'Precious,' 'Crazy Heart' win top Independent Spirit Awards

By Jen Chaney
in los angeles
Monday, March 8, 2010

The Independent Spirit Awards -- which celebrated its 25th anniversary Friday night in a new Los Angeles venue but with the same old joyously casual approach to honoring the best in low-budget cinema -- played out in some ways like a rehearsal for Sunday's Academy Awards.

Oscar front-runners like Jeff Bridges ("Crazy Heart") and Baltimore native Mo'Nique, who plays the relentlessly abusive mother in "Precious," both won winged statuettes in their respective acting categories. As a matter of fact, most of the names announced during the course of the two-hour-plus ceremony, held on the roof of the L.A. Live complex in downtown Los Angeles for the first time after years of unfolding on a Santa Monica beach, also will be read aloud from the podium of the Kodak Theater, as nominees if not winners.

"Precious" collected the most honors, taking five of the 13 big prizes doled out: best feature, best director for Lee Daniels, best first screenplay for Geoffrey Fletcher, acting honors for both Mo'Nique and lead female Gabourey Sidibe. Also winning big: "Crazy Heart," which, in addition to a victory for Bridges, earned recognition in the best first feature category. And that, of course, raises the question: Does an event like this have as much meaning when it shares so much in common with the Academy Awards?

Michael Hoffman, director of "The Last Station," which was nominated for five Spirits but came away with none, says yes.

"It really proves to people that there's an audience for independent film, that there's excitement about independent film, that there are good movies being made for the adult audience that's really, really underserved," he said while walking the "blue carpet" before the ceremony got underway. "I think it's absolutely crucial."

"This is where all those ideas begin, with independent filmmakers," said actress Olivia Wilde, a Washington, D.C., native who served as one of the show's presenters. "And some of them make it to the Oscars and some of them don't. But it's important that there is an awards show that's just about celebrating them."

Independent film is a broadly defined term, but for the purposes of the Spirits, it means any film made for less than $20 million and largely outside of the Hollywood studio system, even if it later gets picked up for wide distribution. That's why pictures like "Precious," which was eventually championed by the likes of Lionsgate Films and Oprah Winfrey, share the spotlight with lower-profile films -- titles like "The Vicious Kind," or the Arab-immigrant drama "Amreeka" -- that most of the cineplex-packing masses probably have not seen at a theater near them.

In a more even playing field minus a few of Oscar's leading contenders, it means that people like Daniels -- who is nominated in the directing category at the Academy Awards but not projected to come away a winner -- get at least one moment this weekend to stand on a stage with a trophy in their hand.

"Kathryn Bigelow is not here tonight," Daniels noted happily during his acceptance speech, referencing "The Hurt Locker" director who competes against him Sunday. "But I am." ("The Hurt Locker" actually received a couple of Spirit nominations last year because it had played the festival circuit in 2008, qualifying it for consideration.)

The presence of less familiar faces alongside ones so recognizable -- from Woody Harrelson, a supporting actor winner for "The Messenger," to Jodie Foster to Ben Stiller -- served as yet another reminder that the indie world, especially in its current, precarious state, needs star power to keep its shoestring-budget engines running.

Even Stiller, who presented the award for best feature film, couldn't resist the opportunity to joke about how he, a movie star who recently starred in a blockbuster sequel set within the bowels of the Smithsonian's museums, clearly represents the "core values" of the Independent Spirits.

"What are those core values?" he deadpanned onstage. "I couldn't tell you if you paid me."

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