The East Coast’s response to the Los Angeles-based Independent Spirit Awards, the Gotham Awards annually recognize the year’s finest achievements in independent cinema. But on a broader scale, they are the novelty oversize scissors officially cutting the big red ribbon on awards season, that no-holds-barred melee of celebrity media exposure stretching until the Academy Awards in mid-February. Before the various critics’ awards, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars bring the heavy pomp and circumstance, the Gothams get their moment to spread the love to films that might not otherwise enjoy the spotlight come Oscar day. (Eh, eh?) But among the under-seen gems are technically independent films, such as Spotlight, that are still expected to come up huge as the awards season rolls onward. For those films, this marks the opening shot in a long volley of visibility in the public eye.
Spotlight made off with the most prizes of the night, with accolades for the screenplay, a Jury Prize for the entire ensemble, and the coveted Best Feature award to top it all off. In the coming weeks, this will be remembered as the first rumblings of a potentially unstoppable juggernaut. Spotlight‘s got more awards appeal than the Boston Globe offices have files; a host of strong performances from previous nominees Michael Keaton (still stinging from a loss last year for his comeback role in Birdman) and Mark Ruffalo, as well as John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber lend credence to a gripping procedural. It’s the polar opposite of artsy-fartsy, a down-to-business and economically directed picture with clear social relevance. For the Best Feature brass ring, Spotlight beat out Todd Haynes’ celebrated lesbian romance Carol, the gutting addiction drama Heaven Knows What, coming-of-age dramedy Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Sean Baker’s singular Los Angeles saga Tangerine. As more nominations are announced in the months to come, whether Spotlight can maintain this momentum will become clearer.
The ceremony, hosted by the reliably side-splitting Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of Broad City, reserved its major acting awards for a pair of performers with decidedly leaner Oscar chances. Not everyone was completely taken with a turtleneck-clad Paul Dano’s portrayal of fragile-minded Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson (I count myself among this camp), but that didn’t stop him from collecting a Best Actor award. Diary of a Teenage Girl star Bel Powley has been generating quite a bit of chatter for her earnest, immodest turn as a teen leaping headfirst into a one-woman Sexual Revolution, but this year produced a bumper crop of female performances and she’s likely to be shut out at the Oscars. Regardless, she had her well-deserved moment in the sun last night when she was named Best Actress over the likes of heavyweights such as Cate Blanchett for Carol, Brie Larson for Room, and Lily Tomlin in Grandma.
In an effort to stay fresh and vital in these times of #PeakTV and World Wide Webs, the Gothams introduced two new categories this year. The “Breakthrough Series — Long Form” award designates a standout new TV show, including those aired on streaming platforms, and the “Breakthrough Series — Short Form” shifts focus to webseries 15 minutes or shorter. Sam Esmail’s paranoid cyberthriller Mr. Robot took the Long Form prize, while Shugs and Fats, a comedy from Brooklyn-based Muslim duo Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz, earned the Short Form title.
Also of particular note: The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing companion piece to his 2013 feature The Act of Killing (inexcusably edged out of the Oscars by the feel-good 20 Feet from Stardom), took the Best Documentary award. In a good and just world, this will be the first step on a long and decorated journey for the film that will end onstage at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. Same goes for Tangerine star Mya Taylor, who took the Breakthrough Actor award over fellow nominee Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, her costar in the film. Tangerine‘s ascent to legitimate awards-season player has been electrifying, in no small part due to the long overdue entry of transgender performers into the conversation. Rodriguez and Taylor, both trans women, deliver volatile performances of hidden pathos and humor in Sean Baker’s hot-blooded ramble through the seedier back alleys of L.A. This shouldn’t mark the end of their run for the title, either.