When the Gotham Awards celebrated twenty years of honoring independent film on Monday night, a number of presenters referenced the past with a heavy dose of nostalgia. There was also a lot of sarcasm. "Everyone thinks that once you've won, you work for free," said John Turturro, opening the evening by recalling his Gotham acting award in 1991. Turturro, currently onscreen in "The Nutcracker 3-D," obviously didn't continue working for free. Nor will the team behind "Winter's Bone," which won Best Feature at the Gothams this year and now has a distant shot at landing a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. (Having grossed well over $6 million in limited release, the backwoods drama is among the significant box office success stories of 2010.)
But there's another aspect to the Gothams that practically exists as a separate awards show altogether. The crop of five features nominated for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You generally stay true to the category's title. Chosen from the recent lineup of festival offerings without distribution, they don't fit the paradigm of the awards season rush. For these contenders, the Gothams serve as both the first and last brush with luxury at a time when the red carpet staples are just warming up.
They won't make it to the Golden Globes, but they do get seats at the ritzy Cipriani's on Wall Street, where the Gothams took place on Monday for the third year in a row. At a gathering that found everyone from Harvey Weinstein to Natalie Portman and Bill Murray wandering through the room, the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You nominees created a provocative contrast to the big-timers of the business. Robert Greene's observant coming-of-age portrait "Kati with an I" documents his half-sister's graduation in small-town America with poetic concentration. Laurel Nakadate's "The Wolf Knife," a mesmerizing character study about two nubile sixteen-year-old girls in Tennessee, gradually develops into a harsh sexual thriller with an explosive, devastating finale.
Only "Littlerock," Mike Ott's quietly engaging, bittersweet tale of two Japanese youth stuck in a dead-end California town, has some semblance of mainstream appeal, but not the built-in resources to find it. Coping with insurmountable language barriers, a pair of siblings (Rintaro Sawamoto and co-screenwriter Atsuko Okatsuka) party with the aimless locals and run into a series of engaging situations with mixed results. Romance happens. Hearts get broken. With a light, endearing touch, Ott navigates between the perspectives of the Japanese characters and their new American friends with an attentiveness to the universality of youth alienation. Here's a challenge for you: Try putting that on a billboard. "Littlerock" has made a small dent on the festival circuit, but that wasn't enough to get it into theaters.
Randomly enough, I found myself seated next to Ott and Okatsuka at the Gothams on Monday, just a few hours after watching the movie myself. Fortunately, I liked it a lot, and told them so, but that didn't seem to effect Ott's subdued demeanor. I couldn't tell if he was just nervous or dazzled by the spectacle that the Gothams puts together. Maybe it was both. Ott admitted that this was his first real trip to New York, having arrived a few days earlier for a special screening of the movie at the Museum of Modern Art. You couldn't ask for a better welcoming party than Cipriani's, but the cameras lingered elsewhere. As we made small talk before the ceremony began, Okatsuka casually joked about our table's placement on the far side of the room, away from "the important people."
The shadow presence of "Littlerock" and the other nominees at the Gothams made me think about how the awards season isn't simply a costly affair -- it emphasizes costly movies. With the exception of "The Kids Are Alright," none of the current Oscar contenders up for serious consideration in the top categories cost under $10 million. Pitted against such monetary forces, the Not Playing at a Theater Near You category looks like the Make-A-Wish foundation for independent film: It offers fleeting recognition before the inevitable arrival at a morbid final destination. The Oscar blitz puts so much emphasis on potential winners that it becomes easy to forget everyone left behind.
This year, however, things happened slightly differently. Midway through the ceremony, Rosie Perez took the stage alongside a representative from the Royal Bank of Canada (one of more random pairings of the night). They introduced a series of clips from the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You category. Ott and Okatsuka politely clapped as scenes from the other movies played, and nodded silently at the brief applause following a scene from their own work. Then Perez opened the envelope and read a single word.
Okatsuka's jaw dropped. An exclamatory "Whaaaaaat?" seeped out of her mouth. Ott froze and stared at the table, then slowly stood as the lights and the cameras -- and every face in the room -- turned in his direction. He squinted through the brightness and looked at Okatsuka. "Come with me," he said, and together they bounded toward the stage. When they arrived, Perez revealed the final kicker of their victory: "Littlerock" will receive a week of theatrical distribution, $15,000 and free publicity, among other treats. "This is totally terrifying," Ott said to the crowd. After the evening's barrage of celebrity faces that looked at ease under the spotlight, his discomfort held a unique charm. The duo sauntered offstage and eventually resumed their dinner. The awards campaign for "Littlerock" came to an end, but not before it found an audience. Presumably, more await.