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In possible Oscar preview, ‘Nomadland’ wins at Spirit Awards

Director Chloe Zhao, left, appears with actress Frances McDormand on the set of "Nomadland." (Searchlight Pictures via AP)

Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” won best feature at the 36th Independent Spirit Awards in a ceremony that turned the annual beach soiree into a virtual, mostly pre-taped event, and, possibly, an Oscar preview.

The Spirits, usually held in a giant tent on the Southern California coast, have sometimes been a laid back dress rehearsal for the Academy Awards. “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” “Birdman” and “12 Years a Slave” all won at the Spirits before taking best picture at the Oscars the next day, though top winners (“The Farewell” won the Spirits’ top prize in 2020) have diverged the last few years. But many of the same contenders overlapped this year, including “Minari,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Promising Young Woman” and “Sound of Metal.”

And “Nomadland” has been on a steady march to the Oscars. The film’s Spirit win follows others at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, the producers guild and the directors guild. Zhao also won best director Thursday at the Spirits, an honor she’s heavily favored to win at the Academy Awards.

It was a fitting victory for Zhao’s modest drama about rootlessness and community in the American West. Three years earlier on the day of the Spirit Awards, Zhao and Frances McDormand first met to discuss the project.

Most of the other Oscar nominees went home with Spirit awards, too. Yuh-Jung Youn, the Academy Awards favorite, won best supporting female actor for “Minari.” Paul Raci, the 72-year-old veteran working actor who’s soaked up his moment in the sun, won best supporting male actor for “Sound of Metal.” Emerald Fennell, the writer-director, of “Promising Young Woman,” took best screenplay.

In one twist, best male lead actor went to Riz Ahmed for his performance in “Sound of Metal” — an award that has usually gone this year to the late Chadwick Boseman for his final performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”) took best lead female actor in the category that’s perhaps most up for grabs at the Academy Awards. Previous awards have been split between Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), McDormand and Mulligan.

Put on by the nonprofit Independent Film, the Spirits were hosted by Melissa Villasenor of “Saturday Night Live” and broadcast Thursday night on IFC. Independent Film did everything it could to virtually mimic the experience of the awards, including grouping Zoomed-in attendees by table, featuring virtual wine and bourbon bars and hosting a karaoke afterparty. Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, called it “the first ever pants-optional Spirit Awards.”

The nominees were especially diverse. None of the best feature nominees — “Nomadland,” “Minari,” “First Cow,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” — were directed by white men. All of the directing nominees — Zhao, Fennell, Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), Kelly Reichardt (“First Cow”) and Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”) — were women or people of color.

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