IFP Gotham Awards Ceremony Lights Up Dark Night

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Quvenzhané Wallis gives her director Behn Zeitlin a big hug.

The red carpet was aglow with the incandescent twinkle of Hollywood’s stars on Monday night at the 22nd annual Independent Film Project Gotham Awards. With Oscar winners Matt Damon and Marion Cotillard amongst the evening’s honorees and the likes of Jack Black, Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski and so many more blazing a trail through the double doors of Wall St.’s Cipriani’s, it was no wonder that the less glamorous side of the velvet rope was a veritable press feeding frenzy. Lucky for us, then, that we had sharpened our claws.

As the guests took their seats for the ceremony, The Observer was whisked upstairs to a private viewing room, lest we cavort too rambunctiously with the delicate A-List crowd. There we watched over the evening’s events like demi-gods looking down from the heavens upon the cherubs pecking away at their meals, with eight year old nominee Quvenzhané Williams and 13 year old Jared Gilman leading the underage coterie.

The awards soon got underway, much to the delight of the recipients. Honoring their intentions as champions of independent cinema, the jury not only rewarded the biggest Hollywood names but the industry’s up-and-comers for their contribution to film. Beasts of the Southern Wild writer and director Benh Zeitlin was undoubtedly the big winner of the night, scooping statuettes – well, glass cuboids – for Breakthrough Director alongside the Bingham Ray Award, dedicated to the late film executive.

Mr. Zeitlin was so swept up with his first victory, however, that he scarcely noticed he had procured a second, pausing in his role as the obliging interviewee only to dash back downstairs to claim his newest prize.

“The fact that the film has gotten out into the world has been overwhelming,” he told The Observer, “And I never imagined this many people would not only see it but champion it, and make it their business to help the film get out there. It has completely changed my life.” A spate of critical successes at Cannes, Sundance, the LA Film Festival and the International Film Festival has seen Louisiana-based Mr. Zeitlin’s awards cabinet go from empty to engorged in a matter of months.

Another director honored for his work during the event was David O. Russell, whose work on the likes of The Fighter and new release Silver Linings Playbook secured his status as a deserving IFP Gotham Award recipient. “With an independent film you are with your little family and you work together all day every day, and that’s the real difference,” he explained. “You’re all there for the passion, and I prefer that because projects have to come from the heart. You have to dig deep.”

Academy Award-winners and Gotham honorees Mr. Damon and Ms. Cotillard are certainly no strangers to widespread acclaim, but both seemed similarly touched by their newest prestigious accolade. Ms. Cotillard was every inch the elegant belle of the ball, dazzling in an array of Chopard jewelry and a stunning Christian Dior couture gown.

Clearly her nationality influences not only her wardrobe but her passion for various projects, telling The Observer: “I really cherish the fact that I’m able to share my French movies worldwide, because we have amazing creativity in France.” The softly spoken actress, who stars in the recently released Rust and Bone, seemed quite overcome with emotion, before continuing: “With this film I had one of the greatest journeys ever, and to share this very unconventional love story outside of my country is something that I enjoy more than anything. I never choose a movie because of whether it’s independent or not, it’s just a story that’s got to take me. But independent movies have the freedom of telling stories that nobody except a special director would tell.”

Mr. Damon echoed the Parisian sweetheart’s sentiments, divulging, “I’ve never set goals for my career. Each movie is just story-telling, and I never wanted to not do a bunch of good movies because I was waiting to make a great one.”

The evening was particularly poignant for the actor, who recalled his first attendance at the Gotham Awards some 15 years earlier in the year Good Will Hunting was released. The best-buddy-Ben-Affleck spot was filled not by his usual partner in crime, but by Mr. Krasinski, who became fast friends with the honoree after meeting on the set of The Adjustment Bureau, in which Mr. Damon and Mr. Krasinski’s wife Ms. Blunt, starred. The Observer did contemplate asking whether Mr. Damon’s onscreen dalliance with his friend’s spouse ever induced some awkward glances around the dinner table, but we opted to forgo stirring the salacious pot on this occasion.

Back to the matter at hand, Mr. Damon said he enjoyed the ubiquitous montage of his roles over the years, but revealed, “It’s always a little cringe inducing – if you have a bad or mediocre day at work, it’s alive forever, so that part [of working in film] is always a little weird.”

But Mr. Damon, who plays the lead in upcoming indie flick Promised Land, needn’t worry about bad days at the office, given that his most recent prize was for Lifetime Achievement – at the grand old age of 42. “I hope this is like a buoy marker – a half time thing,” he laughed. “I want to do this for another 50 years!”

And with that, our time with Mr. Damon was up, and he was briskly shepherded to the after party with the rest of his showbiz pals. Alas, we did not get the opportunity to put on our dancing shoes and join in the film festivities, but the evening was quite the show itself.