Before there were winners, there were jokes.
This year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards began much like last year’s ceremony, with hosts Nick Kroll and John Mulaney strutting onto the stage. The returning comedic duo seemed to understand the unique position they were in. In a year dominated by distinctly unfunny events in the film industry, Kroll and Mulaney were asked to make people laugh. And laugh we did.
“There is some stuff we think we should address,” said Kroll. “Last year everyone famous died. This year everyone famous wishes they were dead,” added Mulaney. The room erupted. Throughout Kroll and Mulaney’s monologue there were laughs of recognition. Mulaney regaled the audience with a true story about meeting Harvey Weinstein. In their meeting he complained to Mulaney that “Weinstein TV was taking too much of his time.” Weinstein insisted that “no one is going to remember my movies. Forget 'Pulp Fiction.' My tombstone is going to say “Project Runway.”” Once the laughter subsided Mulaney delivered the punch: “Oh, you don’t gotta worry anymore, Harvey. It’s not gonna say 'Project Runway.' It’s gonna say ‘XXL Unmarked Grave.’” There were gasps, then laughs, followed by cutaway shots to Joseph Gordon Levitt and Elizabeth Olsen putting their faces in their hands, which felt like the perfect response.
Kroll and Mulaney were adamant about taking no prisoners. Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Brett Ratner, and Woody Allen were all targets for the duo. “Can you separate the art from the man?” Mulaney asked teasingly. “What about Woody and his last 20 unwatchable movies? Can I still not watch them? Or must I reevaluate based on these new allegations that were a matter of public record 30 years ago?” It became clear that the only way two white men could host an awards show was to viciously takedown any man who had done people wrong. It was retributive justice by way of one-liners.
As the lambasting came to an end Mulaney and Kroll seemed genuine in their closing statements. “Thank you to all of you for making such great movies this year. We really needed them—this is a very strange time in our country.” The strangeness didn’t prohibit the hosts from creating laughter. If anything it only amplified their jokes.
The show proceeded rather smoothly from there; emerging filmmaker Faren Humes was awarded the Chaz Ebert Foundation Fellowship, which includes an unrestricted cash grant of $10,000. Humes was a participant in Project Involve, Film Independent’s diversity program now in its 25th year.
It seemed to be a landmark year for diversity at this year’s awards. Without leaning too much into the pageantry of awards show, the “Spirits” managed to offer moments that were both playful and heartfelt. After about three acceptance speeches, everyone and everything essentially sounds the same. But there were standouts:
Notably, Dee Rees delivered a rousing, poetic monologue detailing the craftsmanship of her “Mudbound” crew. “We know that cinema lies not in a strip of celluloid, a length of magnetic tape, nor across the blind plane of an image sensor,” said Rees. “We know that cinema lies in absorbing, electrifying performances by committed actors that make audiences feel, that make them think, that make them observe themselves and the world around them in a more expansive way.” Altman would’ve been smiling.
As Frances McDormand took home the award for Best Female Lead (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) she (like Rees) offered her truth: “This awards convention goes on for fucking ever,” he said giddily. “I’m old enough to remember when this was a beach party. But I’m also old enough to have a little memory loss, so maybe it wasn’t a beach party.”
If anyone was dressed for a beach party it was “Call Me By Your Name” heartthrob Timothée Chalamet. Upon accepting his Best Male Lead trophy he said, in a throwaway line, “Michael Barker, ha, thanks for the career.” If the crowd wasn’t infatuated Chalamet already, they were after his irrepressible optimism. “Thank god we have Dee Rees, Greta Gerwig, Luca Guadagnino, Josh Safdie, Jordan Peele, Josh Mond, Xavier Dolan. I have faith in the people being given the keys.”
And if anyone was granted the keys yesterday, it was Peele. In what felt like a true passing of the torch moment, Spike Lee introduced the Best Director award. “I think he went to Sarah Lawrence,” Spike said smiling. “Jordan Peele!” No one can announce a winner like Spike. There was excitement in his voice. You could see it on his face. As Peele walked onto the stage the two directors embraced. “Getting this award from Spike is crazy,” said Peele. “Let’s make no mistake I would not be standing here if it wasn’t for this man. I love you.”
The love continued for "Get Out." Shortly after Peele accepted his directorial award, the film won Best Feature. No one was exactly surprised. By now the movie has ascended to another level. It feels more like a national sensation than a feature film, a cultural movement more than genre-bending cinema. In his slick red suit Peele spoke once more. “We are the beginning of a renaissance,” he said enthusiastically.
Throughout the day that positivity persisted, and didn't feel feigned or unearned. The people on the microphone believed that tomorrow could be a better day. That our collective future could be written by us, by those interested in progression and unity. If we had migrated to the adjacent Santa Monica beach we would’ve sung Kumbaya without irony. I know that’s as silly of a sentence to read as it is to believe, but in that moment Peele’s words connected. “Our truths are the most powerful weapon we have against the lies in this world,” said Peele. “So keep doing what we’re doing.”
And the winners are:
Jordan Peele, “Get Out”
Greta Gerwig, “Lady Bird”
BEST FIRST FEATURE
Director: Matt Spicer
BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY
JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD (For best feature made under $500,000):
“Life and Nothing More”
Writer/Director: Antonio Méndez Esparza
BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE
BEST SUPPORTING MALE
Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
BEST FEMALE LEAD
Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
BEST MALE LEAD
Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
ROBERT ALTMAN AWARD
Director: Dee Rees
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, “Call Me by Your Name”
Tatiana S. Riegel, “I, Tonya”
BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM
“A Fantastic Woman” (from Chile)
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Directors: Agnés Varda, JR