that one-in-a-million lightning strike to charge and change their fates.

The Spirit Awards nominations arrival—just days before Thanksgiving—definitely set the table for a season of giving, and the real winners are the curious cinephiles who will use the nominations as a guide for the greatest gifts of all, the wondrous treats on the big screens.