And they're off! Gotham Independent Film Awards kick off the season!

01/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Michelle Byrd and Melvin Van Peebles via Wireimage

Terrence Howard, dressed in a dapper white hat opened the 2008 Gotham Independent Film Awards with "Love Makes You Beautiful," a song from his debut album, dedicating it to "all the filmmakers out there." The journey for film accolades kicked off Tuesday at the Wall Street's Cipriani ballroom. It was jam-packed with New York's film elite, so full, it was hard to maneuver throughout the room. This was a good sign, however, considering that the proceeds of the night went toward supporting the IFP's numerous programs for independent filmmakers.

Michelle Byrd, Executive Director of IFP, announced that over the last 30 years they have supported over 7000 films and have given resources to 20,000 filmmakers. "It's without question the biggest awards event that's first out of New York," Michelle Byrd told us earlier in the evening. "What's exciting is that it's a press event, everyone comes, all the stars show up, the directors are here, it's small films, big films, and it's the media capitol of the world." On whether or not she predicted seeing some of these films as Oscar nominations Byrd said, "I think you're going to see some of them, sure. I definitely do."

The Daily Show's token brown correspondent Aasif Mandvi hosted the night, joking that Jon Stewart was unavailable, so he outsourced the job. "I love outsourcing," he told the audience. "It's the first time in history where brown people get to mangle white people's names." Mandvi was not as on target when he joked to the audience that independents do whatever they want to do. "We're the Joe Liebermans of the film industry," he announced to much booing in an Obama-loving audience.

The first award of the night was a bittersweet one, awarding the Best Film Not Playing in a Theater Near You to Nina Paley's animated film Sita Sings the Blues. Judging by the short clip played, this film needs distribution, and fast. Fortunately the prize comes with a $15K cash grant. Paley accepted her award and thanked "all the distributors who aren't distributing the film, because otherwise I wouldn't be here."

The gorgeous Patricia Clarkson and Mickey Rourke, both with fresh sets of highlights, took to the stage to present the Breakthrough Director Award. Rourke announced that Darren Aronofsky is a former winner (for Pi, back in 1998 when it was called the Open Palm Award): "He's one of the best goddamn directors on the planet, so winning one of these ain't so bad." Rourke than accosted the lovely trophy lady when she brought the Gotham award to the stage for winner Lance Hammer of the Mississippi story Ballast. Fortunately, the young lady didn't seem to mind.

Renaissance Man Melvin Van Peebles, who transformed the film world with his 1971 Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, won the first tribute award of the night. He described the IFP as a nucleus for filmmakers to form around, and left us with the sage advice that "It's not how many times you get knocked down; it's how many times you get up."

The award for Best Ensemble Performance was a tie between Synecdoche, New York and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, accepted the award on behalf of the actors, dressed in a wrinkled blue pullover and untucked t-shirt. Aasif Mandvi later called him a clothes whore: "Man that guy will dress up!"

Sheila Nevins accepted the second award tribute of the night in one of the most bizarre acceptance speeches we've ever heard. "After 800 docs who better to get this award than I," she said. Just a little reminder that humility gets you nowhere in this industry. She refused to thank her father, her mother, her staff, her programmers, and her boss. So who did she thank? The subjects of her many documentaries.

The category for Best Documentary was a very tight race, and will probably most reflect the biddings of the Oscars. Man on Wire which has become the best reviewed film of all time was up against the controversial Roman Polanski: Wanted & Desired, as well veteran doc master Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World. But the honor went to Trouble the Water, the emotional portrayal of Hurricane Katrina, to much applause in the audience. Director Carl Deal thanked IFP saying, this film is "part of something so much bigger."

A seemingly nervous Sean Penn introduced his Milk director Gus Van Sant, explaining that many directors send their actors home feeling discouraged, but "with Gus Van Sant, you can't feel anything but encouragement." A film montage reminded us of the genius that is Van Sant, from To Die For to Good Will Hunting to Paranoid Park. The Milk footage seemed to firmly place his work in the Hollywood halo of legends, as the normally chatty audience fell silent. The cool as ice Van Sant thanked Sean Penn in his acceptance speech, "wherever he is," for Sean disappeared off into the night before anyone could notice.

Vicky Christina Barcelona helm Woody Allen, lover of all things beautiful women, honored Penelope Cruz via video with, "I'm sorry I couldn't be there at your thing, but thank god I had a prior engagement." He said he would love to work with her again, as would her Elegy co-star Sir Ben Kingsley, who thanked her for her generosity to her other actors and to her audience. "IFP celebrates independence," she said. "That is something I value very much in this industry."

The real winner of the night was Frozen River, which earned the Best Feature award, as well as the Breakthrough Actor award for Melissa Leo's performance. Well, Frozen River, and the city of New York. For Gotham is the biggest champion of independent film, and taking a night to celebrate its innovators, rising stars, and legends is the biggest reward the city could get. IFP's first awards event of the season puts New York once more well ahead of the curve.

2008-12-05-philip.jpg Philip Seymour Hoffman via wireimage