It’s time again to celebrate the best that indie-land has to offer. The Spirit Award nominees are out, with "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Half Nelson" leading all contenders with five nods each, including best feature.

The family dysfunction on-the-road comedy "Sunshine" was also nominated for Best Director (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), Supporting Male (Alan Arkin and Paul Dano) and Best First Screenplay (Michael Arndt). Meanwhile, "Half Nelson," a drama about a troubled inner-city teacher, received nods for Best Director (Ryan Fleck), Male Lead (Ryan Gosling), Female Lead (Shareeka Epps), and Best First Screenplay (Anna Boden and Fleck).


"Wait… we might both win Spirit Awards?"

The other nominees for Best Feature are "American Gun," "The Dead Girl," and "Pan’s Labyrinth." In the Best Director category, the nominees also include Robert Altman for "A Prairie Home Companion," Karen Moncrieff for "The Dead Girl," and Steven Soderbergh for "Bubble."

In addition to Gosling, the Male Lead nominees are Aaron Eckhart ("Thank You For Smoking"), Edward Norton ("The Painted Veil"), Ahmad Razvi ("Man Push Cart"), and Forest Whitaker ("American Gun"). In addition to Epps, the others up for the Female Lead award are Catherine O’Hara ("For Your Consideration"), Elizabeth Reaser ("Sweet Land"), Michelle Williams ("Land of Plenty"), and Robin Wright Penn ("Sorry, Haters").


"Pan’s Labyrinth": Do fauns qualify for Spirit Awards?

The Spirit Awards, formerly the Independent Spirit Awards, recognize films made on budgets of less than $20 million. The winners will be announced on Feb. 24, a day before the Academy Awards.

For a complete list of the nominees, click here. Also, check out RT’s interview with "Little Miss Sunshine" directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris here.

ELSEWHERE IN INDIE NEWS THIS WEEK:

"Tears" Finally Makes It To Theaters

The brightly colored, highly stylized Thai western "Tears of the Black Tiger" will open in January, six years after its premiere at Cannes. The film has been acquired by Magnolia from Miramax; "Tears" played on the festival circuit before landing in the company’s vault.

Swiss Oscar Selection Gets Distributor

The North American rights for "Vitus," Switzerland’s candidate for the Foreign Film Oscar, have been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics. The film, starring Bruno Ganz and Teo Gheorghiu, tells the tale of a child prodigy and his complex relationship with his parents.

Top Reviewed Limiteds

Opening last week in limited release: "Backstage," a dark examination of celebrity, is at 100 percent on the Tomatometer with 10 reviews; "The History Boys," a tale of hypercompetitive English schoolboys adapted from Alan Bennett, is at 62 percent with 50 reviews; and "Opal Dream," a coming-of-age tale about a little girl with imaginary friends in the Australian outback, is at 57 percent with 14 reviews.

Top Performing Limiteds

In last week’s indie box office battle, Pedro Almodovar‘s "Volver" grossed an average of $17,071 on 30 screens, beating out the Bollywood drama "Dhoom 2," which averaged $15,540 on 63 screens. "The History Boys" opened on seven screens with a $14,400 average, while the Jean-Luc Godard classic "Two Or Three Things I Know About Her…" and the Slamdance-approved documentary "Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story" both opened on one screen apiece to earn $10,764 and $5,034, respectively. Last week’s top indie "Bobby" dropped to 15th place after expanding from two to 1,667 screens, dropping its per-screen average from $34,519 to $2,914.


"The History Boys": No threat to the Hell’s Angels.

Thanks to Nick Hershey for his contribution to this story.

After welcoming in four new wide releases per week for seven straight weekends, the North American box office slows it down a bit on Friday with only one saturation release and a pair of moderate national bows.

Sony courts the teen horror crowd with its supernatural thriller "The Covenant." Meanwhile, Focus targets mature adults with the crime thriller "Hollywoodland" and The Weinstein Co. goes after the action audience with the martial arts pic "The Protector." With a slate of Labor Day weekend pics coming off of their lukewarm holiday performances, the overall marketplace is sure to be sluggish and could slump to its lowest point of the year.

Four prep school dudes learn of their ancestral powers and stir up some evil in the new teen chiller "The Covenant." Sort of a "Lost Boys" for today’s youth, the PG-13 film will target the horror audience as well as the back-to-school date crowd. Renny Harlin, who has seen highs with "Die Hard 2" and lows with "Cutthroat Island," directs. "Covenant" should play primarily to teens and young adults and Sony has a strong track record when it comes to attracting that crowd with these kinds of films. Last fall, the studio scored a big hit with "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" which bowed this very weekend with $30.1M, but saw more modest results with "The Fog" which opened in October with $11.8M. Each one still hit the top of the charts. The marketing push on "Covenant" has not been too fierce so a debut closer to "Fog’s" is likely. Competition for teens is not very strong at the moment so many should pick this for their weekend moviegoing choice. Attacking 2,681 theaters, "The Covenant" could scare up around $11M in ticket sales this weekend.


More teen-horror hijinks in "The Covenant"

Academy Award winner Adrien Brody plays a not-so-super sleuth in the 1950s who investigates the suicide death of Superman actor George Reeves in the new crime thriller "Hollywoodland." The R-rated Focus release also stars Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, and Bob Hoskins. After last year’s dominance at the Oscars by numerous indie flicks, "Hollywoodland" tries to get the awards season started early by getting a headstart over some of the fall’s other promising non-studio films. The casting of the "Gigli" star as the Man of Steel, however, might diminish its chances a bit as many industry voters won’t be able to help but snicker when the daredevil himself comes on screen. Mature adults will be the target audience and women might outnumber the guys by a small margin. The film’s subject matter will certainly be intriguing for film industry folks, but it will be a tougher sell to mainstream moviegoers. "Hollywoodland" will have to reach its audience in a hurry as parent company Universal will target the exact same crowd with its ensemble-driven period crime mystery "The Black Dahlia" a week later. Debuting in moderate national release in 1,548 theaters, "Hollywoodland" might capture about $8M this weekend.


Adrien Brody gets rough while investigating the death of tv’s Superman

The "Quentin Tarantino Presents" marketing technique is back once again with the Thai martial arts pic "The Protector" starring Tony Jaa. The R-rated film from The Weinstein Co. finds the acrobatic action star seeking revenge on those who wronged his people. Jaa’s "Ong Bak" made a moderate splash at the North American box office last year when it opened to $1.3M from 387 theaters for a mild $3,449 average on its way to a $4.6M domestic take. A year and a half later, more American action fans know of Jaa, though he’s still far from a sizable draw. Two years ago, the Weinsteins saw stellar results when using the "Pulp Fiction" director’s
name in the marketing of Jet Li‘s "Hero" which ended up topping the box office for two straight weeks on its way to a $53.6M gross. Lionsgate also used the QT tactic to drive in business for its horror pic "Hostel" last January which also bowed in the top spot. "Protector" will appeal mostly to young men who love martial arts and crossover to other groups is unlikely. The second weekend of "Crank" will draw upon many of the same folks so competition will be tough. Fighting its way into around 1,400 theaters, "The Protector" might kick up about $6M this weekend.


Tony Jaa, doing his own stunts, in "The Protector"

More independent films open in New York on Friday hoping to expand further around the country in coming weeks. Polychrome Pictures debuts the Asian American pic "Red Doors" in a pair of Manhattan locations. The dysfunctional family pic won the top prize at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Film Philos goes into one solo house with the coffee cart vendor drama "Man Push Cart" which world premiered at Sundance last winter.

"Invincible‘s" undefeated season should come to an end this weekend as the Disney sports drama enters its third outing. A 40% decline would see the Mark Wahlberg pic gross around $7M pushing the 17-day cume to $47M. After a second place bow over the weekend, the Lionsgate actioner "Crank" pumped itself up to the top spot on Tuesday with solid midweek business. Jason Statham saw his "Transporter 2" fall 55% a year ago when it came off of its Labor Day debut. "Crank" could see a slightly smaller drop. A 50% tumble would give the poison pic roughly $5M for the sophomore frame and a ten-day sum of $20M.

Nicolas Cage‘s "The Wicker Man" did not make too much of a dent at the box office last weekend. A 45% drop to around $5M seems likely giving Warner Bros. only $19M in ten days. Indie sensation "Little Miss Sunshine" should step back a bit after a strong Labor Day frame and could slide 30% to $5M as well. That would lift the cume for the year’s most recommended film to $42M making it the fifth biggest hit in company history for Fox Searchlight after "Sideways" ($71.5M), "The Full Monty" ($45.9M), "28 Days Later" ($45.1M), and "Napoleon Dynamite" ($44.5M). In another week, it will vault to number two for the Fox subsidiary.

LAST YEAR: Sony scored a huge surprise winner with the suspense thriller "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" which bowed bigger than expected with a hefty $30.1M grossing more than the next five films combined. The fright flick went on to scare up a sturdy $75.1M. Comedy sensation "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" followed in second with $7.7M in its fourth date while "Transporter 2" fell from first to third with $7.4M. The political drama "The Constant Gardener" and the airline thriller "Red Eye" rounded out the top five with $4.7M and $4.5M, respectively. Samuel L. Jackson debuted poorly in sixth with his action-comedy "The Man" which took in a weak $4.1M on its way to just $8.3M for New Line.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com

My annual pilgrimmage to Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign, Illinois has become something of a soul-rejuvenating experience. And as sappy as that sounds, I looked forward to this year’s fest with the same giddiness as most people look forward to their best friend’s wedding or a long-awaited reunion.

Deep down, I guess you could say, I need this.

Flying in over farm fields, able to easily identify and count ever single house and farm on the horizon, this is a world far removed from what one would typically think of as a hotbed of cinematic activity. But for five days out of the year, more and more movie fans are making a point of journeying here to see what all the fuss is about. This year, the Overlooked Film Festival sold out of festival passes a full three months before its debut. In its eighth year, the festival is clearing coming into its own.

I have attended the festival — regulars call it The Overlooked — since its second year, and have been amazed to watch the event grow both in terms of popularity and programming. Unlike so many film festivals, the obective is not buzz-building, or discoverng the next big thing — which inherently pigeon holes many festivals to the business side of the movie-making equation, as directors look to connect with producers and thoughts of quality play second fiddle to concerns of bankability. Instead, the Overlooked is about celebrating the great stuff that somehow slipped through the cracks, about celebrating the absolute best of what cinema has to offer – not just what some think can make a profit.

If it sounds heady, well, it kind of is. For the thousands of movie fans who make their way to the gorgeous Virgina Theater in downtown Champaign, in which I now sit, waiting for Friday’s first film to begin — cheerful organ music echoing off the walls of the balcony — there is an unwritten patnership with Roger Ebert. We will hand over our money and, more importantly, our time in return for being shown what we’ve missed.

If I, as a mid-level critic writing for a number of publications across the country, am constantly asked "What’s the best movie out right now, what should I go see?" And if I, sadly, have to often tell people that this or that great film isn’t showing near them, and that they’ll just have to wait for it to be released on DVD, I Can only imagine how often Ebert is asked the same question, and frustrated in offering the same response.

Well, this festival serves as almost the ideal remedy for that frustration. For a weekend, Ebert gets to share with his fans precisely those films that he would have recommended over a beer or a coffee, engaged in casual conversation, and better than simply discuss them, he gets to give them their proper due, projecting them on a towering screen in front of an audience who has been craving the experience.

For Ebert, it’s no doubt cathartic. Finally, he gets to share his cherished films with those who love his work. For other passionate – some might say zealous – movie fans like myself, it’s a haven amid the mediocrity, an oasis away from the things that so often renders our moviegoing experiences vapid and lifeless.

It’s here that my faith is restored — not just in the quality films, as I see so many great works of art showing back-to-back-to-back, but also in terms of audiences, as I see this crowd, a mix of both locals and out-of-towners, embracing the same, gutsy work. Hell, it even restores my faith in the notion of movie discussions and debates. After each film, as Ebert welcomes his guests of honor on stage which often include those responsible for creating the film we just saw, we are offered an impromptu education in the ways of movimaking, a spontaneous debate about the industry moderated by those who have confronted it head-on, and also a bit of unpredictable insight as the audience is allowed in to the discussion.

As we start day 3 (some dire technical problems prevented me from writing earlier), these are the thoughts that fill my head. We’ve only been here a few days, but something about this festival is infectious. Once you feel the energy course through the theater, once you encounter a film you know little to nothing about that completey immerses you, and then once you realize that hundreds of other people sitting right next to you are in the same boat, eager to meet the people behind the film, you don’t want to leave.

The thought of returning home next week and heading back to another mainstream effort — on deck are "Over The Hedge" and "An American Haunting" — I feel sad that, good or bad, I will be returning to another film that delivers almost exactly what I expect.

Really, all of this is a long way of saying that I love coming to Ebertfest precisely beacause it’s miles away from the industry. Coming here is leaving the conventional — the bland, the predictable, the timid — behind.

And why, why, why would someone ever want to go back?

So I’ll be here all weekend, and will bring you a few reports from Champaign in hopes of paying the spirt of this festival forward.

Ebert has often explained that the "overlooked" part of the fest is a flexible term. It can be a film that was overlooked by the box office last year — or any year — or it can be a film that was overlooked by distributors in never breaking out of the festival circut. It can be a film form that is overlooked — such as silent films with a live accompaniment or a 70 mm classic — or Ebert can find just about any other way to classify a film as overlooked so it will qualify.

Already, this year’s Overlooked has traversed the reasons. The festival opened Wednesday night with "My Fair Lady," the classic of choice for the Wednesday night screening. In past years Ebert has chosen others — the highlight might be a towering, 70mm presentation of "Lawrence of Arabia" — but "Lady" was quite a fun way to kick of the 2006 event. Thursday featured three films that, together, reflected three ways in which great, great films can be sadly overlooked by the mainstream movie world. "Man Push Cart," which Ebert raved about at Sundance this year, has not had a mainstream release. And it was clear how much Ebert wants the film to do well — and how he believes that it might just have a viable theatrical future. "Duane Hopwood" is a film from last year, but offers a performance from David Schwimmer — yes, Ross from "Friends" — that Ebert believes makes the film. What’s overlooked, as much as the film itself, is what Schwimmer can offer as a serious actor. And "Spartan," the David Mamet thriller, brought a close to the day’s festivities. It was a film that secured a wide release, earned four stars from Ebert (I actually named it to the top 10 films of the year), but which did atrocious business at the box office.

Still, here was Ebert, singing the film’s praises and bringing the film to an audience that audibly groaned when he revealed the film’s financial failure during a post-film discussion with acclaimed academic film theorist David Bordwell. In the day’s best post-film question and answer session, Ebert and Bordwell went far beyond the standard discusion of "Spartan" and Mamet. They started discussing the nature of the classic, three-part screenplay, how Mamet so often twists that formula around in his films, and also how the pacing and editing of mainstram cinema is changing with the proliferation of DVDs, high-definition televisions, iPods and the erosion of the communal film experience.

And there it was. 24 hours, four films, and every shade of why Ebertfest is an unforgettable place. Here, already, we’ve had a classic seen as it is rarely seen, a new cutting-edge film that’s struggling to reach its audience, an entertaining indie film that reveals a star in an entirely new light and then a great thriller – a really great film – that got distribution, but which no one knew they should see. And then, after it all, a quick dose of education – helping us to see why most films fail, and precisely why the Overlooked entries rise above it.

It’s only been one day, and all my faith is restored. And still so much more to come. The organ’s starting to descend now, moments before Friday’s first film is scheduled to begin. The audience is applauding. Ebert is coming out to make his official, giddy introduction. I’ll tell you all about it later.

Author: By Steven Snyder

Steven Snyder is a regular contributor to Zertinet Movies, www.zertinet.com, and Greater Milwaukee Today Newspapers, www.gmtoday.com. His work is often linked to Rotten Tomatoes.

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