'Ballast' tops Gotham indie award noms

'Wrestler,' 'Visitor,' 'Synecdoche' also vie for best film

NEW YORK -- The IFP's 18th annual Gotham Independent Film Awards unofficially kicked off the awards season with its 22 nominees Monday, and in a move fitting for the indie film world, the top honoree is a filmmaker who rejected a traditional distribution deal.

Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River," Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor," Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" and Lance Hammer's "Ballast" earned best feature nominations.

"Ballast," which the director sold to IFC Films before taking it back for self-distribution, garnered the most noms: breakthrough director, breakthrough actor and best ensemble performance. Sony Pictures Classics topped the list of honored distributors with five nominations.

"River," "Synecdoche" and "Visitor" each earned the Gothams' top acting nomination for best ensemble performance, along with Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married" and Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." All five films and Antonio Campos' "Afterschool" received the next highest number, with two each.

Best documentary contenders include Guido Santi & Tina Mascara's "Chris & Don: A Love Story," Werner Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World," James Marsh's "Man on Wire," Maria Zenovich's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" and Tia Lessin & Carl Deal's "Trouble the Water."

The Festival de Cannes premiere "Afterschool" also is up for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You, a $15,000 award honoring films without theatrical distribution deals. Taylor Greeson's "Meadowlark," Tom Quinn's "The New Year Parade," Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues" and Jake Mahaffey's "Wellness" also made the cut.

This year marks both a name change for the event -- from the Gotham Awards to the Gotham Independent Film Awards -- and a refined definition of the awards themselves. By avoiding films from major distributors, the Gothams' 18-member nominating committee members also avoid controversy that arose two years ago when a few big-budget productions such as Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" competed against low-budget indie films.

Their inclusion, which some attributed as a move for the Gothams to gain greater prominence on the national awards scene, prompted an outcry from some in the indie film community over one of the few prominent award ceremonies to honor independent films. Several indie Gotham honorees have gone on to earn Oscar noms, including "Juno," "Half Nelson" and "Junebug."

"Contradicting the doom-and-gloom stories about the state of independent film, 2008 has proven to be an extremely strong year for an immensely diverse group of filmmakers tackling a range of subjects and forms in new and dynamic ways," IFP executive director Michelle Byrd said. "Impressively, nearly 50% of our titles are directorial debuts."

Other nomination categories are breakthrough director and breakthrough actor. The ceremony will be held Dec. 2 at Cipriani Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, and the full list of nominees is available at IFP.org.