Gotham Awards: Surprises and Upsets Add to Wide-Open Race

Bo Burnham speaks onstage during IFP's 27th Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards - Getty-H 2018
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for IFP

As if this awards season wasn't already wide-open enough, with no clear frontrunner yet in any major category, Monday night's 28th Gotham Awards further confused matters.

Both Eighth Grade and First Reformed — indies' indies — took home prizes for their respective writer-directors — Bo Burnham won best breakthrough director and Paul Schrader won best screenplay — and stars — Eighth Grade's Elsie Fisher won best breakthrough actor and First Reformed's Ethan Hawke won best actor. But neither film won best feature. The presumptive frontrunners for that award, Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite and Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, were upended in the category by Chloe Zhao's modern-day Western The Rider.

Beale Street went 0-for-2 on the night; The Favourite did pick up two preordained special prizes — best ensemble and a Rachel Weisz career tribute — but lost in all three categories in which it was nominated. Meanwhile, one of the year's most critically acclaimed films, Roma, which is technically an indie even though it's being distributed by Netflix, was up for just one honor — best breakthrough actress, for Yalitza Aparacio — and lost.

So what does it all mean?!

The Gothams, I always say, are to the Oscars what the Iowa caucuses are to a presidential election: They're the first "results" to come in, so they get a lot of attention, but the reality is there is actually no reason to believe they tell us anything about what's still to come.

That's because the winner in each of the Gotham categories is chosen by a different jury comprised of only a half-dozen or so people — some more associated with indies than others — whereas Oscar winners are determined by thousands of people from every sector of the filmmaking process. Needless to say, the handful of Gotham voters are miles away from being a scientific sample-size for the 8,000-plus Academy voters.

Where the Gothams can be helpful, though, is in highlighting, for people both inside and outside of the ceremony itself, smaller films that might otherwise get overlooked in the clutter of screenings and screeners. Cases-in-point: Eighth Grade, First Reformed and, to be sure, The Rider, a Sony Classics release which not even that distributor's co-chief Michael Barker expected to win on Monday, as he admitted to me as we made our way out of Cipriani Wall Street at the end of the night. (I know he would have also liked The Wife's Glenn Close to win best actress, but Hereditary's Toni Collette beat her out.)

The Rider won't be able to follow its big Gothams win at the season's other major event that celebrates indies, the Spirit Awards, because it somehow was eligible for that prize at last year's Spirit Awards and thus won't be eligible this year. (Meanwhile, We the Animals, which got the most Spirit noms when they were announced Nov. 18, wasn't even nominated for a Gotham Award — go figure.)

The Rider, however, is still eligible for Oscar recognition, and I imagine that many more Academy members will now check it out. Three of the last four best feature Gotham Award winners went on to win the best picture Oscar (2014's Birdman, 2015's Spotlight and 2016's Moonlight), and the fourth went on to a nom for it (2017's Call Me by Your Name). At the end of the day, I don't expect Zhao's film will crack the best picture Oscar lineup, but I do think that it could register in the best cinematography field.

The evening's sole standing ovation was accorded to indie icon Willem Dafoe, currently winning great notices for his transformative portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate, who received a career tribute.

It also was an interesting night for documentaries. The record-setting blockbuster Won't You Be My Neighbor? lost out on best documentary to Hale County This Morning, This Evening, only to then win the overall audience award over Hale County and a bunch of narrative pics, as well. It's all got to be somewhat frustrating for the team behind Minding the Gap, which seemed to be accruing momentum until this week, when it was not even nominated for the best documentary PGA Award and then came up empty at the Gothams.

This East Coast wave of awards activity will continue throughout the rest of the week, with the National Board of Review slated to announce its picks on Tuesday (I expect BlacKkKlansman and A Star Is Born to fare well) and the New York Film Critics Circle to follow on Thursday.