The period drama "12 Years A Slave" swept through the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, taking five prizes, including feature, director, supporting female, screenplay and cinematography. It won in all but two categories in which it was nominated.
"I cannot tell you, as much as I thought the memoir and Solomon's words and work was special, I had no concept until I saw the movie for the first time," said the film's screenwriter, John Ridley, accepting the prize in that category as he referred to protagonist Solomon Northup.
The film, which is nominated for nine Oscars including best picture, has had an up-and-down ride through awards season, garnering predictions of best picture certitude as far as back as September and its share of skepticism since. But it was the toast of the tent in Santa Monica where the Spirits, the annual independent-film extravaganza, is held.
In addition to Ridley, Steve McQueen won the prize for director, Lupita Nyong'o won for supporting female and Sean Bobbit landed cinematography honors. The film's only podium absences came at the hands of "Dallas Buyers Club" -- Chiwetel Ejiofor lost to Matthew McConaughey in male lead and Michael Fassbender to Jared Leto in supporting male, results that were thought by many a foregone conclusion both Saturday and at Sunday's Oscars.
Released by Fox Searchlight, "12 Years" is the product in part of the perseverance of Brad Pitt and his production company, Plan B Entertainment. "Mr. Brad Pitt," as McQueen called him Saturday, was in attendance with partner Angelina Jolie and was referenced throughout the ceremony but didn't speak upon taking the stage for the feature win.
McQueen gave a shout-out to John Cassavetes as a formative influence when he accepted the director prize, and during his feature acceptance speech offered praise to the two nominated actors from the film who didn't come away victorious.
Of Fassbender, who has starred in all three of McQueen's films, he said, "Michael Fassbender is a genius," adding, "he's feminine, he's masculine. Mr. Brando would be extremely proud of you sir ... there is nothing he won't do, nothing he can't do."
And McQueen called Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played the lead role of a free man kidnapped into slavery, "the heart and soul of this movie... Thank you for making this movie the movie it is."
The four acting winners continued what has amounted to sweeps through this awards season. In addition to Nyong'o, McConaughey and Leto, Cate Blanchett won best female lead for her turn as a fallen socialite in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine."
Continuing a recent career resurgence, McConaughey offered an entertaining and elaborate highway metaphor about "Dallas" and independent film in general while winning his second Spirit award in as many years.
"It's not an autobahn film, it's not a freeway, it's not I-35, it's not even a two-lane highway," he said. "It's a feeder road," adding, "sometimes it's gravel, sometimes it's blacktop and sometimes it's dirt." He also offered an obligatory, "All right, all right, all right," referencing his "Dazed and Confused"-inspired catchphrase from the Golden Globes.
McConaughey's costar Leto continued his powerhouse run through awards season by taking supporting actor for his turn as the transgender AIDS patient Rayon in "Dallas."
He stole the show with an acceptance speech that was both swaggering and self-effacing as he ran through a long list of those he wanted to thank, including Herman Hesse, Steve Jobs and Wayne Gretzky.
Leto also thanked his "future ex-wife," saying "Lupita, I'm thinking about you," and thanked "all the women I've been with and all the women who think they've been with me," before segueing neatly to more serious subjects such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman and AIDS.
Nyong'o, who won for her turn as Patsy in "12 Years a Slave," took the stage later and, noting it was her birthday, offered a heartfelt ode to independent movies, which she said she only began to understand when she arrived in this country from her native Kenya.
She also offered a catchy rhyme when, speaking of co-stars Fassbender and Sarah Paulsen, she said, "You dared me, you scared me and you prepared me."
Continuing her dominating run throughout the awards season, Blanchett began by noting that there were six nominees in the actor category and only five for lead actress, singling out the snub for Greta Gerwig from "Frances Ha." She then continued her tactful maneuvers around the recently renewed controversy surrounding Woody Allen, referencing the filmmaker as a prolific presence and a man who has made movies with "alarming regularity."
Blanchett concluded by noting the movie's relative box office success shows audiences are "interested in stories led by women, and they can also make money."
(Allen's presence was felt throughout the day. When his name was called in the screenplay category, there was some applause and, notably, no boos.)
This year's show was hosted by Patton Oswalt, whose performance as shaky at times, going with familiar jokes about indie film and taking a few shots at the age of male lead nominee Bruce Dern that started funny and turned awkward. Oswalt did offer an eye-catching bit involving a drone as the machine came down to drop an envelope for supporting actress.
In other awards, there was a hint of things to come when one of the costars of "Fruitvale Station," actress Octavia Spencer, came out to present the award for Best First Feature, which went to the film and to writer-director Ryan Coogler.
In a moving speech that brought some in the audience to their feet, Coogler spoke not only of Oscar Grant, whose story inspired "Fruitvale Station," but also that there are "thousands of Oscar Grants every year, who are losing their lives to gun violence."
Awarded to films made for under $500,000, the John Cassavetes Award was given to "This is Martin Bonner." In receiving the honor alongside producer Cherie Saultier, writer-director Chad Hartigan noted the film was made for the rather astonishing sum of only $42,000.
Finally, "20 Feet From Stardom," the film about the unsung lives of backup singers, took the prize for best documentary. Director Morgan Neville noted the strong field of films for the year before adding, "It's never been more exciting... We're all out there basically trying to tell the truth."
The film also had a presence earlier in the day when three of the film's featured singers performed the soul classic "Lean On Me." It was part of a tribute to a trio of film figures who died in the past year: James Gandolfini, Roger Ebert and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The Spirit awards are presented by Film Independent, a membership organization that also puts on the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Film Independent at LACMA film series, as well as programs to support independent filmmakers.
The show, which takes place annually on Oscar weekend, often overlaps some of its best picture choices with Sunday's grand event but is not generally considered a predictor of those awards. This year, though, all four acting winners look like good bets to repeat at the Oscars -- the first time that would happen -- with Nyong'o perhaps the one wild card.