Focus Features has a big night at the Gothams

Posted by · 6:16 pm · November 28th, 2011

After all that clamoring to anoint this or that contender, the New York Film Critics Circle was stuck in a theater being the FIRST! to see “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” while preparations for the first legitimate awards show of the season were being finalized. And say what you might about the Gotham Awards, which some argue turn in dubious representation of the independent film scene year after year, but I’m glad it was them, instead of a group led by outright ego, who fired the starting gun.

Alas, the starting gun didn’t come with any particular dose of authority, as things ended in a tie for Best Feature. Two of the year’s absolute best films shared the prize, however: Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Mike Mills’s “Beginners.” I am so okay with that.

The surprises actually started early, though, with a heartening win for Dee Rees in the Breakthrough Director category. Rees, whose “Pariah” has been nurtured all season by Focus Features, beat out high profile contenders such as Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and Vera Farmiga (“Higher Ground”), as well Evan Glodell (“Bellflower”) and Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”) for the honor.

Mike Mills’s wonderful film “Beginners” managed to steal the Best Ensemble Performance prize away from not only Best Picture thoroughbred “The Descendants,” but late-breaking Oscar hopeful “Margin Call” as well. A nice win for the film, and one of two for Focus Features of the evening. Christopher Plummer accepted the prize on behalf of the cast, and one wonders if he’ll take the stage a few more times this season to offer a few choice words of thanks.

Moving back to the breakthrough theme, “Like Crazy” star Felicity Jones bested Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) among others to win the Breakthrough Actor award. I’ve been saying all season that she’ll likely trade those distinctions off with Olsen for most of the circuit, but it would be nice to see Woodley manage one.

I appreciate Jones quite a bit in “Like Crazy,” a film about which I have conflicted feelings. She’s wonderful and gives a performance full of life and highly tuned to the young love vein of the piece.

No Gotham Award-winning documentary has ever gone on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Well, the trend continues this year as “Better This World,” which was did not make the finalist cut for the Academy, won the prize.

Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock’s “Scenes of a Crime” won the Best Film Not PLaying at a Theater Near You award. Meanwhile, Tom Rothman, Charlize Theron, Gary Oldman (who reportedly got the only full-on standing ovation of the evening) and David Cronenberg were all feted with career achievement recognition. And Lucy Malloy, director of “Una Noche,” received the Calvin Klein Spotlight on Women Filmmakers ‘Live the Dream’ Grant for $25,000.

You can check out the full list of Gotham nods here. It’s interesting to note that the two nomination hogs of the lot, Fox Searchlight’s “The Descendants” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” managed to go home empty-handed. Not that they haven’t had ample time in the spotlight over the past month.

And with that, the precursor circuit is (truly) off. Tomorrow we get the Indie Spirit nods, which will be announced at the same time the New York Film Critics Circle is making its way through its proceedings. Thursday brings the National Board of Review and, with all of that behind us, we’ll be looking to the critics happy to keep their usual spot in the timeline in the coming weeks.

One more time, this year’s Gotham Award winners are:

Best Feature: (tie) “The Tree of Life” and “Beginners”

Best Documentary: “Better This World”

Breakthrough Actor: Felicity Jones, “Like Crazy”

Breakthrough Director: Dee Rees, “Pariah”

Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You: “Scenes of a Crime”

Calvin Klein Spotlight on Women Filmmakers ‘Live the Dream’ Grant: Lucy Malloy

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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