The awards racket is full of alleged official kickoffs, but last night gave us our first significant taste of the season with IFP’s (Independent Film Project) Gotham Independent Film Awards. Viewed at first glance as a precursor to the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the Gothams set themselves apart by selecting nominees and winners by jury process, often enough yielding a surprising and unexpected group winners. Last year’s focus veered unusually close to the eventual tastes of the Academy Awards, and while seemingly the big winner of the night was the current Best Picture frontrunner, Spotlight, the juries nonetheless maneuvered some exciting selections across the evening.
Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight raked in the most awards over the night, beating out significant contender Carol for Best Feature. Also in contention were more humble, formally daring nominees like teen sexuality drama The Diary of a Teenage Girl, strung-out heroin addict odyssey Heaven Knows What and transgender prostitute adventure Tangerine. Best Screenplay also went to Spotlight, which isn’t the most charismatic script, but is certainly the densest feat of well researched storytelling. The film also received a special jury award for its ensemble cast, a considerable note for a film with few performances that break rank to astonish, but plenty of subtle character work tucked neatly into the journalistic drama.
While eyes were already on McCarthy’s film, Sean Baker’s Tangerine emerged as the true indie success story of the night. The first award of the night, for Breakthrough Actor, went to Mya Taylor’s collected, empathetic performance in the film, though sadly neither Taylor nor co-lead Kiki Kitana Rodriguez were present at the ceremony. It wasn’t the only time Sean Baker would rise to the podium, brought back to unexpectedly accept the Audience Award, which was selected from a pool of every film nominated in another category.
The rest of the awards seemed less focused on choosing expected winners than they were in bringing attention to underseen films and performances. It wasn’t a surprise for Joshua Oppenheimer’s Indonesian genocide follow-up, The Look of Silence, to win in the Documentary category. It’s likely the first of many awards the devastating doc will win over the season, but it’s a unique, deeply disarming piece of bravery, in direction and subject. The category was full of unconventional documentary achievements, including Approaching the Elelphant, Cartel Land, Heart of a Dog and Listen to Me Marlon.
There were plenty of Breakthrough Director nominees that felt like worthy, digestible choices, but it’s admirable of the jury to shift focus to perhaps the least well known candidate, Jonas Carpigano for African immigration thriller Mediterranea. There was no typical choice optional in the shaggy Best Actor category, but the prize went to Paul Dano for crushingly neurotic work as a young Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy. Capping off things is the intense Best Actress category packed with potential Oscar contenders from Cate Blanchett and Brie Larson to Lily Tomlin and Blythe Danner. Rather than go with any of them, though, the jury stood up for Bel Powley’s vividly mature performance in The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Here’s hoping Sony Pictures Classic jump on the buzz to give Powley the considerable campaign her work deserves.
All the winners are listed below, and you can check out the full list of nominees here.
Best Feature: Spotlight
Audience Award: Tangerine
Best Actress: Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Best Actor: Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Best Screenplay: Spotlight
Best Documentary: The Look of Silence
Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director: Jonas Carpigano, Mediterranea
Best Breakthrough Actor: Mya Taylor, Tangerine