2018 Spirit Awards

Photo: Armie Hammer (left) and Timothee Chalamet (right) star in ‘Call Me By Your Name’, which has six Spirit nominations

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

For the last nine years, I have attended the Toronto International Film Festival, intent on using it as an opportunity to get ahead of the award season buzz. I want to be in a position to jumpstart the critical conversation about the films that regional audiences will invest time and money into between the end of October through mid-to-late February. It has been an honor and a privilege to share my early reactions about films like “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and “Moonlight” with readers in September, sometimes literally a few hours after walking out of press and industry screenings.

We have dubbed this time of the year “awards season,” since critics’ groups, filmmaking guild branches, and the collective artistic community bestows honors on its many practitioners. Yet, so often, one elephant in the room, the Academy Awards, seem to suck up all of the oxygen in the awards discussion, which makes a certain degree of sense, because the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences is THE grand prize, the accolade critics pin next to a winner’s name like a Presidential Medal of Honor. But I wonder, with the recent unveiling of the 2018 Spirit Award nominations, why we don’t embrace the recognition of independent film, in its own right, rather than co-opting it as just another barometer for the Oscars?

One of the primary eligibility requirements for the Spirit Awards is the budgetary limitation that states qualifying production costs cannot exceed $20 million. While, in the past, that has prevented films like last year’s presumptive favorite “La La Land” from adding to their seasonal haul, the Spirits have been able to provide much needed fuel to extend the campaign drives of several little engines in the race. And it helps, from a symbolic standpoint, that the Spirit Awards presentation takes place the day before the Academy Awards, each year, on the Santa Monica beach; a decidedly more low-key event than the stuffy and quite glamorous Oscar telecast. At each step of the way, there seems to be a teasing bit of prognostication going on, a delicious sense of foreshadowing.

Spirits have been able to provide much needed fuel to extend the campaign drives of several little engines in the race

And so, all of the buzz (there’s that word again) of the announcement zeroed in on the six nominations for “Call Me By Your Name” (Luca Guadagnino’s film leads the pack) followed by five for the black social horror of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” and the frenzied escapade of “Good Time.” Not far behind, indie darling Greta Gerwig notched four nominations for her coming-of-age dramedy “Lady Bird.”

I caught “Call Me By Your Name” and “Lady Bird” at TIFF; each film bore the burden of heavily favored status, although Gerwig’s film eased its way into awards season conversations more and more as critics searched for that elusive front runner that, this year, didn’t seize the spotlight. “Lady Bird” feels like the little engine that could, the not-so hidden indie gem—not unlike the recent Best Picture winners “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” “Birdman,” and “12 Years a Slave” that emerged from the ranks of the Spirit Awards’ winner’s circle—plus, it has the added social and political cache of rising female writer-director in Gerwig, who would provide a strong and necessary counter-narrative to the weekly deluge of sexual harassment reports.

But where the buzz fails, it seems to do so in quite a critically spectacular fashion. This year, the Robert Altman Award, which celebrates one film’s director, casting director, and ensemble cast, is a singular distinction, falling upon “Mudbound” (Dee Rees’s stellar adaptation of the Hilary Jordan novel about Southern race relations in the 1940s). The decision, one of profoundly good intentions, shuts key performers—in particular, worthy supporting efforts from Mary J. Blige and Jason Mitchell—from consideration in the individual acting categories. The film already faces a huge uphill challenge as a Netflix release, which limited its critical impact thanks to its unspooling in only a handful of theaters around the country at the same time it dropped on the streaming service.

The creation of social and cultural buzz requires having the chance to linger in our consciousness, like the proverbial “haunting refrain.” For a film, especially a period indie drama tackling the thorny issues of race relations in these trying times, to get to the head and heart of audiences and gatekeepers, under the best of circumstances, demands a calculated and targeted theatrical rollout by a public relations genius. And even then, there is no guarantee.

Look no further than this year’s outsider class—Fox Searchlight’s “Battle of the Sexes” and “The Shape of Water” (a pair of TIFF darlings), “Wind River” from Cannes Un Certain Regard Best Director winner Taylor Sheridan, which featured a slow-burn of a performance from Jeremy Renner, and “The Beguiled” from Sofia Coppola (another best director winner at Cannes)—who find themselves hoping for that one-in-a-million lightning strike to charge and change their fates.

The Spirit Awards nominations arrival—just days before Thanksgiving—definitely set the table for a season of giving, and the real winners are the curious cinephiles who will use the nominations as a guide for the greatest gifts of all, the wondrous treats on the big screens.

Area Ongoing Films

A crisis of conscience and faith stands at the center of “Roman J. Israel Esq.,” the new film from writer-director Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”), which makes it a tricky sell for mainstream audiences used to movies that sprinkle such lofty debates amidst a cavalcade of thrilling action sequences that speak louder than the drone of words. It seems Gilroy was banking on the idea that a recognizable star like Denzel Washington might be the spoonful of sugar capable of making his medicinal and quite bitter pill go down a bit easier and a heaping dose of Washington, in decidedly low-key eccentric mode, propels this quirky character study a long way. Playing a principled legal savant with a low threshold for social engagement, Washington creates a modern-day Don Quixote or, better yet, a criminal justice version of Cyrano who just can’t face an unloving and sadly uncivil world.


Well, it’s finally here. A live-action gathering of DC Comic’s greatest superheroes helmed by Zack Snyder (“Watchmen” & “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”), but it feels like a collection of equals than an attempt to ride the coattails of the “Wonder Woman” phenomenon from earlier this year. Better to follow on the heels of Gal Gadot’s impressive stand-alone debut than the dark and oppressively brooding mish-mash that was “Dawn on Justice,” so let’s give this fantasy “League” a chance. Outside the trailers, we don’t know much about Ezra Miller’s Flash or Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, but I have to say, I’m keen to see how Jason Momoa’s Aquaman comes across because it looks like he might wind up being THE big fish in the game.


If nothing else, “The Star,” from first-time feature animation director Timothy Reckart (who was part of the animation department for Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa”) will allow me the opportunity to get my Scrooge on, so I’m all in. I hate animated stories with talking animals or inanimate objects, which means I’m obviously not the target audience for a Nativity narrative that focuses on the donkey (voiced by Steven Yeun) and his ragtag animal posse (with Kristin Chenoweth, Tyler Perry, Keegan-Michael Key, and Kris Kristofferson lending their voices) as the real heroes of the first Christmas. “The Star” sounds like a dim premise, but I’ll give it a chance, if only for the vocal heavy hitters on deck – Ving Rhames, Anthony Anderson, Mariah Carey, and Oprah Winfrey.


The early buzz on “Wonder,” an adaptation of RJ Palacio’s bestselling novel by Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) has been wonderful, which could be tricky considering the subject matter. The narrative centers on the inspiring tale of a young boy named August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) who has endured countless surgeries to correct facial differences. As he enters the fifth grade, his parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) decide that it is time for him to attend a mainstream elementary school, which means facing his peers for the first time. There are too many ways for this premise to slide into sentimentality, but if it stays the course, “Wonder” could join “The Elephant Man” and “Mask” as honest portrayals of social efforts to accept difference.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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