35th Annual Film Independent Spirit Awards – Viewers Guide

By William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog

Awards Season is reaching its climax for 2020, this weekend features the two most significant ceremonies in the United States. The Oscars are on Sunday, February 9th, but on Saturday the 8th, it’s all about the indies, as the 35th Annual Film Independent Spirit Awards will be handed out live on IFC from the world famous Santa Monica Pier.

In preparation for the awards, I’ve compiled a stack of reviews from a good deal of the nominated films as I’ve watched them over the course of 2019. Think of this as a primer for the awards. If you’ve seen the movies, or even if you haven’t, this will hopefully serve as an appetizer for the main course.

The Lighthouse

Directed by Robert Eggers and starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, this throwback bit of claustrophobic tension is a master class in both acting and cinematography, as the two leads play off each other brilliantly within the confines of their tight quarters at a lighthouse on a remote coastal rock. Filmed in 4:3 aspect ratio in black and white, the framing of the movie gives an immediate impression of cabin fever, continuously escalated by Dafoe and Pattinson’s ramped up dialogue.

The Lighthouse is the co-leader with five total nominations: Best Director (Robert Eggers), Best Male Lead (Robert Pattinson), Best Supporting Male (Willem Dafoe), Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. Read the review.

Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler gives the best performance of his career in a manic, thrilling tale of compulsive gambling and the power of a “good luck charm.” Sandler leads a versatile cast including Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, and NBA superstar Kevin Garnett in a dangerous game of seeing just how far someone can “let it ride” when they’re massively in debt, banking on both the monetary and adrenaline rush of chasing that one big score. In a bit of foreboding comedy, Adam Sandler has promised to follow this up with the most intentionally terrible film he can possibly conceive in retaliation for being snubbed by the Academy Awards.

Uncut Gems is tied with The Lighthouse with five nominations: Best Feature, Best Director (Benny & Joshua Safdie), Best Male Lead (Adam Sandler), Best Screenplay (Ronald Bronstein & the Safdie Brothers), and Best Editing. Read the review.

Honey Boy

In a fantastic display of art therapy, Shia LaBeouf offers a fictionalized version of his early life and career, jumping back and forth between his days as a child actor under the oppressive thumb of his father, and his young adult years, where lingering trauma led him to cycle in and out of rehab. Using Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe as avatars for himself, LaBeouf takes on the mantle of his own father offering a no holds barred look at the struggle for normalcy when everyone wants a piece of you, especially for those too ashamed to admit it.

Honey Boy is nominated four times in three categories: Best Director (Alma Ha’rel), Best Supporting Male (Shia LaBeouf and Noah Jupe), and Best Cinematography. Read the review.


Alfre Woodard stars in one of several movies to come out in 2019 dealing with the sensitive issue of capital punishment. Based in part on the story of Death Row inmate Troy Davis, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu spends less time on whether or not the condemned are innocent or guilty, but instead focuses on Bernadine Williams (Woodard), the warden at a prison where men are executed, and the traumatic effects that the act of putting a man to death can have on those who are legally bound to carry out the deed. One of the more profound looks at the death penalty ever put to cinema, the clemency mentioned in the title isn’t necessarily the hope of getting a reprieve from certain death, but more the question of whether or not the people doing their jobs can forgive themselves.

Clemency has received three nominations: Best Feature, Best Female Lead (Alfre Woodard), and Best Screenplay (Chinonye Chukwu). Read the review.

Marriage Story

It may seem odd for a Netflix movie to be considered independent, but Noah Baumbach’s modern version of Kramer vs. Kramer is a fascinating look at the end of marriage in our current world. Led by a fantastic ensemble cast including Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, and Laura Dern (all Oscar-nominated), the central crux of the story shows two people who are kind, loving, good parents, and who at one point were madly in love with each other. What drives them apart is a lack of ability to communicate with one another, highlighted by a brilliant opening sequence where both sides narrate montages about all the great qualities in each other, but refuse to say them out loud in a live setting. For two people who make their livings in art and performance – Adam Driver’s Charlie is a stage director while Johansson’s Nicole is an actress – they somehow can’t find a way to talk to one another without it seeming like a transactional part of their jobs, which endangers not only the stability of their futures, but that of their son.

Marriage Story is nominated for two awards: Best Feature and Best Screenplay (Noah Baumbach), and has already been selected as the winner of the Robert Altman Prize for best ensemble cast. Read the review. (reviewed as part of a column exploring the Netflix entries for Academy consideration).

The Mustang

An inmate with a violent past finds redemption in one of the most unexpected places – the eyes of a horse. While not exactly based on actual events, The Mustang highlights an unorthodox prison reform program here in the U.S., where inmates are given the opportunity to break and tame wild mustangs to prepare them for sale at auction. Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman, tasked with taming Marquis (pronounced as Marcus) within five weeks, while still dealing with the fallout of his previous and current actions and violence, which has estranged him from his daughter (Gideon Adler of Blockers) and continues to isolate him even further within the walls of the prison. Marquis is his one outlet to the larger world, and at times the only connection to his own humanity. Jason Mitchell and Bruce Dern feature in strong supporting roles, and whatever the animal wranglers got paid for this film, it wasn’t enough, because they do truly spectacular work.

The Mustang is nominated in two categories: Best Male Lead (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Best First Feature (Laure de Claremont-Tonnerre). Read the review.

A Hidden Life

The latest from acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life tells the story of a poor Austrian farmer who risked everything during WWII to stand up as a conscientious objector. Told mostly through letters between Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and gorgeously filmed, the three-hour chronicle shows the inherent risk in standing up for one’s beliefs. Because all soldiers under Hitler’s thumb were legally obligated to sign an oath of loyalty to him, Franz refuses not only to fight, but to even give quarter or food to other soldiers. He risks conscription, imprisonment, and even execution if he fails to comply, and every moment he’s away his wife and children are constantly harassed and assaulted by their neighbors. A Hidden Life is nominated for Best Feature. Read the review.


Renée Zellweger is in line for her second career Oscar in Judy, where she portrays the late great Judy Garland in one of her final performances, on stage in London for nightly shows mere months before her death. There are moments when Zellweger truly sings – figuratively and literally – in the title role, which also explores the abuses Garland went through as an up and coming talent in The Wizard of Oz and her ill-fated romances, including a young Mickey Rooney. Judy is nominated for Best Female Lead (Renée Zellweger). Read the review.


From South Korea, director Bong Joon-ho gives us yet another master class in how to blend and bend genre. Beginning as a satire on class warfare, the poverty-stricken Kim family is able to manipulate their way into the employ of the wealthy but oblivious Park family, infiltrating every aspect of their lives. But not content to settle for a lighthearted comedic romp, Bong deftly turns the tone on a dime, taking the film into suspense, crime, and outright thriller. Beautifully written and immaculately shot, Parasite is looking to cause a stir at the Academy Awards, where it’s up for several awards, including Best Picture. Parasite is nominated for Best International Film, Read the review.


Actress Olivia Wilde makes her debut behind the camera in this coming-of-age teen comedy that features two studious best friends making an effort for one night of frivolity. Starring Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart sees two high school seniors about to graduate at the top of their class after years of hard work, only to find out that their privileged and party-going classmates also got into the same prestigious colleges as they did while still leading active social lives. This spurns them on to attend a high school party on their last night to do so, in hopes of making up for lost time and strengthening their bond, as well as the requisite high school hook-ups. While this may look like an updated Superbad (Beanie Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s younger sister after all), this film goes for so much more than just laughs. Dever’s character is a normalized out lesbian which wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago, the various misadventures in trying to even find the party explore comedic levels that many other films aren’t willing to risk, and Billie Lourd (daughter of the late Carrie Fisher) steals every scene she’s in. Booksmart is nominated for Best First Feature (Olivia Wilde). Read the review.

William J. Hammon is the creator of the I Actually Paid to See This blog where you’ll find more movie reviews and awards coverage.


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