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SANTA MONICA, Calif, (Agencies): The 31st Independent Film Spirit Awards provided a clear rebuke to the less diverse Oscars, bestowing awards on “Beasts of No Nation” co-stars Idris Elba and Abraham Attah and “Tangerine” star Mya Taylor, making her the first transgender actress to win at the annual awards.
The newsroom drama “Spotlight” was the big winner at the Spirits on Saturday, the day before it’s to compete for best picture at the Academy Awards. Tom McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe investigation into sex abuse by Catholic priests won a leading four awards, including best picture, best director for McCarthy, best screenplay and the Robert Altman award for ensemble.
But this year’s Spirit Awards, an annual dressed-down oceanside indie antidote to the Oscars, was most remarkable for its more diverse nominees and winners. Neither Elba, Attah nor Taylor was even nominated for Oscars. Each drew hearty applause.
“There is very beautiful transgender talent,” said Taylor, who won best supporting actress for playing a Los Angeles sex worker in the iPhone-shot “Tangerine.” ‘’You better get out there and put it in your movie.”
In recent years, the Spirits have overlapped considerably with the Oscars, including the last two top winners: “Birdman” and “12 Years a Slave.” But this year, the Spirits — which honor films made for $20 million or less — widely deviated from their stuffier crosstown counterparts.
“Spotlight” was the only best picture nominee up for the Spirits’ top award; the bigger budget Oscar favorites it’s vying with, “The Revenant” and “The Big Short,” didn’t qualify. And while the Oscars have been beset by criticism for a second straight year of all-white acting nominees, the Spirits boasted five nonwhite nominees out of 20 — and three of them won.
“I’m so much prouder of being a producer than my performance,” Elba said backstage about the Netflix release. “As a producer you face a lot of doors being closed in your face and in this case we did have a hard time making it but we got there in the end.”
Elba brought Attah up on stage to share in his award for best supporting actor, but Attah later won one of all his own. The young Ghanaian, who hadn’t acted before director Cary Fukunaga cast him in “Beasts of No Nation,” beamed before a standing ovation.
Kate McKinnon (“Saturday Night Live”) and comedian Kumail Nanjiani hosted the ceremony, which was broadcast live on IFC. In their opening remarks, Nanjiani introduced themselves as a Pakistani American and a gay woman, “or to Hollywood, a straight woman and her IT guy.”
The only Oscar acting favorite, Brie Larson, added another win for her performance in the captive drama “Room.” Emma Donoghue, the novelist-turned-screenwriter, also won for best adapted screenplay for the film.
The foreign language favorite from Hungary, Laszlo Nemes’ Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” took best international film. And the documentary front-runner, the Indonesian genocide film “Look of Silence” won best documentary.
Without the competition of “The Revenant” or “The Big Short”, the wins for “Spotlight” likely don’t suggest any better fortunes for the film at the Oscars. But McCarthy took the opportunity to celebrate the movie’s distinction as an independent film, released by indie distributor Open Road.
“Quite honestly, we need studios like this who are going to step up when the other studios won’t,” said McCarthy, with several of the reporters the films is based on in the crowd. He also shared in best screenplay with his cowriter, Josh Singer.
The irreverent and breezy Spirit Awards, held in a tent on the Santa Monica beach, stood apart from the Oscars in other ways, too. Director Marielle Heller, who won best first feature for the coming-of-age tale “Diary of a Teenage Girl”, marked her territory in a speech that noted the onrush of interested from bigger productions for the movie’s breakout star, Bel Powley. “I call dibs,” Heller said of her actress.
At the Spirit Awards, indie-hood can be a badge of honor. In Saturday’s ceremony, none could top writer-director Trey Edward Shults, who won the John Cassavetes Award for first feature made for under $500,000 for his “Krisha.”
“What can I say,” said Shults. “We made this film in nine days at my mom’s house and it stars my aunt.”
The Film Independent Spirit Awards are seen as an strong indicator of independent movies that could win Oscar glory.
“Spotlight,” which is competing with “The Revenant” and “The Big Short” in many of the main categories at Sunday’s 88th Academy Awards, also won best editing and a special prize for its ensemble cast.
It has swept a string of honors ahead of the Oscars, including top prizes from the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, as well as a screenplay award at Britain’s BAFTAs.
McCarthy told reporters on the arrivals red carpet he hadn’t felt any nerves ahead of the Spirit Awards — but would be “a wreck” at the Oscars.
One disappointment at the Spirits was “Carol,” the story of a 1950s housewife who falls for a store clerk.
Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, it was nominated in six categories, including best feature, best director and best actress, but won just one trophy for Ed Lachman’s cinematography.
* Best Feature: Spotlight
* Best Director: Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
* Best Female Lead: Brie Larson, Room
* Best Male Lead: Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
* Best Supporting Female: Mya Taylor, Tangerine
* Best Supporting Male: Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
* Best Cinematography: Ed Lachman, Carol
* Best International Film: Son of Saul
* Best Screenplay: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer, Spotlight
* Best Documentary: The Look of Silence
* Best Editing: Tom McArdle, Spotlight
* Best First Feature: Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
* Best First Screenplay: Emma Donoghue, Room
* John Cassavetes Award: Krisha
* Robert Altman Award: Spotlight