'Sunshine' brightest star at Spirit Awards

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The sun shone on "Little Miss Sunshine" at the 2007 Film Independent's Spirit Awards. The Fox Searchlight release about a quirky family struggling with their concepts of success claimed the top prize of best feature Saturday at the annual indie community event, which honors films produced for less than $20 million.

The off-beat "Sunshine" also picked up awards for his directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; best supporting male actor Alan Arkin, who plays the family's uninhibited grandfather; and screenwriter Michael Arndt, who was awarded the trophy for best first screenplay.

In a show of solidarity, all five of the film's producers took the stage under the tent in Santa Monica to accept the best film honors, with Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa -- who were denied inclusion in the film's best picture nomination by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- leading off the thank-yous before passing the baton to David Friendly, Marc Turtletaub and Peter Saraf.

"All five of us producers want to thank first of all Michael Arndt for his excellent script," Berger said.

Added Yerxa: "Many of us, I think, have long felt that this Spirit Award is the highest honor in America for film today, and I must say never more so than today."

In his trip to the podium, Arndt thanked the Spirits for including a special category for first screenplay, observing that embarking on such an endeavor is "an act of insanity, and I think it's the kind of insanity we need a lot more of."

As for veteran actor Arkin, he said, "I am humbled, I am honored and I feel very small, which is how I started out in this business, so I'm back where I began."

Other acting honors went to "Half Nelson" duo Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps, named best male lead and best female lead, respectively, for their work in the film about the relationship between a drug-addicted teacher and one of his students.

Gosling graciously paid tribute to his young co-star, who made her screen debut in the ThinkFilm release. "This just wouldn't be happening for any of us if it weren't for you," he said.

Frances McDormand was honored as best supporting female for her work in "Friends With Money."

Jason Reitman claimed best screenplay honors for his adaptation of Christopher Buckley's satiric novel about the lobbying industry, "Thank You for Smoking." Reitman also directed the film.

Ali Selim's "Sweet Land," a drama set in 1920s Minnesota, was recognized as best first feature. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's "Quinceanera" earned the John Cassavetes Award for best feature made for less than $500,000.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others" scored as best foreign film. He offered thanks to Sony Pictures Classics co-heads Michael Barker and Tom Bernard for taking "an obscure German art film" and deciding to "pull it out of obscurity."

Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross' "The Road to Guantanomo," distributed by Roadside Attractions, was hailed as best documentary. Guillermo Navarro claimed the prize for best cinematography for his work in Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth."

The team of Howard Gertler and Tim Perell, producers of "Shortbus" and "Pizza," received the 10th annual Axium Producers Award, which honors emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality, independent films. The winner of the Producers Award receives an unrestricted grant of $50,000 funded by entertainment accounting and payroll services company Axium International.

Julia Loktev, director of "Day Night Day Night," won the 13th annual IFC/Acura Someone to Watch Award, a $50,000 unrestricted grant created to honor a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition. The award is funded by IFC and Acura.

Adele Horne, director of "The Tailenders," won the 11th Axium Truer Than Fiction Award, presented to an emerging director of nonfiction features who has not yet received significant attention. The award is accompanied by a $50,000 unrestricted grant funded by Axium International.

David Lynch and Laura Dern received a Special Distinction Award for their collaborative work.

The late director Robert Altman received an Honorary Spirit Award for his lifelong commitment to independent filmmaking. Beginning next year, a new Spirit Award, the Robert Altman Award, will given to one film's director and its ensemble cast.

A sampling of cast members from Altman's own films were on hand to pay tribute to the director -- among them Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, John C. Reilly, Lily Tomlin and Robert Downey Jr. "Although the Hollywood studios turned their back on Robert Altman time and time again," Downey said, "the independent world never did."

Among the specialty distributors represented, Fox Searchlight, with its "Sunshine" and "Smoking" wins, led the pack with five wins, followed by SPC with three, ThinkFilm with two and Picturehouse and Roadside Attractions with one apiece.

For the second year in a row, Sarah Silverman served as the afternoon's X-rated emcee. In one of her few jokes that didn't draw on a four-letter word, she said that with so many indie filmmakers crowded under one roof, "If a bomb went off, there would be nobody left to make a documentary about it."
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