Last night’s Gotham Awards ceremony, held for the first time in Brooklyn, at Steiner Studios’ massive Stage 3, provided an entertainingly schizophrenic picture of the indie film world. As some may recall, last year the Gothams, handed out by the IFP and ostensibly designed to honor the downtrodden underdogs of the film world, caught flack for nominating studio films such as The Departed, Little Children, and Marie Antoinette. The nominations this year seemed to get a bit more with the program — Craig Zobel’s ultra-low-budget comedy The Great World of Sound led the field with three nominations, with other resolutely indie titles such as Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night getting multiple nods.
Of course, as the kudoscoaster season’s first visible awards show, the Gothams also probably feel some responsibility to give Oscar boosts to their chosen titles. (Last year, many felt Half Nelson’s three wins had something to do with Ryan Gosling’s eventual Oscar nomination.) As a result, many of the winners this year seemed primed to hit that studio specialty-arm sweet spot. Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, distributed by Paramount Vantage, won Best Feature. (For his part, Zobel did get the Breakthrough Director award.) Ellen Page, the star of Fox Searchlight’s Juno, took Breakthrough Actor. And one could palpably sense the jovial air in the room getting sucked out when Best Documentary went to Michael Moore’s Sicko over numerous other acclaimed, lower-profile films. (It’s also telling that the place emptied significantly after the documentary award was handed out; at the Gothams, that’s arguably the big award.)
So it was refreshing to hear IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring’s eloquent candor when he addressed the issue head on as he accepted his Gotham Tribute award. “Daniel, what you guys do at Miramax is great,” he said, addressing himself to Daniel Battsek, president of Miramax, “but I don’t think it’s independent film.” Sehring went on to express his frustration at the fact that so many great films are not being distributed today, simply because they don’t have stars or major box-office potential. He also used the opportunity to passionately justify his company’s championing of smaller films, and its sometimes-controversial commitment to same-day theatrical and DVD releases: “The rest of the country deserves what we have in New York.”
Among the other Gotham Tribute honorees were Mayor Mike Bloomberg (who got a warm reception, even though his repertoire of “Hire-me-as-an-actor” jokes fell hilariously flat), Javier Bardem (whose No Country for Old Men co-star Josh Brolin introduced him as “the Great Golden-Brown Hope”) and, most touchingly, film critic Roger Ebert, still unable to talk due to his cancer surgery. Ebert was introduced in person by director Sidney Lumet, and got a second introduction from Martin Scorsese as part of a tribute video. Scorsese noted emotionally that a tribute to him organized by Ebert and Gene Siskel at the 1982 Toronto Film Festival helped turn both his career and his life around.
This led to one of the evening’s stranger moments, as the tribute video cut immediately from Scorsese’s poignant words to a clip of Ebert proclaiming on his show, “There’s only one word for Million Dollar Baby, and that word is ‘masterpiece’!” Presumably the editor of this one didn’t remember that Million Dollar Baby was the film that beat out Scorsese’s The Aviator for the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. More important, surely they could have found a more insightful moment from Ebert’s 40 years as a critic than a sound bite that seemed more like something out of Jeff Craig’s Sixty Second Preview. —Bilge Ebiri