Which independent films have a shot at the 2011 Oscars?

An irrefutable truth these days is that independent films get more exposure — and more love come awards season. After all, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Hurt Locker” were the last two films to win Best Picture. Now that this category is heading toward its second year of 10 nominees, the odds are greater still that these films will continue to be nominated and that people will want to see them.

However, the marketing for these films remains minimal and the average person who likes the Oscars but doesn’t really become interested until the end of December at the earliest, has no idea what to look for until the films are almost gone from theaters. Or worse, they mistake heavily marketed dramatic films for true contenders. While most indie films stick around in January/February in advance of the big ceremony to take advantage of the newfound buzz, wouldn’t it be nice to know ahead of time? You can.

December kicks off a number of awards and ceremonies that serve as a litmus test for the Oscars. The earliest of these was Monday night at the Gotham Awards, a smaller segment of the indie awards circuit. That was followed up Tuesday morning with the nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards, which will not be awarded until the night before the Oscars, Feb. 26.

So which films have emerged as the independent films to watch? And how seriously should we take them?

The first thing you should know is that different societies/organizations have different criteria for what constitutes “independent.” For example, “The Hurt Locker” won Best Film at the Gotham Awards last year, whereas it didn’t receive so much as a nomination for and Independent Spirit Award. The latter situation was likely due to the percentage of financing that came from independent sources.

Across the board, however, Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner “Winter’s Bone” has been the most widely recognized of the independents to this point between winning the Gotham Awards Best Film and earning seven ISA nominations. Much like the Best Picture-nominated “An Education,” which made waves at Sundance in 2009 and pushed all the way on through to the Oscars, “Bone” might have received just the boost it needed to compete at a higher level with the independent films with bigger names attached.

“Winter’s Bone” tells the story of a teenage girl (Jennifer Lawrence) living in a poor rural area in the Ozarks whose absent father has put their home in jeopardy, so she tries to hunt him down, which involves prying into his crystal meth ring. The film was co-written and directed by Debra Granik, whose similarly titled previous film, “Down to the Bone,” starred Vera Farmiga, which also dealt with a family torn by drug habits. “Winter’s Bone” is out on DVD, so you can check it out for yourself (I know I will).

But while the recognition thus far primes “Bone” for being one of the ten, there are a lot of acclaimed indies this year and as I mentioned, they have bigger names attached and have distributors who will be able to give them more of a push. Roadside Attractions, a company yet to develop much influence, released “Winter’s Bone” this summer. Fox Searchlight, an extremely reputable arm of 20th Century Fox that helped “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Crazy Heart” — among others — to win notoriety, released big indie contenders this year in “127 Hours” and “Black Swan.”

“127 Hours” and “Black Swan” earned three and four nominations respectively for Independent Spirit Awards. Although that’s basically half the noms of “Winter’s Bone,” those two films feature popular actors and directors: Danny Boyle and James Franco for “127 Hours” and Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman for “Black Swan.” Small films tend to piggy back on praiseworthy performances from big names. Nobody sees “Crazy Heart” last year if Jeff Bridges doesn’t become the talk of the town. Popularity categories are valued at the Oscars, especially with the 10 Best Picture nominees as evidenced by Sandra Bullock and “The Blind Side.”

“127 Hours” has been universally praised but not discussed much as a Best Picture. Taking place in a confined space, nominations beyond Franco, Boyle, screenplay and perhaps cinematography seem unlikely, but all those would be deserved and could lead to a Best Picture nomination. Read my review of the film and find out what it’s about here.

Most critics are getting their first look at “Black Swan” this week, so if its going to earn praise beyond its main talents, we’ll know soon. Considering the film deals with ballet, this opens up a range of technical award nominations that the film could receive from costumes to art direction, which would certainly make it a serious contender.

The other indie favorite that deserves having been mentioned earlier is “The Kids Are All Right.” This tender and intimate ensemble film boasts a heck of a cast and a largely unknown writer/director in Lisa Cholodenko. Annette Bening might be the earliest known lock for a Best Actress nomination if not win for her performance as a controlling but fragile lesbian mom who feels her artificially inseminated kids and partner (Julianne Moore) drifting away from her. “Kids” has been praised in all major facets and seems destined for four or five Oscar nominations in the major categories of writing, directing and acting, usually the mark of a Best Picture nominee. Read my thoughts on the film here.

Another film to keep an eye on is John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Rabbit Hole.” The film about parents dealing with the death of a child earned four nominations for ISAs: writing, directing and acting for lead actress Nicole Kidman and lead actor Aaron Eckhart. These relationship dramas based on plays tend to get buzz but never pose a serious threat for the Best Picture prize. Consider “Doubt” a couple years back and that film was not independent.

Also, in the Best Foreign Film category at the ISAs, the much buzzed-about “The King’s Speech” received a nomination. How it fairs at the British Independent Film Awards on Friday (a whopping eight nominations) will give us a better idea, but consider it a film that should be on your radar. It stars Colin Firth as King George VI, who overcomes his stutter with the help of an unorthodox speech coach (Geoffrey Rush), giving him confidence to act as a major voice in the days leading up to World War II.

That leaves us with how accurate independent film awards are at predicting Oscar nominations and wins. Last year, “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” cleaned house at the ISAs with five awards on five nominations. It was nominated for six Oscars and won two. Out of all its competition for Best Feature, it was the only film nominated for Best Picture. The only main contender at the ISAs that also contended at the Oscars was the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” but the film received Oscar nods for writing and picture, which were categories it didn’t receive ISA nominations for. Best Foreign Film winner last year was “An Education” and that also received a Best Picture nod.

As for the Gotham Awards, Best Film did go to “Hurt Locker” last year, but prior years the most the winner of that category received was a nomination in some other category, likely acting. Also worthy of note, in 2006, “Half Nelson” also beat out “The Departed.” Not sure how the latter is indie, but no reason it loses to “Half Nelson” unless films are being judged on how “indie” they are, which in that case means “Departed” deserved to lose.

Unfortunately, we won’t have the luxury of knowing who wins these awards until the night before the Oscars (a ridiculous time between nom announcements and awards), so that makes it tougher. In the major categories except writing, the ISA winner in each category also received a nomination for the corresponding Oscar, but we don’t have the luxury of knowing who will win until it’s almost too late. So, when it comes down to it, the Independent Spirit Awards and similar ceremonies don’t have a track record of forecasting Oscars, but that’s not to say it’s not changing.

More independent films have gained notoriety and there are more nominations to go around that these films can be recognized (as well as more popular blockbuster films, but that’s another matter). That and they’re winning. I suspect this year’s nominations for the ISAs will forecast the Oscars more than usual, but this is far from a guarantee.


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