'Frozen River' tops Gotham nods

'Trouble the Water' takes documentary prize

NEW YORK -- Courtney Hunt's drama "Frozen River" iced the competition Tuesday with the best feature prize and breakthrough actor award for star Melissa Leo at the 18th annual Gotham Independent Film Awards.

"Its such an honor to be a female actor recognized in the same category with male actors with the same, dare I say, equality," Leo said.

Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's Hurricane Katrina documentary "Trouble the Water," from Zeitgeist Films with HBO Documentary Films, took home the best doc prize. Like "River," it was a Grand Jury Prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival.

Most awards at the Cipriani Wall Street ceremony flowed to Sony Pictures Classics through "River," produced by Heather Rae and Chip Hourihan, and "Synecdoche, New York." The Charlie Kaufman drama shared a best ensemble performance award with the Weinstein Co.'s Woody Allen comedy "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

"Vicky" star Penelope Cruz, HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins, Gus Van Sant and Melvin Van Peebles received career tributes at the event, which marks the unofficial launch of the awards season.

"Much of the time, directors simply get by. Actors go home resentful of a kind of disapproving father," said Sean Penn in introducing Van Sant. "With Gus, I don't think an actor could feel anything but encouraged."

Nevins declined to thank any friends, family or coworkers ("I could thank my staff but we've all seen 'All About Eve,' so I'd rather not"), instead thanking "the real people" in her documentaries.

But the night's biggest winner besides SPC might have been self-distribution.

Lance Hammer, who won the breakthrough director award for his drama "Ballast," signed a North American distribution deal with IFC Films just weeks after winning the top Sundance directing and cinematography prizes. But in an amicable split, Hammer pulled out of the deal in June to retain his rights and distribute the film himself in the fall through Alluvial Film Co. and Required Viewing.

The Gothams also are one of the only ceremonies to honor films without distribution in its Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You category.

Nina Paley's animated Indian tale "Sita Sings the Blues" took home the $15,000 prize from Artists Public Domain and D.R. Reiff & Associates.

The award was selected by Filmmaker magazine and a curator from the Museum of Modern Art. The other honorees were chosen by 25 actors and filmmakers divided into five juries.

Aasif Mandvi, an indie filmmaker and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" correspondent, hosted the event.

Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.