Fox Searchlight Pictures via Everett Collection
The Independent Spirit Awards used to honor the innovation and creativity of filmmakers who made great films under limited budget constraints. In 1985, the first ISA for Best Feature went to Martin Scorsese's After Hours, an ambitious dark comedy that was ignored at the Oscars. This was before a Scorsese picture opened on 3,000 screens, and before the American public began to embrace his work. In short, the award recognized a talented filmmaker who dared to challenge cinematic conventions and push the limits of artistic expression.
Now, Film Independent, the non-profit organization that selects the nominees and winners for the annual Independent Spirit Awards, merely exists to boost small films that don't need the attention. Its purpose, it seems, is to celebrate films and performances that are already being lauded by critics and other, more popular awards shows like the Golden Globes and the Oscars.
For example, the nominees for the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards, which airs on IFC on Saturday, March 1 at 10 PM, include 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, Blue Jasmine, and Dallas Buyers Club. These titles sound familiar to anyone who hasn't been living under a rock for the past year, precisely because they're the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and have received awards attention from nearly every group including the Oscars. The frontrunners for the major Oscar categories are similarly nominated for Independent Spirit Awards this year, including 12 Years a Slave for Best Feature, Matthew McConaughey for Best Actor, Cate Blanchett for Best Actress, Jared Leto for Best Supporting Actor, and Lupita Nyong'o for Best Supporting Actress.
The films and performances nominated by Film Independent this year are certainly worthy of our attention and admiration. However, they don't belong at the Independent Spirit Awards. The whole point of this awards show, after all, is to give credit to films that aren't on the average moviegoer's radar, and to celebrate filmmakers who don't get acknowledged with a Golden Globe and Oscar. The point is not to give another trophy to Cate Blanchett.
What has happened, it seems, is that the Independent Spirit Awards have lost their independent spirit. If you revisit past years, you'll find that only a few films nominated for Independent Spirit Awards are also recognized at the Oscars. Now, the overwhelming majority is Oscar bait.
Claire Denis' Bastards, Amy Seimetz's Sun Don't Shine, Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley, and Ben Wheatley's Sightseers are just a few independent films that weren't recognized by the Independent Spirit Awards this year. The ones that have been recognized, like Blue is the Warmest Color and All is Lost, you've already heard of.