The first measuring stick in a marathon leading to the Oscars, the Spirit Awards for independent films, announced its nominations Tuesday. And two young Kentucky actors or their films fared well.
Don't be surprised if several nominees do double duty on Hollywood's splashiest weekend, with the Spirits handed out Feb. 26 and the Oscars a night later.
Debra Granik's Ozark Mountain daredevil act Winter's Bone led with seven nominations, including a female lead nod for Louisville native Jennifer Lawrence. Its other nominations were for best feature, director, screenplay, supporting actors John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, and cinematography. Winter's Bone won the Gotham Award for best feature Monday night, adding momentum to that scrappy gem.
Runner-up with five Spirit nominations is Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, a dramedy about same-sex parents (Julianne Moore and nominee Annette Bening) and the sperm donor (nominee Mark Ruffalo) returning to their lives. Union native Josh Hutcherson plays one of the children. Cholodenko's direction and co-written screenplay also were nominated.
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The Kids Are All Right joins Winter's Bone, 127 Hours, Black Swan and Greenberg in the best-feature category, with all but Ben Stiller's latter, mumblecore comedy generally pegged as major Oscar contenders. Years like this prompted the academy to expand its best-picture category to 10 finalists.
(Only films costing less than $20 million to produce are eligible for Spirits; that sum is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of many studios' works.)
The acting categories are a different story, with the Spirits and Oscars featuring five finalists, although in a break from tradition, the Spirits nominated six lead female performances this year. Bening, Lawrence, Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole and Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine are getting the buzz that award campaigns are built upon. Bening bypassed co-star Julianne Moore, further proof of the category's depth.
The lead-actor Spirit list leaves the academy some wiggle room. James Franco probably sewed up an already-deserved nomination for 127 Hours by agreeing to co-host the Academy Awards show. Aaron Eckhart of Rabbit Hole is the only other finalist with any degree of Oscar buzz. But the Spirits often draw attention to smaller films, letting Oscar voters feel as if they discovered something.
Those voters will do more digging than usual in the supporting-actor categories, with only four Spirit choices (Dickey, Hawkes, Ruffalo and, to a lesser extent, Bill Murray in the East Tennessee-set Get Low) starring in movies that got anything more than cursory limited releases. Familiar names and faces Samuel L. Jackson and Naomi Watts in Mother and Child, and Allison Janney in Life Before Wartime will make plugging in a DVD easier.
One caveat in using the Spirits as an Oscar barometer, concerning the awards' emphasis on American filmmaking: That leaves only the foreign-film category to a frontrunner like The King's Speech, and nothing for its brilliant cast. (Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are Oscar favorites at the moment.)
With the exclusion of The King's Speech and other laudable imports, the Spirits remind us that it's a long way to the Oscar stage. This is but a first step.