Move over Oscar, Stewy sides with the ISAs | AspenTimes.com

Move over Oscar, Stewy sides with the ISAs

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

It’s finally happened. I’ve not only grown sick of the Academy Awards, I’ve even become bored with my own annual bashing of the Academy and their idiotic selections. It’s too easy, too predictable, too common.

I’m off into new terrain: the Independent Spirit Awards. Presented by IFP, a nonprofit organization devoted to the needs of the independent film community, the Independent Spirit Awards (ISAs) recognize movies made for not more than one-quarter of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s total compensation, back-end deals included, for his latest moronic role. (Joking. In fact, the ISAs place no budget restrictions on their nominees.)

Even though the philosophical constraints eliminate from consideration most films nominated for an Academy Award, the ISAs still do a better job of recognizing quality than does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

For instance, in 2002, while the mediocre “A Beautiful Mind” took the Oscar for Best Picture, the ISAs recognized “Memento,” a far more challenging and satisfying ” not to mention more coherent ” film. That year, the groundbreaking “Waking Life” was deservedly nominated for an ISA Best Feature, while being inexplicably left out of the Academy’s field for Best Animated Film.

In fact, the ISAs consistently kick the Academy’s collective ass, despite their self-imposed competitive disadvantage. In 2000, the Academy voted “Gladiator” Best Picture; the ISA went to the far better “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” In 1996, while the Academy was fawning over “The English Patient,” the ISA winner was the classic “Fargo.” And in a memorable case of dumbing things down, in 1994 the Academy voters chose “Forrest Gump.” The ISA voters that year chose a little thing called “Pulp Fiction,” arguably the most influential film of the last 20 years.

Apart from doing a better job of honoring the best films, the ISAs have a more interesting, less uptight television program. The ISAs, with the unpredictable John Waters hosting, air on Bravo on Saturday, Feb. 28.

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Drum roll, please …

This year, the ISAs earn my appreciation by nominating for Best Feature two films, both left off of the Academy’s Best Picture slate, that are easily among my top five of 2003.

With “In America,” writer-director Jim Sheridan navigated the tough job of making an emotionally draining movie without falling into emotional manipulation. When you left the theater, you felt as if you had been through something. “In America” earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Samantha Morton, even though hers was a supporting role, and she was fourth best among the five main players.

“American Splendor” was apparently too structurally odd, its message too elusive, its characters not good-looking enough for much attention. The story of underground comic artist Harvey Pekar is anti-glamorous to the hilt; it is, in fact, a celebration of the complexity and small satisfactions of ordinary life. But “American Splendor” is also heroic in its ambitions, both emotionally and technically.

Also nominated for Best Feature are “Raising Victor Vargas,” about adolescence in a predominantly Latino housing project in New York; “Shattered Glass,” the real-life story of a young New Republic reporter who fabricated his stories; and “Lost in Translation,” a tale of near-romance in Tokyo and the only film nominated for top Oscar and ISA awards.

In a close call, I go for “In America” over “American Splendor.” But I also take the ISAs to task for failing to include two worthy films: “Dirty Pretty Things,” a near-perfect film about illegal immigrants in London that tackles huge issues through its small lens; and “City of God,” which vividly depicts the cruelty and violence in Rio de Janeiro. (“City of God” is nominated for Best Foreign Film Academy Award.) Still, the ISAs did at least as good a job as the Academy, who nominated the cloying “Seabiscuit” and the one-dimensional “Master and Commander.” (My own top five: “In America,” “American Splendor,” “Mystic River,” “City of God” and “Dirty Pretty Things.”)

In the Best Female Lead category, Charlize Theron is a lock for her wondrous performance in “Monster.” Theron’s physical transformation into the lurching serial killer Aileen Wournus is impressive enough. But locating the balance between murdering and wanting to love and be loved made the performance more than a gimmick.

Best Male Lead is more open, with Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent”), Paul Giamatti (“American Splendor”), Ben Kingsley (“House of Sand and Fog”) and Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”) all real contenders. I think Giamatti will take it; Kingsley and Murray are both nominated for Oscars, and no one wants to see an overlapping winner. Dinklage is a dark horse, but his performance as a loner seeking solitude in an abandoned rail depot was original and career-making.

For Best Supporting Actor, I hope to heck Sarah Bolger wins for her honest portrayal of 11-year-old Christy in “In America.” Ain’t gonna happen though, so I’ll go with Shohreh Aghdashloo winning for her role as the tortured Iranian immigrant in “House of Sand and Fog.” And I really want to know why Hope Davis was nominated for “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” and not her better turn in “American Splendor.”

Best Supporting Male will likely go to Peter Sarsgaard, the unloved but ultimately respected editor in “Shattered Glass.” But I’d be thrilled if Judah Friedlander took the award for playing the near-autistic Toby in “American Splendor.”

One final critique of the ISAs. How “Capturing the Friedmans” was overlooked for Best Documentary I can’t imagine.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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