Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ drama about three stages in the life of a young, gay black man growing up in Miami, was the big winner at the 26th annual Gotham Awards on Monday night. The star-studded event was attended by dozens of film and TV talent, including Cate Blanchett, Danny DeVito, Oliver Stone, Amy Adams, Aziz Ansari, Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and host Keegan-Michael Key.
The awards ceremony, which honors independent cinema and is held at downtown Manhattan’s Cirpiani restaurant, has proven itself in recent years to be a spot-on accurate bellwether of the Oscar race. Spotlight and Birdman, both Gotham feature winners, went on to score Best Picture Academy Awards, and in 2013 Matthew McConaughney started his winning Best Actor campaign for Dallas Buyers Club with a Gotham victory.
The $5 million-budgeted Moonlight, a stunning, gentle, deeply affecting story about heartbreak and hopefulness, scored four prizes: Best Feature, Best Screenplay, a special award for the acting ensemble, and the Audience Award. In presenting the latter award, Damian Lewis scored one of the evening’s biggest laughs when he said, with a snarky nod towards the presidential election, “The film that receives the most votes is the winner. It’s a brilliant idea!”
Jenkins accepted the Best Feature award with a mixture of admiration toward his fellow nominees (including Certain Woman director Kelly Reichart and Manchester by the Sea‘s Kenneth Lonnergan) and immense pride in his cast and gratitude towards Plan B and especially A24, which not only distributed Moonlight (to the tune of $8 million at the box office so far) but also produced the project.
Backstage after the win, many of Moonlight team were in tears, including Oscar-winning producer Jeremy Kleiner (12 Years a Slave), stars Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Jharrel Jerome. Filmmaker Ezra Edelman, who won the Best Documentary award for his astonishing O.J.: Made in America, greeted Sanders by saying, “You face has been in my mind every day for weeks.”
Perhaps the only two members of Moonlight‘s ensemble not wiping away tears were the film’s child actors, Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner. When visiting the press room in the middle of the evening after their movie won the Audience Award, the two boys smiled and said, “We’ll be back.”
In addition to Moonlight and Edelman’s victories, other winners included Isabelle Huppert in the Best Actress category for Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s daring, French-language satire, and Casey Affleck won Best Actor for his wrenching portrayal of a grief-stricken man in Manchester by the Sea.
Affleck, who 12 hours later was also named best actor by the National Board of Review, is a lock for an Oscar nomination. He was nominated once before, in 2007 for his supporting role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Huppert is an acting icon and veteran, having appeared in more than 100 films since the early 1970s, though has never been nominated for an Oscar. But as the Gotham Awards go…so goes the academy?