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At the Joyous Gotham Awards, Indie Film Celebrates its Own

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"We're here because the rich guys who finance movies like to meet celebrities."

With that MC Mike Birbiglia drolly kicked off the ceremony portion of the Gotham Awards Monday night at Cipriani Wall Street. Bestowed by the Independent Film Project, the awards are the season's earliest, often a bellwether for bigger prizes, and a shout-out for indie fare that may get trampled by the heavy hitters come Oscar time.

Before the boisterous, upbeat crowd got wrangled to their seats for the ceremony, the Frank PR team escorted me down the virgin red carpet as photogs wrestled each other to the ground to get a shot. I lifted off a "Toast of New York" cocktail (prosecco, vodka and grapefruit juice), one for each hand, and sailed through the cavernous Cipriani which looks like a scaled down Grand Central Station. The place was decorated with human caryatids: 5' 10" models in Hugh Hefner-endorsed corsets and giant blue fox hats. So many folks to meet and greet, but the pros get it down to a shorthand: ration out the greets only to those who can further your career.

On hand to celebrate indie film was a smattering of Birbiglia's financiers, looking wowed to be around so many glamorous filmmakers who could also pass for street people. One grumpy critic announced he was already bored but when I checked he was still at his table in Siberia (next to mine) as the event wound down after 10.

In the balcony, spirits soared. Indie filmmakers labor long and hard to secure financing for their projects so when it comes time to play, pop those corks! There was the esteemed and always amiable Bob Berney, who's putting together a new company. Richard Linklater looked as delicious and slackerly as when I interviewed him for Waking Life and was sporting a new beard. Sadly, I'd missed Bernie ("you'll catch it on video"), which was up for a Gotham Award for best pic; "Moonrise Kingdom" won, but where was Wes Anderson? I pressed Linklater to reveal something -- anything! -- about his forthcoming Before Midnight, the second sequel to the Jesse and Celine story which launched with Before Sunrise in, would you believe, 1995. Easily the most feverishly anticipated indie film, Midnight will bow in Sundance (which I avoid like the plague because, with all the restaurants booked for private parties for moguls, you could starve in the sub-zero streets). Written by Linklater along with its stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Midnight was shot in Greece and picks up nine years after Jesse misses his flight to the U.S. Is it romantic? I asked, please don't tell me it's full of bitterness and rue. "It's romantic," was all Linklater would offer. A check of IMDB reveals a young child in the cast. Uh oh.

Down at the Focus Features table stood Matt Damon, slated for a career tribute, and John Krasinski. They co-wrote and star in the new environmental film Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant. Here in party central Van Sant looked faintly terrified and like he'd rather be in Portland, Ore. Damon, Van Sant, and I posed for the camera. Then, my ritual kiss with SPC's Tom Bernard, and I skidooed to Table 10, which was somewhere under the red carpet and peopled with IFP underlings who actually ate the filet mignon.

Host Mike Birbiglia was a hoot but for some reason got little traction from the crowd. Sample jokes "written by people for whom this is a day job": "We're here because if we don't give these awards to ourselves who will?" He called the Gothams "the Academy Award for people who went to Vassar." There was also something about masturbating into a sink -- an allusion, I think, to The Master. "I was just fired," Birbiglia quipped.

Unlike last year, when guests roamed the Cipriani during the presentations like guests at a bad bar mitzvah, everyone appeared riveted and delighted by the tributes and excerpts from films. Such as those of versatile and unpredictable David O. Russell, whose The Silver Lining Playbook was the toast of Toronto. And did Russell actually say his son was bi-polar? It felt great to salute Jeff Skoll of Participant Media for his socially aware slate of films and progressive foundations. Skoll takes the curse off being a billionaire, said Emayatzy Corinealdi, who snagged the breakthrough actor trophy for Participant's Middle of Nowhere.

Jared Leto in a pony tail competing with that of Marion Cotillard won the audience award for his docu Artifact, and thanked his mother for letting him know that "being a creative person was completely unreasonable, but okay." Your Sister's Sister was saluted for best ensemble work, though Mark Duplass praised his co-stars Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt as "girls" -- blech -- who worked for $100 a day. Ethan Hawke, ever handsome but raising scruffiness to new heights, sounded hoarse from all that yelling as the star of Ivanov. Marion Cotillard was beyond charming. And Matt Damon, who for some time has been mysteriously missing his hair, told the crowd, "I'm very grateful for what I do. I've never taken it for granted, and I never will." As for Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, the cute kids from Moonrise Kingdom, I gather they were real crowd-pleasers. I never got to hear them because me and Matthias Schoenaerts, co-star of Rust and Bone, were already beating the hordes to the coat room.