SANTA MONICA, Calif. - "12 Years a Slave" rolled at the Spirit Awards, winning five awards including best feature at the annual independent film celebration.
On the eve of the Academy Awards, the slavery tale won awards for director Steve McQueen, actress Lupita Nyong'o, screenwriter John Ridley and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. In a more laid-back, beachside ceremony in Santa Monica, just west of Los Angeles, "12 Years a Slave" was applauded as the clear favorite of the indie circuit.
The Spirit Awards could end up being - more than ever before - a dress rehearsal to Sunday's Academy Awards. "12 Years a Slave" is considered, albeit extremely narrowly, the favorite for best picture over the space spectacle "Gravity" and the 1970s con-artist "American Hustle." (Neither film was eligible at the Spirits, which honor films made for $20 million or less.)
The acting winners, too, may line up. All of the Oscar favorites won Saturday at the Spirits, including best actor for Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club" and Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine." McConaughey's co-star, Jared Leto, won best male supporting performance.
Leto gave what might be the acceptance speech to end all acceptance speeches, rattling off an absurd list of thank yous to not just those with "Dallas Buyers Club," but Herman Hess, Wayne Gretzky, home-made burritos, "the seven billion people on the planet" and many more. The actor-rocker added, with emphasis, "all the women I've been with and all the women who think they've been with me."
For many, the Spirit Awards conclude months of award-season events, and they provide a chance to exhale before the Oscars. McConaughey, Blanchett, Leto and Nyong'o have racked up a slew of awards, often triumphing over the same colleagues.
"What am I going to say that I haven't already said?" Blanchett remarked in her acceptance speech. On her way into the luncheon, the actress also repeated her view of the renewed scandal surrounding "Blue Jasmine" director Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow's claims he sexually assaulted her as a child: "It's a family issue, and I hope they can resolve it as a family."
This award, one of many for Nyong'o, stood out for the now 31-year-old actress: "Not a bad way to celebrate my birthday," she said.
Nyong'o dedicated the award to her mother, Dorothy, who was in the audience, for years of driving her to auditions. "Your love has driven me this far," she said.
Presented by Film Independent (a group of filmmakers, industry professionals and movie buffs) and hosted Saturday by Patton Oswalt, the Spirits are first and foremost a show to fete indie film and cast a spotlight on the little films that have to scrape money together to get made.
McQueen, with "12 Years a Slave" producer Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie looking on, reflected on how the naturalistic films of John Cassavetes "changed my life." He dedicated his directing award to Cassavetes and Solomon Northup, the man whose memoir "12 Years a Slave" is based on.
In accepting the award for best first feature, "Fruitvale Station" director Ryan Coogler provided the afternoon's most emotional moment. His film is about Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man shot while handcuffed by police. Coogler implored the audience to remember the "thousands of other Oscar Grants" and wondered why so many victims of such gun violence "always look like me." The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Several beloved fixtures of independent film were also remembered. The deaths of James Gandolfini, Philip Seymour Hoffman and critic Roger Ebert over the last year were singled out. Gandolfini's wife, Deborah Lin, and one of their two children attended the ceremony. (The actor was nominated for best supporting male performance.)
The Spirits' Robert Altman Award, an honor for best ensemble and director, was given to Jeff Nichols' coming-of-age tale "Mud." The John Cassavetes Award, which honors films made for less than $500,000, went to the unlikely friendship drama "This Is Martin Bonner," which director Chad Hartigan said was made for just $42,000. Gasps of admiration were heard throughout the beachside tent.
Other winners included "20 Feet From Stardom" for best documentary, "Blue Is the Warmest Color" for best international film, Bob Nelson of "Nebraska" for best first screenplay, and "Short Term 12" for best editing. The show was to be broadcast on the IFC cable channel later Saturday night.
The spirit of thrifty striving pervaded. McConaughey (also a co-star in "Mud") called indie work, "a feeder road" compared to the Autobahn of big-budget moviemaking. But he said he relished the freedom, even though it means "less zeroes on the paycheck."
In his monologue, however, Oswalt put a less optimistic spin on it. He said that in the course of his opening remarks, "The Lego Movie" had made more money than all of the Spirit Award nominees combined.