Spirit Awards Wed 12.17.2014

30 of the Best Spirit Award-Winning Indie Films Ever—Part 2: Breakthrough Performances

Before their careers took off, some of our favorite indie actors starred in Spirit Award-winning films that won them their own trophy and propelled their careers to new heights. (Spirit Awards trivia: In 1995, the Best Debut Performance category was introduced to celebrate an actor’s breakout role, but was discontinued in 2005.) Here are six exceptional talents who grabbed the world’s attention for the first time on the Spirit Awards stage. You can check out part one of this series—films that explore sex, love and romance—here.

12 Years a Slave (2013) Best Feature, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Female
Breakthrough Performer: Lupita Nyong’o
Where You Can Watch It: DVD, HBO
Last year, director Steve McQueen’s heart-wrenching epic brought the emotional true story of Solomon Northup to life, and took the awards season by storm. Chiwetel Ejiofor was captivating as Northup, a man sold into slavery and fighting for his life, never giving up hope that he will be emancipated. Equally powerful was the performance of Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. Making her feature film debut, Nyong’o earned a Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female—along with an Oscar and many others. She became the Cinderella of the awards season, delivering inspirational acceptance speeches and turning heads in every dazzling gown she showed up in.

In the Company of Men (1998) Best Debut Performance, Best First Screenplay
Breakthrough Performer: Aaron Eckhart
Where You Can Watch It: DVD
Playwright and indie film director Neil LaBute is no stranger to exposing audiences to psychologically analytical and often disturbing material. In LaBute’s feature debut, two business executives with too many failed relationships decide to get revenge on the female species by targeting a harmless young woman and attempting to ruin her life. Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of the despicable, misogynistic character Chad won him the Spirit Award that year. He landed roles in a few more indies before being cast as Julia Roberts’ love interest in Steven Soderbergh’s blockbuster Erin Brockovich.

L.I.E. (2002) Best Debut Performance, Producer’s Award
Breakthrough Performer: Paul Dano
Where You Can Watch It: DVD, VOD (Netflix, Amazon)
After the death of his mother and jailing of his corrupt father, young Howie is all alone in the world, left running amok with thieves and male prostitutes. This controversial coming-of-age drama directed by Michael Cuesta hones in on Howie’s loneliness and how his life changes once he meets and forms an unconventional and seemingly inappropriate relationship with a much older man called Big John. Paul Dano took home a Spirit Award for his provocative and daring portrayal of Howie opposite Brian Cox, also delivering a must-see performance.

Antwone Fisher (2003) Best Male Lead
Breakthrough Performer: Derek Luke
Where You Can Watch It: DVD, VOD (Walmart, Amazon)
In Denzel Washington’s dramatically captivating directorial debut, Derek Luke captured hearts as a troubled sailor who is ordered to attend therapy sessions with a Navy psychologist after a violent outburst. In his first feature film role, Luke’s varied and emotionally charged performance earned him a Spirit Award for Best Male Lead, which then led to one of the most memorable acceptance speeches in the ceremony’s history. Luke inspired fellow aspiring actors to keep living the dream and working toward their goals, confessing that he had been a waiter at the Spirit Awards the year before.

Junebug (2006) Best Supporting Female
Breakthrough Performer: Amy Adams
Where You Can Watch It: DVD
Now she has had a plethora of nominations for various great performances, but Amy Adams was little known when she starred in the quirky, hilarious role of Ashley in director Phil Morrison’s feature debut. Adams was the film’s obvious scene-stealer as an adorable, Southern pregnant woman who loves meerkats. The role landed Adams a Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female and led to the first of several Oscar nominations, making her one of Hollywood’s most versatile and in-demand leading ladies.

Juno (2008) Best Feature, Best Female Lead, Best First Screenplay
Breakthrough Performer: Ellen Page
Where You Can Watch It: DVD, VOD (Amazon)
Director Jason Reitman’s comedy about teen pregnancy was one of those little gems that became a larger-than-life surprise the year it was released. Juno snagged three Spirit Awards, including Best Feature and Best Female Lead for Ellen Page, in her  star-making role as the defiant, very pregnant title character. Page not only has had a successful career since, but  she has recently became an inspirational voice in the LGBT community by coming out as gay and becoming an advocate for equality and human rights.

Chris Lombardi / Film Independent Blogger