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NEW YORK — Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” was named best feature and Michael Moore’s health-care expose “Sicko” nabbed best documentary honors Tuesday night at the IFP’s 17th annual Gotham Awards.
The victory for Paramount Vantage’s “Wild” at the season’s first awards show solidified the specialty division’s campaign for the drama, a study of real-life adventurer Christopher McCandless. (The movie’s budget made it ineligible for consideration at Film Independent’s Spirit Awards). Penn himself wasn’t present, but star Emile Hirsch accepted on behalf of the film, thanking its producers for casting him in the part, which called for a drastic physical transformation. “Before I got this role I was sitting on my couch 35 pounds overweight with a shaved head, so thank you,” he said.
The Weinstein Co. also got a jump-start for what likely will be a campaign for “Sicko,” considered a favorite in the Oscars’ documentary category.
Other specialty divisions and awards contenders also got a boost when Ellen Page took home the breakthrough actor award for her role as a pregnant teen in “Juno,” Fox Searchlight’s awards hopeful.
Sidney Lumet’s thriller “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” shared the best ensemble cast award with Kasi Lemmons’ “Talk to Me,” the biography of DJ Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene. The music-industry satire “Great World of Sound,” which topped all nominations with three, didn’t come away empty-handed as helmer Craig Zobel took home the prize for breakthrough director.
A tribute to film critic Roger Ebert proved the evening’s most moving moment. Introduced by Lumet, Ebert, who has been battling cancer, came to the podium, along with his wife Chaz, who told the audience that Ebert’s recovery has been accelerated by movies.
“When we didn’t know if Roger was going to be here the next day, we got a bunch of movies, independent movies but also studio movies, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “I know how much this man loves movies, he’s still like a kid when he goes into a movie theater.”
Speaking through his wife, Ebert touted the values of indie film: Decrying comic book adaptations and video game tie-ins, he said, “independent films continue to be interested in the most limitless of subjects: human beings.”
The evening also included previously announced tributes to actor Javier Bardem, director Mira Nair, IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring, production designer Mark Friedberg and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg used his appearance to announce a grant initiative for City University graduates. He also noted that his nascent acting career was taking him to a cameo in “Sex and the City.” “I play the city,” he quipped.
Thousands from New York’s film industry ventured to Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios on Tuesday evening for the ceremony, traditionally held in Manhattan. The awards honor independent filmmaking talent on both sides of the camera.
With nominating committees instructed to choose films made within “an economy of means,” the awards were spread evenly among indie distributors and specialty divisions. Focus Features, Searchlight and Par Vantage shared the stage with Magnolia, ThinkFilm and the Weinstein Co.
Films without a distributor were in the running for the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You award, which went to Ronald Bronstein’s first feature “Frownland,” a portrait of a door-to-door coupon salesman.
The ceremony was hosted by playwright-actor-poet Sarah Jones, who won a Tony in 2006 for her multicharacter solo show “Bridge & Tunnel,” her Broadway debut.
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