Fox Searchlight's Sunshine and ThinkFilm's Nelson picked up five nominations apiece in the main categories, including best feature. Previously known as the Independent Spirit Awards, the awards, sponsored by Los Angeles-based Film Independent, honor achievements in the indie film scene. The winners will be revealed Feb. 24 at the group's annual awards luncheon, which takes place in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica.
In the best feature category, Sunshine and Nelson will compete with American Gun, a drama about the proliferation of guns in the U.S.; The Dead Girl, a mystery-thriller about a serial killer's victim; and Pan's Labyrinth, a politically charged fantasy film.
While the awards celebrate American independent cinema, a film qualifies if two of the three principal filmmmakers reside in the U.S., which is why the group included the Spanish-language Labyrinth.
Unlike past years, when some Spirit Awards nominees approached moderately budgeted studio fare, this year's selection hewed more closely to the lower-budgeted indie line. Sunshine, which was produced for about $8 million, has gone on to gross nearly $59 million domestically, while Nelson, which cost less than $1 million, has collected $2.7 million. In all, the group's nominating committees reached out to embrace 41 films, about half of which were produced for less than $1 million.
Past Spirit Award winners Felicity Huffman and Don Cheadle announced the nominees at the Hotel Sofitel in Los Angeles.
"There really is an explosion of talent in the lower-budgeted films," Film Independent executive director Dawn Hudson said. "We saw more submissions of lower-budgeted films and better lower-budgeted films. Independent film is no longer confined to small character dramas. There are political films here, satires, comedies and fantasies. And there's (David Lynch's) 'Inland Empire, ' which combines a lot of them."
Lynch and his frequent collaborator, Laura Dern, were singled out to receive a Special Distinction Award in recognition of their work together running from Blue Velvet through Inland Empire.
Sunshine and Nelson also earned noms for their directors: the team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who helmed the comedy, and Ryan Fleck, who steered the drama. Their category also includes the late Robert Altman for A Prairie Home Companion, Karen Moncrieff for Dead Girl and Steven Soderbergh for Bubble.
Dayton and Faris were driving their kids to school -- in a blue van -- when they got the word.
"Our (twin) boys are 11, very into sports and very competitive -- they were cheering," Dayton said, laughing. Added Faris: "It's nice for them to know we are not moving out of our house. It gives them a small sense of security, even though there's no cash prize."
Alex Orlovsky and Jamie Patricof, producers of both Nelson and "Point & Shoot," were nominated for the Axium Producers Award, which rewards emerging producers with a $50,000 grant. Their competition is Julie Lynn, producer of Nine Lives and 10 Items or Less, and Howard Gertler and Tim Perell, producers of Shortbus and Pizza.
"We were all kind of bummed when we didn't get any awards at Sundance -- we got nothing, not even a consolation take-home tote bag," Patricof said. "This is a 180-degree turnaround."
Said ThinkFilm exec Mark Urman: "We're actively engaged in a properly funded and credible campaign for the Oscars in certain categories, and this helps. These nominations are sweet enough on their own, but it's no secret they're part of an even larger agenda."
For best male lead, the Spirit Awards nominated Aaron Eckhart for his lobbyist in Thank You for Smoking, Ryan Gosling for his teacher in Nelson, Edward Norton as a betrayed husband in The Painted Veil, Ahmad Razvi as a Pakistani rock star working as a coffee vendor in New York in Man Push Cart and Forest Whitaker as a high school principal in American Gun.
Gosling, whose chances of snaring a corresponding Oscar nom received a boost, said: "We watched (the nominations) on streaming video on our computer, and it was coming through very stutteringly. It was fun to see Don Cheadle say 'Half Nelson' so many times."