As the first awards show of the season, the Gotham Independent Film Awards usually acts as a gauge of things to come -- what wins at Gotham is nominated (and sometimes wins) at the Oscars, too, or so the story goes. If that predictive power is still in place, then Monday night's ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street was a clear message to make way for the dark horses. Not one, but two movies won for Best Feature, an unprecedented tie in the top category. "The Tree of Life" and "Beginners" shared the honor, against competition such as "The Descendants," "Take Shelter," and "Meek's Cutoff."
"I wish there was a five-way tie," "Beginners" director Mike Mills told The Playlist, after recovering from the shock of his film's shared win with "The Tree of Life." "Honestly, this is all a surprise. I was fucking lucky this film got made, I was fucking lucky that it got an actual release, and I've just been saying the 'It's great just to be nominated' mantra to everyone, because that's all I thought would happen, and this is just trippy, weird icing on the cake. I've watched Terrence Malick films forever, and he taught me so much, and I respect him so much, but maybe I'll be less nervous around him now."
Mills needn't have worried -- Malick didn't show, sending his "The Tree of Life" producers Sarah Green and Bill Pohlad to accept on his behalf instead. "It's hard for him to come to things like this," Pohland said, "because then everyone wants him to explain the film, explain what he meant by this or that, and he likes the work to stand on its own. He prefers to be low profile." Still, the two producers called Malick after the win and left him a quick message, "so he's probably dancing around the room," Pohlad said.
The underdog "Beginners" did more than tie with "The Tree of Life" for Best Feature, however -- it also snagged Best Ensemble Performance, for its cast of Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, and as Plummer liked to point out, a Jack Russell terrier named Cosmo. "That dog still hasn't been paid!" Plummer joked. "It's sad that nobody could cough up for the dog. Otherwise, it is a true ensemble, except Ewan McGregor, who couldn't be here [to accept the award]. Bastard. A true ensemble otherwise."
That was one of the other more surprising elements about this year's Gothams. Though it's not an exact science, usually you can predict the winners based on who actually shows up -- and the other ensemble cast nominees for films such as the frontrunner "The Descendants" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" attended in full force, even if that required Elizabeth Olsen to skip a class at NYU. "We kind of got shut out tonight," said Sarah Paulson, who plays Olsen's sister in "Martha Marcy May Marlene." "The Gotham Awards are about a specific kind of thing, and maybe we're something else. But it is really nice that they do recognize the ensemble cast."
As for Breakthrough Actor, a category considered locked by Olsen, the surprise winner this year was Felicity Jones for "Like Crazy." (Past winners have included Ellen Page, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, and Maggie Gyllenhaal). Did Jones' more extensive acting experience in the U.K. give her an edge over fellow nominees such as Shailene Woodley and Jacob Wysocki? "I don't know!" Jones said. "I've been working in the U.K. for over ten years, so for me, it's just great to come to the States and have the opportunity to work with directors like Drake Doremus, and to work in that very naturalistic style. If you look at the list of nominations tonight, it hasn't been the most obvious films. So this is definitely a celebration of great, great moviemaking."
Whether her Gotham win will lead to even more award season accolades isn't something Jones is prepared to consider just yet. "Oscar is the most glamorous word I can ever think of saying!" she said. "It's completely abstract. It's pretty intimidating, even. So I'm just going to enjoy this one for right now. I'm just lucky I got this, so let's see what happens, and go with it."
Other winners included Dee Rees for Breakthrough Director for "Pariah" ("I'm not surprised, but I'm humbled," Rees said), "Better This World" for Best Documentary, "Scenes of a Crime" for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You, and "Girlfriend" for the Audience Award.
"We're one of the only films here without a big distributor," "Girlfriend" director Justin Lerner said. "We had a very small release, but we have a very devoted and online following. Still, you don't expect this. You go to the party because you're excited you're invited and you have the chance to meet some of your heroes. I want to meet [career tribute honoree] Charlize Theron because I have a huge crush on her -- I'm not unique in that. And I want to meet Christopher Plummer, because his daughter Amanda was in the film. I still feel like I'm the little kid at the adult's table and I can't go up to these people, but maybe I can now."
In addition to Theron, career tributes were also given to "A Dangerous Method" director David Cronenberg, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" star Gary Oldman and film executive Tom Rothman. "It's a great compliment," Theron said. "It's a celebration of my career so far, which is such an honor."
"I think after I made my first two movies, they had a retrospective for me, so I'm not scared of retrospectives or lifetime achievement awards because it doesn't mean I've stopped making movies," Cronenberg said. "I just take it in the spirit that it's given, an appreciation by my peers for what I've been doing."
And that -- like Mills' mantra -- seemed to be enough for most, even if they didn't walk away with an award in hand. "I've done so many bad movies," said "The Descendants" actor Matthew Lillard, "that to just be acknowledged in any way outside of a Razzie, I'm proud."