If ever a contest was needing shaking up, it is this year's Oscar derby which has a serious dearth of beloved, breakout movies on the board. But today's Spirit Award nominations did only kept the chessboard upright, stalemate intact.
Among the stations of the cross in America's long slog to Oscar night, the announcement of the Spirit Awards nominations is supposed to be a moment that redefines the race, until it is redefined again by the Globes nominations. With an absence of major attention-getting performances, the race long ago transformed itself from the Indy 500 into a hemmed-in wolfpack of a handful of jalopies slogging in formation through rush hour traffic down the New Jersey Turnpike.
For the past few months the pundits' assessment has been locked in that Precious, Hurt Locker and Up In the Air pretty much own the Best Picture category, despite the fact that no one is jumping for joy about any of their prospects. Each of the big three has its major drawbacks in the industry buzz; Up In the Air is said to be uneven and perhaps non-transcendent, Precious, heavy-handed and while The Hurt Locker is much respected, even beloved by many critics, industry watchers can't help but get a major case of shpilkes about what it would mean for Oscar's chances of ever reaching a broad audience again if they give the big trophy to a film that has only grossed $12 million domestic.
And as pundits lock down the list into the next tier, the reservations only grow. Invictus looks venerable but a bit pedantic. Nine and Lovely Bones are both attracting very mixed buzz in early screenings. An Education, A Serious Man and Julie and Julia; too small and limited. Nothing one has seen yet of Avatar suggests that the non-3D blue people getting blown up parts will be anything other than laughable. And Up is still in Academy minds, just a cartoon.
Which is why the world of Oscar punditry depends on game-changing events, like the Spirits to come along and knock over the chessboard and give them something fresh to say beyond, " Precious, Up In the Air and Hurt Locker are still looking strong."
The aforementioned, heavy-handed Precious was the big winner on the nominations list and becomes the instant favorite to win the awards. There had been some hope that A Serious Man might show huge on the Spirits list, fueling a late surge for the small but very well regarded Coen Brothers film, but the film failed to get a Best Feature nomination, landing only secondary nods. The other major contender, The Hurt Locker, was somehow nominated for last year's Spirits, so ineligible this time around.
None of the Spirit's other best pic nominees — 500 Days of Summer, Sin Nombre, Amreeka or The Last Station are seen as having any major Oscar prospects.
The announcement left Hollywood's awards punditry sputtering to grab straws of significance for the race at large. Anne Thompson proclaimed a boost to Helen Mirren's Best Actress campaign from The Last Station's nod.
The Envelope's Tom O'Neil bah-humbugged the Spirits and the Gotham awards (which gave Hurt Locker their top prize) both, writing "This year's clash between the two awards - bestowed by rival factions of an organization that split in 2006 - marks the height of absurdity in awards land. Each side is embracing one of the two top indies - The Hurt Locker or Precious - to the exclusion of the other. In the end, both awards look foolish and everybody loses."
And so, again, our contenders get back in formation, with a mere three months to go until Oscar night.