Gotham Awards Honor ‘Frozen River’ and Penélope Cruz, End on Time

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If last night’s Gotham Awards ceremony at Cipriani were any indication, the upcoming spate of year-end prize-giving will be a series of smooth, well-oiled affairs. With machinelike precision — are we sure these are independent filmmakers? — the unofficial kickoff to the 2008 movie-awards season began on time, ended on time, and pretty much went without a hitch. (We’ll assume they came in on budget, too.) Even host Aasif Mandvi, who bombed big early on with a painful and endless riff about how the election of Barack Obama was just a very stoned Allah’s idea of a joke on the U.S. (his “Allah voice” sounded like a cross between Gandhi and Cheech Marin), recovered quickly when he called the audience “the Joe Liebermans of filmmaking,” to a chorus of appreciative boos. (You kind of had to be there.)

Hosted by the Independent Feature Project (IFP), the Gothams also appeared to have shed the identity crisis of the last several years. Yes, we all had a weird moment of clarity when the tribute reel for Penélope Cruz, one of the night’s honorees, reminded us that she was also in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Vanilla Sky. But the night’s other honorees were all spot-on: HBO Documentary head Sheila Nevins (who had the night’s best line when she playfully refused to thank her programmers “because we’ve all seen All About Eve”), director Gus Van Sant, and the estimable Melvin Van Peebles, who received a warm, extended standing ovation. The coveted Best Feature award went to Courtney Hunt’s acclaimed no-budget indie drama Frozen River, which isn’t exactly a hot Oscar Watch item, save perhaps for Melissa Leo’s lead performance, which the Gothams also rewarded. (It should be noted, however, that River won at Sundance and just yesterday bagged a whole crapload of Spirit nominations, so maybe we’re being too cynical.) The Documentary winner, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water, probably has a better shot at an Oscar, since it’s already been short-listed by the Academy. You can see the rest of the winners here.

In truth, Vulture’s high point of the evening came early, when director Nina Paley won Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You for her unbelievably awesome animated film Sita Sings the Blues, which we touted in the Picture Palace and elsewhere earlier this year. Paley also happened to be one of our tablemates, and we were disconcerted to learn that, despite critical acclaim and a number of awards, Sita may remain undistributed. The problem? While the recordings of the lovely Annette Henshaw songs throughout the film are in the public domain, their lyrics, evidently, are not. And the rights holders are asking for extortionate prices — apparently unable to comprehend the fact that Paley’s film is the biggest and most compelling marketing tool they’ll ever have for these works. (You can learn more about Paley’s film and her travails here.) Still, we hope she enjoys her award — especially since it carries with it a $15,000 cash prize.

Gotham Awards Honor ‘Frozen River’ and Penélope Cruz, End on Time