The newly renamed Film Independent (formerly IFP/LA, recently split-off from the rest of IFP and decided to show its independence by creating the incredibly stupid acronym FIND -- Film INDependent) announced its nominations for the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards today, and while the qualification of movie for consideration as an "independent" film is always a bit dubious leaving many people questioning, "Why this and not that?" I must admit that at first glance I don't have too many quibbles. Granted, I have yet to see Brokeback Mountain or the feature film directing debut of Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (two of the five Best Feature nominees); I personally found Capote a bit of a bore (apart from Philip Seymour Hoffman's brilliant performance) and very sloppily directed, which is probably why Bennett Miller was not honored; but The Squid and the Whale and Good Night, and Good Luck, which round-out the category, are two of my favorites this year.
"Best First Feature" is also, usually, a pretty interesting field, and this year is no exception. With Crash and indie darling Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know leading the pack, I still need to see Thumbsucker and Lackawanna Blues, although the presence of both the 52 year-old Paul Haggis and the 51-year-old George C. Wolfe in the "Best First Feature" category seems a bit odd even if it's technically true. Then there's Tribeca Film Festival favorite Transamerica which I'm actually finally seeing in just a few hours. I wasn't such a huge proponent of neither Crash nor Me and You. I liked a lot about each film, but I also found much lacking. I don't want to root against them without having seen the other three, but I hope their respective notoriety don't make either of them a total shoe-in.
All of this is off-the-cuff, and I haven't had a chance to really think about what might be missing -- I'll have to come back to that -- but I can highlight a few nominations, other than Squid and Good Night (as well as the respective directing nods to Noah Baumbach and George Clooney) that make me especially excited. (As I have still not seen plenty of the nominees, these aren't any kind of actual selections; just nominations of which I wholeheartedly approve):
Matt Dillon in Crash (Best Supporting Male): One of the things I loved about Crash was how writer-director Haggis gave us a character who was nearly impossible to like yet utterly sympathetic at the same time in Sgt. Jack Ryan, and Dillon played the hell out of him. His racism wasn't subtle, yet Haggis wasn't afraid to try to explore the reasons for it. What Sgt. Ryan does Thandie Newton's character early in the film is inexcusable as is his general attitude to other races, especially African-Americans, but Dillon helped give us a multi-dimensional character who ultimately had a lot of good in him. The scene where he later rescues Newton's character from a burning car about to explode -- and she nearly won't let him out of terror -- is one of the most engrossing and powerful sequences I witnessed in a movie theater all year. Dillon remains one of film's most talented actors even as he's no longer a box office draw. Hopefully, filmmakers will continue to give him complex roles to sink his teeth into.
Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney and Jesse Eisenberg in The Squid and the Whale (Best Male Lead, Best Female Lead, Best Supporting Male, respectively): I really loved everything about Baumbach's film, but as good as both his writing and direction were, the film wouldn't have been half as effective had it not been for these three performances. Eisenberg probably has the most difficult job playing the character who comes closest to being the main focus of the entire film (even as he is described as "supporting" here), but Daniels and Linney do some of the best work of their respective careers. Linney especially knocks it out of the park yet again somehow managing to play a woman who you can't help but think of as the oppressed good guy in this broken marriage when in reality, as much of a pompous ass as Daniels' character may be and as disagreeable and unlikable as he often is, she's the one who cheated (repeatedly) and forced the separation and pending divorce. That's not to say she's actually the bad guy and Daniels is the wronged one as much as to illuminate the magic and complexity of Baumbach's script and these two lead performances. The only thing missing? A "Best Supporting Male" nod for William Baldwin. I'm sure the nominating committee figured that Baldwin's role as the kids' tennis instructor was more of a cameo, but he absolutely steals every scene he's in, and almost more importantly, I can't remember the last time Baldwin seemed as at ease on screen. For that matter, I can't remember the last he simply appeared on screen, but whatever.
Paradise Now and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Best Foreign Film): These two films couldn't be more different even as they both deal in some manner with death and while neither explicitly shows us the demise of the main character, both are essentially the story of their individual journeys ending with exits from this life. I was especially impressed with Paradise Now (which is also in contention for my best of 2005 list) which focuses on the lives of Palestinian men who decide to become suicide bombers. Director Hany Abu-Assad's remarkably balanced and non-judgmental (but as I've argued still ultimately anti-violent) presentation of this unfamiliar world is powerfully gripping and emotional. Meanwhile, Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a fascinating meditation on health care and dignity (or the lack of it) in death as we follow the last several hours in one sad old man's life. Lazarescu is also a very hard film to watch -- I remember wanting to bitch-slap at least half of the medical professionals in the story -- but it's one that will stay with you for quite a while. Paradise Now is still playing here in New York, and Lazarescu will reportedly get a limited release from Tartan USA in the spring of next year.
Harris Savides for Last Days (Best Cinematography): Like or hate the film -- and I was a fan, especially when looked at together with Gus Van Sant's previous two works Gerry and Elephant -- one would be hard-pressed to ignore the magnificent camera work by Savides. He also shot, and received Spirit nominations for, Van Sant's previous two films, and this trilogy taken along with his strangely not nominated work in last year's Birth (another film that disappointed me but looked magnificent) proves him to be one of the best DPs working today. If all of these films have anything in common, it is the representation of mood so perfectly and exquisitely expressed through lighting and camera-work. "Best Cinematography" looks to be an incredibly tough category this year -- Good Night, and Good Luck with its exceptional and purposeful black & white photography was remarkable, as was the clean, bland, unsaturated, middle-america look of much of Capote (and I have yet to see Three Burials or Keane) -- but here's hoping Savides wins this award (and maybe a little gold man too) one of these days. I expect he will.