'Juno' sure with it in Spirit

Searchlight's darling takes 3 wins

Breakout hit "Juno" continued its winning ways at the 2008 Spirit Awards on Saturday, where it was hailed as best feature and picked up trophies for lead actress Ellen Page and screenwriter Diablo Cody.

"This was new territory for us," said Lianne Halfon, one of the producers of the Fox Searchlight release. "This was our first film with a happy ending and a movie about family that our families could actually see."

Presented by Los Angeles-based Film Independent, the laid-back, freewheeling ceremony — again held in the afternoon in a tent on the beach and broadcast live, expletives undeleted, on IFC — focused the spotlight on independent-minded features produced on budgets of less than $20 million.

Host Rainn Wilson joked that two of the past year's most celebrated indie films, "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood," didn't make the cut because "they were too lighthearted" (in reality, they surpassed the budgetary limits).

Still, there was overlap between the Spirits and the Academy Awards. The diminutive Page was elevated above the crowd as the afternoon's best actress. She expressed her thanks to director Jason Reitman and Cody, who "created an incredible character, a teenage lead I think we've never seen before."

Added a jazzed Cody, accepting the honors for best first screenplay for the winsome comedy about a teenage pregnancy: "This is the coolest award in the coolest category. There is nothing like writing your first screenplay."

Philip Seymour Hoffman was honored as best male lead for his role in "The Savages," in which he and Laura Linney play troubled siblings dealing with their aging father.

Returning to the winner's podium two years after he scored the same prize for "Capote," he said, "I feel as if I gained two siblings, Laura Linney, who's sublime, and (writer-director) Tamara Jenkins, and I truly feel when I'm around them the same comfort that I feel when I'm around my sisters."

The film also brought Jenkins the best screenplay prize.

The multiple wins for "Juno" and "The Savages" turned Fox Searchlight into the day's victorious distributor. It notched six trophies, including the foreign-film award for John Carney's Irish musical "Once," which prevailed over such awards-heavy contenders as "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" and "Persepolis."

Cate Blanchett's in-trousers performance as a Bob Dylan doppleganger in "I'm Not There" earned her best supporting female honors. After making her way to the stage, the actress said with a laugh, "It's kind of cruel to make a pregnant lady waddle that far."

After paying tribute to the film's director Todd Haynes, she accepted the trophy in the name of one of the movie's other stars, the late Heath Ledger, calling him "one of the most independent spirits of all."

The convention-defying film also was singled out with the inaugural Robert Altman Award, recognizing an ensemble cast. Presented to Haynes, casting director Laura Rosenthal and the movie's cast, who offered multiple takes on the life and work of Dylan, the award marked the afternoon's most emotional moment.

After testifying to Rosenthal's contributions, Haynes acknowledged, "It's so bittersweet given how shattered all of us are by Heath's inconceivable absence." He then dedicated the prize to "the memory and the dazzling creative spirit of Heath Ledger."

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" was another of the afternoon's double winners. Artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel was hailed as best director. "This is a nice community of people that have been very, very generous to me, and I thank you," he said.

In addition, celebrated cinematographer Janusz Kaminski was recognized for his cinematography on "The Diving Bell."

Chiwetel Ejiofor took the prize in the best supporting male category for his performance as a radio manager in "Talk to Me." Kasi Lemmons, the film's director, accepted on his behalf because he is in London, appearing onstage in a production of "Othello."

"The Lookout" was named best first picture. The movie about a high school student, played Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who becomes caught up in a bank heist was directed by Scott Frank, who admitted that the project went through 12 years of development and was turned down by three studios before finding its way to the screen. But, he added, "had I made this movie at a studio, I wouldn't have had the cast that I wanted."

The John Cassavetes Award for best film made for less than $500,000 went to "August Evening," written and directed by Chris Eska. The movie follows an undocumented farm worker and his daughter.

"This film is about an immigrant family, but it is really about all of our families," said Eska, who noted that he doesn't consider himself a political filmmaker but that if audiences "come away with a different opinion about how we should treat immigrants in this country, that would make me very happy."

Dan Klores' "Crazy Love," a portrait of a long-running dysfunctional relationship that somehow persevered, was named best documentary.

Several filmmaking grants also were presented. Ramin Bahrani, director of "Chop Shop," picked up the Acura Someone to Watch Award. The Piaget Producers Award went to Neil Kopp, whose producing credits include "Paranoid Park" and "Old Joy." The recipient of the IFC Truer Than Fiction Award, given to an up-and-coming documentary filmmaker, was Laura Dunn, director of "The Unforeseen."

A complete list of winners follows.

Feature

"Juno" (Fox Searchlight)

Director

Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax)

Screenplay

Tamara Jenkins, "The Savages" (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

First Feature

Scott Frank, "The Lookout" (Miramax)

First Screenplay

Diablo Cody, "Juno" (Fox Searchlight)

John Cassavetes Award (for best feature made for less than $500,000)

"August Evening" (Maya Pictures)

Supporting Female

Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There" (the Weinstein Co.)

Supporting Male

Chiwetel Ejiofor, "Talk to Me" (Focus Features)

Female Lead

Ellen Page, "Juno" (Fox Searchlight)

Male Lead

Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Savages" (Fox Searchlight)

Cinematography

Janusz Kaminski, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax)

Foreign Film

"Once" (Fox Searchlight)

Documentary

"Crazy Love" (Magnolia Pictures)
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