Back in July, Adam Nayman took stock of the first half of the year in movies and decided that the best 2023 had to offer up to that point was Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up. Michelle Williams plays a sculptor who works for her mother, an administrator at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, while racing to prepare for a crucial exhibition.
“Because Reichardt is such a supple dramatist,” wrote Nayman, “she’s able to weave plot strands around her frustrated protagonist so deftly that we don’t notice the narrative arcs until they’re cresting; because she’s so attentive to matters of place and time, Showing Up plays almost like a wry, probing documentary about artistic practice, littered with images of students at work on projects that a less sympathetic satirist would treat as sight gags. A paradox worth pointing out and celebrating: It’s because Reichardt takes artists and artistry seriously that she gets so much comic mileage out of their foibles.”
On Tuesday, the Ringer posted Nayman’s final top ten of 2023, and Showing Up holds steady at #1. At around the same time that Nayman’s list went live, the nominations for the thirty-ninth Film Independent Spirit Awards were announced along with the winner of the Robert Altman Award, which has been presented every year since 2007 to the ensemble cast, director, and casting director of a film that reflects Altman’s resilient independence. On February 25, during a ceremony hosted by Aidy Bryant in a tent on a Santa Monica beach, the Robert Altman Award will be presented to Reichardt, casting director Gayle Keller, and a cast that, besides Williams, includes André Benjamin, Hong Chau, Judd Hirsch, John Magaro, and Amanda Plummer.
Of the six films in the running for Best Feature, three have taken the lead with five nominations each. American Fiction, the debut feature from Cord Jefferson, stars Jeffrey Wright as a literature professor who heads home to Boston, where he finds his mother (Leslie Uggams) ailing and his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) frustrated by his absence. Ticked off by another Black writer’s novel, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, he writes a parody, My Pafology, which scores him a movie deal.
“There’s an air of James L. Brooks wafting through American Fiction, an echo of that filmmaker’s witty and discursive approach to matters of the brain and of the heart,” wrote Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson when the film premiered in Toronto, where it won the People’s Choice Award. “What a thrill it is to see Wright, such a reliable journeyman character actor, tuck into a lead role like this.” Wright is one of ten nominees for the Spirit Award for Best Lead Performance.
So, too, is Natalie Portman. In Todd Haynes’s May December, she plays an actress preparing to portray a woman (Julianne Moore) who did time in the early 1990s after she was caught making out with a thirteen-year-old. That boy grew up to become a husband and father, played by rising star Charles Melton, who is nominated in the Best Supporting Performance category and has already won recognition from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Gotham Awards, where the third frontrunner, Celine Song’s Past Lives, won Best Feature.
Passages, Ira Sachs’s “eighth film and one of his best,” as the Telegraph’s Tim Robey puts it, leads the other three Best Feature contenders with four nominations. Franz Rogowski plays Tomas, a film director who, despite his marriage to Martin (Ben Whishaw), strikes up an affair with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). “Rogowski is unfailingly good, etching selfishness non-monstrously,” writes Robey. “Exarchopoulos has her finest scene at the end, without which she might seem comparatively neglected. From Whishaw, the same scene—the only significant one between these other two—caps some of the most moving and forceful acting he’s ever done.” Rogowski and Whishaw are nominated for Best Lead and Best Supporting Performance, respectively.
Scoring three nominations each are Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers, which swept the British Independent Film Awards over the weekend, and Minhal Baig’s We Grown Now, which is set in 1992 in Cabrini-Green, the Chicago housing project. “Baig captures two Black kids navigating systemic racism, brutal policing, and broken promises, while imagining an unlikely better life,” writes Robert Daniels for Screen. “An unassuming character study set to poetic rhythms makes for an empathetic study of Black life, full of resolve.”
Five films are nominated for Best First Feature, and the Hollywood Reporter’s Lovia Gyarkye wrote about three of them a few weeks ago. In Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Savanah Leaf’s Earth Mama, and A. V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One, Black mothers are “coming of age untraditionally, forging and reforging identities against invisible barriers,” wrote Gyarkye. “They meet underestimation and chronic neglect with a spiky, almost wily determination. Their lives are a tangled web of personal desires and social expectations. And they choose—in the face of institutional violence and entrenched community values—to always save themselves.”
This trio of debuts will go up against two Spanish-language features. “Borrowing inspiration from Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez and French filmmaker Jacques Tati, Argentinian-born director Tomás Gómez Bustillo delivers a mystical debut feature that incites questions of, ‘Did that just happen?’ and ‘Am I supposed to be laughing?,’” wrote Des Wesley Parra in the Austin Chronicle when Chronicles of a Wandering Saint premiered at SXSW. The thirty-four-year-old director “crafts a world where the Devil rides a motorcycle and the deceased have discounted and premium options to access heaven.”
In Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vásquez’s Upon Entry, Diego (Alberto Ammann), a Venezuelan, and Elena (Bruna Cusi), a dancer from Barcelona, aim to start a new life in Miami, but they’re detained by immigration officers at Newark Airport. “Superb performances, micro-controlled editing and an unrelentingly claustrophobic atmosphere are the hallmarks” of Upon Entry, writes Jonathan Holland for Screen. “To generate so much drama from what is basically seventy-four minutes of people talking across a table at one another is very clever filmmaking indeed.”
French-Palestinian-Algerian filmmaker Lina Soualem’s Bye Bye Tiberias, Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters, and Moroccan documentarian Asmae El Moudir’s The Mother of All Lies are up for Best Documentary. The two American contenders in the category are Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project and D. Smith’s Kokomo City. And Film Independent has nominated a strong round for Best International Film: Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland, C. J. “Fiery” Obasi’s Mami Wata, Lila Avilés’s Tótem, and Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest.
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