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5 films that prove the Spirit Awards are better than the Oscars

The old adage is just as true of awards shows as it is of movies: bigger does not mean better. The Oscars might get all the press, they might have all the prestige, but that doesn’t mean they’re superior to all other movie awards. Case in point: this year, the Spirit Awards, the Oscars’ indie alternative, the Elizabeth to the Academy’s Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, honored all sorts of outstanding movies that barely even garnered a mention on the big show. Does that mean those films were inferior? Nope; it means the Oscars were. Here are five films that prove the Spirits Awards’ are better than the Oscars.

THE INTERRUPTERS, Spirit Award Winner for Best Documentary

Documentarian Steve James does not have a good track record at the Academy Awards. Or maybe it’s the other way around; maybe the Academy doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to recognizing James, widely regarded as one of the finest documentary filmmakers of his generation. Despite creating some of the most impressive and impactful non-fiction movies of the past 25 years — including STEVIE and the remarkable HOOP DREAMS — he has yet to be nominated for, much less win, an Oscar. His most recent film, THE INTERRUPTERS, about a year in the lives of the members of a Chicago organization dedicated to stopping gang violence, was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2011; it still got snubbed by the Oscars. After this year’s Best Documentary nominees were announced, the Academy unveiled a new set of rules governing the category, presumably to interrupt these problems before they crop up again.

50/50, Spirit Award Winner for Best First Screenplay

50/50 is a comedy about a young man who is diagnosed with cancer and a 50/50 chance of survival. The odds that first-time screenwriter Will Reiser would turn his own battle with cancer into a film that is both deeply funny and deeply honest were much, much lower. But things turned out pretty well for Reiser on both fronts; he’s cancer-free and while his film was overlooked by the Oscars it was nominated three times at the Spirits, for Best First Screenplay, Best Supporting Female (Anjelica Huston) and Best Feature. It walked away with the prize for Best First Screenplay against stiff competition from deserving films like TERRI and MARGIN CALL. I’d say the odds are now heavily in Reiser’s favor that we’ll hear from him again in the future — at the Spirits and at the Oscars, if those guys can get their act together.

PARIAH, Spirit Award Winner For the John Cassavetes Award

At a time when gay people seem to be coming under increasing persecution from conservative sectors of government and religion, the Spirit Awards came out, so to speak, in support of PARIAH, a film about an African-American lesbian teen’s struggle to find acceptance within her community. Written and directed by Dee Rees (based on her own award-winning short film) and produced by Spike Lee, the film took home the Spirit Award’s coveted John Cassavetes Award, given each year to the best feature made for less than half a million dollars, and was also nominated for Best Female Lead, for the performance of its young star, Adepero Oduye. Naturally, conservative old Oscar nominated PARIAH for absolutely nothing.

MARGIN CALL, Spirit Award Winner For Best First Feature and Best Ensemble

The recent economic collapse was a funny thing: everyone got it and no one understood it. Credit default swaps? Synthetic CDOs? Oh, we’re all totally fucked? Oh okay; that makes sense. J.C. Chandor’s superb economic thriller MARGIN CALL did an impressive job of capturing the calamity and confusion. Set inside a massive investment bank during the 24 hours in which it discovers the impending doom, it manages to convey the enormity of the situation without every dumbing down the technical jargon for the layman viewer. The mood throughout is positively apocalyptic; with an early morning layoff suggesting the Rapture the “lucky” survivors avoid before the actual Armageddon. MARGIN CALL‘s Spirit Awards success provides particularly clear evidence of this show’s superiority over the Oscars, since the two awards it deservedly won, Best First Feature and the Robert Altman Award for best ensemble, don’t even exist at the Academy Awards.

TAKE SHELTER, Spirit Award Winner For Piaget’s Producers Award

In TAKE SHELTER, Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a family man who begins receiving terrifying visions of an apocalypse. He may just be going crazy, or he may be a prophet of a doomed future, and any doomsday prophet will tell you that people don’t always respond with enthusiasm to predictions about the end of the world. Maybe that lack of enthusiasm is to blame for the moving and terrifying TAKE SHELTER‘s complete shutout from this year’s Academy Awards. Though sadly overlooked for its four other Spirit Award nominations, which included Best Feature, Best Director (Jeff Nichols), Best Supporting Female (Jessica Chastain), Best Male Lead (Michael Shannon, criminally ignored this awards season), TAKE SHELTER did take home the Piaget Producers Award, which is given to a producer who demonstrates limitless “creativity, tenacity, and vision” in the face of a limited budget. If only the Academy had a little more creativity, tenacity, and vision themselves, they might have recognized the film’s brilliance too.