In a formidable sweep, and perhaps a sign of things to come this awards season, “Moonlight” won best feature at the 26th annual Gotham Independent Awards on Monday. It was a big night for the coming-of-age story directed by Barry Jenkins, which landed four prizes, including best screenplay, best ensemble, and the audience award.
“I started writing things down, because I realized I was forgetting people,” said Jenkins, on his last of many trips to the podium. He thanked his cast, his third-grade English teacher (“the first person who told me my story was worth telling”) and A24, the distributor behind the buzzy indie film.
While the Gotham Awards don’t necessarily overlap with the Oscars, the ceremony held at Cipriani Wall Street has predicted best picture at the Academy Awards for the last two years. At the least, the Gothams — the first stop on the long and winding road of awards season — will offer a boost of momentum for “Moonlight” as Oscar voters enter the holiday season.
Isabelle Huppert picked up best actress for her performance in “Elle.” “I’m breathless. I’m speechless,” a visibly startled Huppert said as she took the stage. “I didn’t expect that to happen, I promise. They told me it’s an American award: ‘You’re French, and you’ll never get it.'” Huppert beat out favorites like Natalie Portman (“Jackie”) and Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”) for the prize, for her portrait of a sexual assault survivor in the revenge thriller.
Casey Affleck got best actor for playing a lonely janitor in “Manchester by the Sea.” “There’s no acting award that doesn’t half belong to the director and the writer,” said Affleck, who hadn’t prepared a speech. “Both of those people are Kenneth Lonergan.”
The show kicked off with emcee Keegan-Michael Key hitting a pointed political note. Key opened the night by pretending that he had missed the election, armed with a pre-written speech with Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States. Then he got the news about Donald Trump’s victory. “Thank God he’s not going to live here,” Key said to light laughter. (“Boo. Not funny. Sorry Keegan,” hissed a high-profile actress in attendance.)
“The films nominated tonight show us so much about our lives and our world,” said Joana Vicente, the executive director of the Independent Filmmaking Project, which hosts the event. She noted that IFP has a history of supporting diversity in the filmmaking industry. This year’s Gotham Awards nominated 10 women directors and five directors of color.
Jenkins received the best screenplay prize for “Moonlight,” a story about a young African-American man told through a series of three vignettes. “I was nominated for breakthrough director in 2008 and I didn’t make a film between now and then,” Jenkins said of his previous independent film “Medicine for Melancholy.”
The cast of “Moonlight,” led by Mahershala Ali, received the special jury prize for best ensemble. “I can confidently speak for all of us when I say we are forever changed” as a result of starring in the movie, Ali said.
Cate Blanchett introduced career-tribute honoree Amy Adams, confessing that she had a “huge actor crush” on the star of “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals.” Adams said she first came to the Gothams 11 years ago, when she won the breakthrough award for “Junebug,” a movie that launched her on Hollywood’s radar. “I think it’s a testament to the power of independent film that a movie that was made for under $1 million has given the opportunity and privilege to have this amazing career,” she said.
Politics was a theme that bubbled up throughout the night — presenter Damien Lewis joked about vote tallies — but especially when Oliver Stone took the stage for his career tribute. “You can be critical of your government,” said Stone, the director of “Snowden,” who revealed to Variety on the red carpet that he voted for Jill Stein in the election. “We’ve forgotten that. The 1970s can come back if you embody that in your own work.”
The room grew quiet as Stone revealed a conversation he’d had with Edward Snowden about the U.S. government. “The next president whoever he may be will have the authority to really close down the system in a way that is much more oppressive than it’s been,” Stone said. “Drone airfare is with us. This is a major issue in our time.”
See a full winners list below.
Barry Jenkins, director; Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, producers (A24)
O.J.: Made in America
Ezra Edelman, director; Caroline Waterlow, Ezra Edelman, Tamara Rosenberg, Nina Krstic, Deirdre Fenton, Erin Leyden, producers (ESPN Films)
Breakthrough Series – Long Form
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rachel Bloom & Aline Brosh McKenna, creators; Marc Webb, Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna, Erin Ehrlich, executive producers (The CW)
Isabelle Huppert in Elle (Sony Pictures Classics)
Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios)
Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award
Trey Edward Shults for Krisha (A24)
Moonlight, Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney; Screenplay by Barry Jenkins (A24)
Breakthrough Series – Short Form
Her Story, Jen Richards and Laura Zak, creators (herstoryshow.com)
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch (A24)