Saturday , September 23 2023

‘Moonlight’ sweeps Gotham Awards – Huppert wins best actress

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Casey Affleck poses with his Best Actor award at the IFP Gotham Independent Film Awards on Nov 28, at Cipriani Wall Street in New York. (AP)
Casey Affleck poses with his Best Actor award at the IFP Gotham Independent Film Awards on Nov 28, at Cipriani Wall Street in New York. (AP)

In a formidable sweep, and perhaps a sign of things to come this awards season, “Moonlight” won best feature at the 26th annual Gotham Independent Awards on Monday. It was a big night for the coming-of-age story directed by Barry Jenkins, which landed four prizes, including best screenplay, best ensemble, and the audience award.

“I started writing things down, because I realized I was forgetting people”, said Jenkins, on his last of many trips to the podium. He thanked his cast, his third-grade English teacher (“the first person who told me my story was worth telling”) and A24, the distributor behind the buzzy indie film.

While the Gotham Awards don’t necessarily overlap with the Oscars, the ceremony held at Cipriani Wall Street has predicted best picture at the Academy Awards for the last two years. At the least, the Gothams — the first stop on the long and winding road of awards season — will offer a boost of momentum for “Moonlight” as Oscar voters enter the holiday season.

Isabelle Huppert picked up best actress for her performance in “Elle.” “I’m breathless. I’m speechless”, a visibly startled Huppert said as she took the stage. “I didn’t expect that to happen, I promise. They told me it’s an American award: ‘You’re French, and you’ll never get it.’” Huppert beat out favorites like Natalie Portman (“Jackie”) and Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”) for the prize, for her portrait of a sexual assault survivor in the revenge thriller.

Casey Affleck got best actor for playing a lonely janitor in “Manchester by the Sea.” “There’s no acting award that doesn’t half belong to the director and the writer”, said Affleck, who hadn’t prepared a speech. “Both of those people are Kenneth Lonergan.”

The show kicked off with emcee Keegan-Michael Key hitting a pointed political note. Key opened the night by pretending that he had missed the election, armed with a pre-written speech with Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States. Then he got the news about Donald Trump’s victory. “Thank God he’s not going to live here”, Key said to light laughter. (“Boo. Not funny. Sorry Keegan”, hissed a high-profile actress in attendance.)

“The films nominated tonight show us so much about our lives and our world”, said Joana Vicente, the executive director of the Independent Filmmaking Project, which hosts the event. She noted that IFP has a history of supporting diversity in the filmmaking industry. This year’s Gotham Awards nominated 10 women directors and five directors of color.


Jenkins received the best screenplay prize for “Moonlight”, a story about a young African-American man told through a series of three vignettes. “I was nominated for breakthrough director in 2008 and I didn’t make a film between now and then”, Jenkins said of his previous independent film “Medicine for Melancholy.”

The cast of “Moonlight”, led by Mahershala Ali, received the special jury prize for best ensemble. “I can confidently speak for all of us when I say we are forever changed” as a result of starring in the movie, Ali said.

Cate Blanchett introduced career-tribute honoree Amy Adams, confessing that she had a “huge actor crush” on the star of “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals.” Adams said she first came to the Gothams 11 years ago, when she won the breakthrough award for “Junebug”, a movie that launched her on Hollywood’s radar. “I think it’s a testament to the power of independent film that a movie that was made for under $1 million has given the opportunity and privilege to have this amazing career”, she said.

Politics was a theme that bubbled up throughout the night — presenter Damien Lewis joked about vote tallies — but especially when Oliver Stone took the stage for his career tribute. “You can be critical of your government”, said Stone, the director of “Snowden”, who revealed to Variety on the red carpet that he voted for Jill Stein in the election. “We’ve forgotten that. The 1970s can come back if you embody that in your own work.”

The room grew quiet as Stone revealed a conversation he’d had with Edward Snowden about the US government. “The next president whoever he may be will have the authority to really close down the system in a way that is much more oppressive than it’s been”, Stone said. “Drone airfare is with us. This is a major issue in our time.”


* Best Feature: Moonlight

* Best Documentary: O.J.: Made in America

* Breakthrough Series – Long Form: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

* Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert in Elle

* Best Actor: Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

* Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award: Trey Edward Shults for Krisha

* Best Screenplay: Moonlight

* Breakthrough Series –  Short Form: Her Story

* Breakthrough Actor: Anya Taylor–Joy in The Witch

Two years ago, Matthew McConaughey made a rather dubious cameo at the Gotham Independent Film Awards. When announced as the best actor winner, his co-star Jared Leto took the stage to accept on his behalf, before dialing up McConaughey on an iPhone and putting him on speaker. But there was a bad connection. “This is terrible”, Leto said, as he read some words from McConaughey, who could be heard laughing on the other end of the line.

It was enough. The Gotham Awards were the first stop in a series of wins, culminating with the Oscar, for McConaughey’s performance as a man living with AIDS in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Before the New York event, the blogosphere was divided on that year’s best actor category — maybe Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street” or Bruce Dern in “Nebraska” would emerge with the top prize in February. But post-Gothams, McConaughey became the frontrunner and studio executives from Focus Features, which distributed the indie, credited the downtown shindig with creating a wave of momentum for its star.

There are endless stops, Q&As, and schmoozing opportunities on the long road to the Oscars. But the Gotham Awards, which are held in late November, have become the Iowa Caucus of awards season — a critical early campaign event for many underdog contenders. The ceremony, hosted by the Independent Filmmaker Project (a Manhattan nonprofit dedicated to small-scale movies), has correctly predicted the Academy Awards best picture winner for the last two years with statues for “Birdman” and “Spotlight”, before they went on to bigger honors.

Pundits says that the Gothams, which are decided by three-or-four person committees of actors, directors, and other indie-film veterans, don’t necessarily predict the Oscars. And the show has a flair for bucking the mainstream at times. One of the only losses last year for Brie Larson (“Room”) was at the Gothams, which handed out its best actress prize to Bel Powley for the little-seen “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” instead.

The Gotham have been around for 26 years, but have only recently become so critical to studios behind art-house films. In 2014, the show broadened its scope with acting categories, which dialed up the star power to a dinner attended by quirky New York directors and members of their crew. Last year, the show added a TV award for the best freshman series (a prize nabbed by “Mr. Robot”).

“I think it has become more relevant over the years”, says Joana Vicente, a movie producer and the executive director of IFP. “For a couple categories, it really has an impact. A lot of these films are just in theaters.” She added that the biggest strength of the Gothams is its ability to “help build awareness and audiences.”

Hollywood’s other awards show for small movies, the Independent Spirit Awards, are held in a tent in Santa Monica on the day before the Oscars, when there’s no time left to switch your ballots. But the Gothams take place during the holiday window as Academy voters are just starting to decide what screeners to watch. “This is the beginning of awards season”, Vicente says.

The first note of interest when looking at this year’s contenders for the cinematography Oscar is that the victor in this category three years running, Emmanuel Lubezki, looks to be sitting the race out for a change. The second is that there are, notably, a number of celluloid productions in the hunt. Last year’s race saw 70mm (“The Hateful Eight”), 35mm (“Bridge of Spies”) and even some 16mm (“Carol”). This year has some of that variety, too.

At the top, DP Linus Sandgren’s lensing of “La La Land” is special not just because it was a film production, but because it was captured in the 2.55:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio. The effect isn’t as eye-poppingly wide as Robert Richardson’s “Hateful Eight” work, of course, but it provides a vast canvas for Damien Chazelle’s musical to play out with gorgeous lighting and blocking throughout.


Martin Scorsese, meanwhile, has gone back to 100% film after taking the digital dive with “Hugo” and dabbling in it for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” With “Silence”, Rodrigo Prieto has amassed a series of stunning images, judging by the trailer alone, using film to pick up more color depth in the movie’s lush environments. (He’s also pulling digital duty with the Arri Alexa 65 camera on “Passengers” this year.)

“Jackie” provides the most unique visual experience of the contenders this year. Lenser Stephane Fontaine shot the film on Super 16mm in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, leading to countless gorgeous frames and an aesthetic that truly stands out from the fray.

Seamus McGarvey’s work on “Nocturnal Animals”, a 35mm production, also bears a mention, as does 13-time nominee Roger Deakins, going back to film for the first time since “True Grit” on the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” And Charlotte Bruus Christensen, whose gorgeous signature can be found in films like “The Hunt” and “Far From the Madding Crowd”, shot Denzel Washington’s “Fences” on 35mm film as well.

In the digital realm, you have to start with the aforementioned Robert Richardson. After testing out some old school tech on “The Hateful Eight” with those long-forgotten Ultra Panavision lenses, he sought them out again for use on Ben Affleck’s “Live By Night.” Alas, DP Greig Fraser had whisked them away for use on “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Still, with the Alexa 65 and Super 70 lenses, Richardson has cooked up a positively luxuriant experience, a Florida-set gangster picture that soars below the line.

A pair of legends working in their own throwback space this year also could find room with their peers: Caleb Deschanel (“Rules Don’t Apply”) and Vittorio Storaro (“Cafe Society”). Both films, like “Live By Night”, nicely showcase detailed design elements with striking, old-fashioned lighting. On that note, Don Burgess also deserves a mention for “Allied”, a 1940s-set World War II yarn that used some CGI trickery to achieve its look.


Speaking earlier of Greig Fraser, in addition to “Rogue One” he also has “Lion” on offer this year. It’s beautiful, evocative stuff, and already a prize-winner: Fraser won the coveted Golden Frog at this year’s Camerimage cinematography festival in Poland. Recent winners that went on to Oscar nominations include “Carol”, “Ida”, “Slumdog Millionaire”, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” And if “Rogue One” hits with the Academy, he could even be a double nominee.

Camerimage’s Silver Frog went to Bradford Young for “Arrival” this year. Young has been on a steady rise for years now, and he’ll also be playing in the “Star Wars” sandbox with the upcoming Han Solo stand-alone film. This year, however, he brought a subdued palette to Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi film, giving the film a singular visual identity. (And to round out this year’s Camerimage winners, Oscar-winning “Snowden” lenser Anthony Dod Mantle won the Bronze Frog.)

Beyond that, there are a lot of questions left to be answered by the cinematography branch this year. For example, will they be at all drawn to Bill Pope’s work in “The Jungle Book”, even if the results are more in the realm of visual effects than traditional photography? “Avatar” and “Life of Pi” had no trouble, but they were strong best picture contenders, so who knows?

Also, what about “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk?” John Toll is a legend (indeed, one of only a handful of back-to-back Oscar winners in the field), but the 120 frames-per-second thing really just didn’t work for this film. It feels like tech better suited to performance and sporting events than narrative filmmaking.

And how far outside the in-club will they stray? There is exceptional work on the indie circuit this year, from James Laxton’s gorgeous, expressive lensing of “Moonlight” to Jarin Blaschke’s naturally-lit “The Witch.” The bold imagery of “The Birth of a Nation”, courtesy of 40-year vet Elliot Davis, deserves consideration as well, and war films like “Hacksaw Ridge”, shot by Simon Duggan, are always worth keeping an eye on here.

We’ll see how the DPs sort it all out. The American Society of Cinematographers will provide some clues when they announce their nominations on Jan 10.

 By Ramin Setoodeh