Gothams apply full 'Nelson'


NEW YORK -- Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson" topped the list of winners at the Independent Feature Project's 16th annual Gotham Awards on Wednesday night -- picking up awards for best feature, breakthrough director and breakthrough actor Shareeka Epps -- in a ceremony that generated controversy for its inclusion of big studio-financed films.

James Longley's Oscar-shortlisted "Iraq in Fragments" took home best documentary honors.

In accepting the directing honors, Fleck said, "Directing this movie was easy because the cast was so amazing."

Before the ceremony, which took place at Pier 60 on the Chelsea Piers, IFP executive director Michelle Byrd said, "I don't think the Gotham Awards are about independent film." While there have been no budget restrictions on contenders for the past three years, the 2006 list of nominees was the first to include notable big-budget entries, which sparked debate in the independent-film community.

Speaking at the ceremony, she pointed out "for those of you who thought we only added controversy this year" that IFP has begun a new screening series for films without distributors at the Museum of Modern Art and participated in the Times Talks series featuring directors Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who were toasted with tributes at the Gothams.

The best feature jury -- which included actors Sarita Choudhury and Willem Dafoe, casting director Avy Kaufman, producer Jon Kilik and director Bennett Miller -- bypassed Warner Bros. Pictures' $90 million "The Departed" and Sony Pictures' $40 million "Marie Antoinette" in favor of ThinkFilm's $1 million "Nelson."

Host David Cross referenced the issue by saying, "We're here to celebrate the films that show you don't need a big studio, films with an untested director and cast -- films like 'The Departed.' How that got greenlit I have no idea."

Studio specialty division Paramount Vantage's $25 million "Babel" won the best ensemble cast award, and the film's star Rinko Kikuchi shared the breakthrough actor award with Epps.

"Nelson's" Fleck and editor/co-writer Anna Boden accepted for Epps, who was off "running from aliens" in "Alien vs. Predator 2" in Vancouver. "She'd probably want to thank us first of all," Fleck joked. Kikuchi, hesitantly speaking English, said, "I'm very encouraged and ready for more," verging on tears.

Former music video director Steve Barron's immigrant drama "Choking Man" garnered the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You award, designated for features without theatrical distribution.

Several other indie film notables received tributes that had been previously announced. Honors went to Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, producing team Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban and cinematographer Ellen Kuras. Tim Robbins received a Humanitarian Tribute presented by his "Mystic River" co-star Sean Penn.

Steven Soderbergh paid brief tribute to Robert Altman, who died last week, to much applause, and his HDNet partners Cuban and Wagner, who have shaken up the industry as day-and-date releasing pioneers. Wagner acknowledged his missing partner Cuban and said, "The process of the production and distribution of movies all needs to be rethought. When Hollywood does silly things and continues to be broken, you can count on us to call bullshit."

In accepting his award, Robbins, who starred in "The Player," also paid tribute to Altman, saying, "His films are vibrant living organisms that show humanity in all its silliness, frailty and wonderful complexity."

The ceremony will be broadcast Wednesday on NYC TV and will be webcast in segmented form Monday on