That’s because this year’s 30th anniversary edition of the Film Independent Spirit Awards resembled even more of an Oscars dry run than usual given how well represented the Academy Awards contenders were at Saturday’s ceremony. The best feature category included four Oscar best picture nominees: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” “Boyhood,” “Selma” and “Whiplash” — as well as “Love Is Strange,” which stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a same-sex couple under strain.
The victory of “Birdman” over “Boyhood,” an anticipated Academy Awards showdown as well, marked six years in a row that the Spirit best feature award has gone to an Oscar best picture nominee. Two of the previous five, including “12 Years a Slave” last year, also won the best picture Oscar.
This overlap may be less a reflection on the Spirits going mainstream than the Oscars leaning more and more heavily on the independent film world to provide works worth honoring. The Spirit Awards, held each year in a mammoth Santa Monica Beach tent, certainly remains a less formal affair, with co-hosts Fred Armisen and Kristen Bell finding a comfortable, unstrained comedic rhythm from the start.
Award winners also proved less stilted and formal than at the Oscars, with director Paul Thomas Anderson concluding his acceptance of the Robert Altman Award for the ensemble work of “Inherent Vice” by taking a shot at one of the prominent Spirits sponsors: “And don’t fly American Airlines, man, they will (expletive) lose your luggage.”
Accepting the best feature award, “Birdman” director Alejandro Inarritu noted that all of the Spirits nominees were "born from a need to be expressed, something to say."
Spirits voters split their major-award vote by giving the 12-years-in-the-making “Boyhood” the best director prize for Richard Linklater, who wasn’t present. Actor Ethan Hawke accepted it for him and, earlier in the program, presented the best supporting female award to his “Boyhood” co-star Arquette.
“I’ve made a lot of independent films and I’ve never been invited to this party before, so thanks for having me,” she said before noting that she’s made her living on network TV “and thank God for that.” She and Hawke also praised IFC Film for supporting such a long-in-the-making film.
“Birdman” also picked up the cinematography award for Emmanuel Lubezki (presented before the live IFC telecast began, along with the editing award for Tom Cross of “Whiplash”) and the best male lead prize for Keaton, the only best actor Oscar nominee in a category that also included David Oyelowo of “Selma” and Jake Gyllenhaal of “Nightcrawler.”
“I think we’d all be remiss if we didn’t take a moment and thank Narcissus,” Keaton said, quipping on the protracted awards season before calling “Birdman” “bold cinema. This is a game changer.”
As expected, Moore was the best female lead winner for “Still Alice.” She noted that she began working at the beginning of the indie film movement. “It’s really shaped my life and my career,” she said.
The best supporting male award, handed off by a bearded, hatted, outrageously jacketed Jared Leto, went to Simmons of “Whiplash” who, appropriately enough, rushed to the stage. “I’ve been blessed in my life,” he declared.
Dan Gilroy’ won the best screenplay and best first feature awards for his creepy “Nightcrawler.” He praised indie filmmakers as “holdouts against the tsunami of superhero movies that has swept over our industry.”
Justin Simien won the best first screenplay award for “Dear White People,” saying he strated writing it 10 years ago “because I didn’t see my story out there in the culture ... If you don’t feel you’re part of the culture, please put yourself there because we need you. We need to see the world from your eyes.”
Oscar favorites also won for best international film, Poland’s “Ida” (from Chicago’s Music Box Films), and best documentary, “Citzenfour,” about Edward Snowden. The John Cassavetes Award for the best feature made for under $500,000 went to Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens’ “Land Ho!”
And late in the show, while accepting a special distinction award for “Foxcatcher,” director Bennett Miller hammered home the solemnity of the occasion by reading a note that he claimed Anderson had asked him to read: “My apologies to American Airlines. It was actually United.”