‘Half Nelson,” a low-budget drama about a drug-addicted Brooklyn schoolteacher, and the continent-spanning “Babel” were the big winners Thursday night in the season’s first film awards.
The Gotham Awards, presented at Chelsea Piers, named “Half Nelson” as best picture, as well as citing its helmer Ryan Fleck as breakthrough director.
Newcomer Shareeka Epps, who plays a student who discovers the teacher’s secret, was named breakthrough performer.
Epps shared her award with Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, cast as a deaf teenager in “Babel.”
The drama about the repercussions of a shooting in Morocco also captured the award for best ensemble. The cast also includes Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal and Adriana Barraza.
The documentary award went to James Longley’s “Iraq in Fragments.”
As the first awards of the season, the Gothams are closely watched as an indicator for the Oscar race, in which relatively few favorites have emerged.
Last year at the Gothams, the breakthrough performer award went to Amy Adams, who went on to capture a supporting actress Oscar nomination for “Junebug.”
The Gotham Awards, the East Coast version of the Independent Spirit Awards, are given by IFP, an organization of independent filmmakers that was formerly known as Independent Feature Project/East.
This year’s Gotham best picture nominations were controversial because low-budget indies like “Half Nelson” and “Old Joy” were competing for top honors with much more expensive studio-backed projects such as “The Departed,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Little Children.”
In the Indie Spirit Awards, given by Film Independent – IFP/West before its split with the East Coast organization – “Half Nelson” led the nominations along with the dark comedy “Little Miss Sunshine,” with both taking five nods, including best picture.
The other Indie Spirit best picture nominees are the Spanish-language fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the dramas “American Gun” and “The Dead Girl.” The awards will be presented Feb. 24, the day before the Oscars.
The National Board of Review will announce its awards Wednesday, followed by the New York Films Critics Circle on Dec. 11. Golden Globe nominations will be announced Dec. 14.