NEW YORK -- At the start of Monday night's IFP Gotham Independent Awards, host Nick Kroll made an inside "Inside Llewyn Davis" joke. "A common theme in this year's movies," the comedian said, "are the horrors we inflict upon one another -- slavery, war, folk music."
A few hours later, Kroll's quip proved surprisingly prescient: "Davis," the Coen brothers' fictionalized look at Dave Van Ronk and the '60's folk revival, won the night's top prize, best feature.
It was something of an upset for the CBS Films release, which has been on few forecasters' best-picture shortlists. And while the movie's New York setting might have been part of what worked in its favor at the Gotham-friendly Gothams -- star Oscar Isaac, accepting the prize on behalf of the Coens, noted the connection -- it nonetheless offered the film a much-needed boost at the dawn of nomination season.
The post-Thanksgiving Gothams are a coastal counterpoint of sorts to Los Angeles' Independent Spirit Awards, held a distant three months later. By going this early, the show hopes to set the tone for the flurry of prizes to come, or at least solidify a few favorites.
That seemed to be the case for Matthew McConaughey, who won the first of what could well be multiple acting wins for his role as an unlikely AIDS crusader in "The Dallas Buyers Club"; the prize gave him an early-season edge over "12 Years A Slave's" Chiwetel Ejiofor and other contenders. McConaughey costar Jared Leto accepted the prize, thanking the audience by holding a phone to his ear that -- he said -- had McConaughey on the other end.
On the actress side, Brie Larson was the winner over favorite Cate Blanchett for her role as a troubled foster-care counselor in "Short Term 12," the indie darling that is likely to have a tougher climb at the Oscars (as in, it unfortunately won't land any major noms). Larson took note of the moment, saying in her speech that "it may be the only time I accept an award, so going to try to get everyone in." And she did.
"Fruitvale Station," the tale of the BART shooting of Oscar Grant III, was also a big winner at the confab, with the film's Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan winning breakthrough director and breakthrough actor, respectively — and presaging good things at the Spirit Awards, if not the Oscars.
The documentary prize went to Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing," about an elderly band of former thugs in Indonesia, as that film emerges as an early Oscar front-runner.
The annual event has an enthusiastic quality, but room acoustics and indie-film restlessness make for a lot of talking, particularly during speeches.
That prompted Leto and "The Butler" director Lee Daniels to chastise the audience.
Daniels' speech, as he introduced his film's star, Forest Whitaker, for a lifetime achievement award, was one of the more notable of the evening. In it, he noted that "when I did the research for 'The Butler' I became really angry at white people." When the room started to laugh anxiously, Daniels said he wasn't joking and noted, "My grandmother got her teeth knocked out. My mother got her teeth knocked out."
Whitaker was able to bring the crowd to a hush as he spoke mystically about his journey, the foundation of truth and universe-expansion. (Daniels called Whitaker "an angel from God.")
Kroll struggled with his material for much of the night, particularly with industry digs at the likes of IFC, prompting him to improvise a number of jokes about his own bombing.
PHOTOS: Behind the scenes of movies and TV
Outgoing New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg then made sure the point was driven home. Introducing a lifetime achievement award for New York film commissioner Katherine Oliver, who received a strong ovation for her efforts to bring production to the city, Bloomberg said, "Nick Kroll should have mentioned Katherine Oliver's name. He would have gotten more applause." (Bloomberg also made a Rob Ford joke. "The mayor of Toronto and the mayor of New York do NOT have a lot in common.")
"Before Midnight" director Richard Linklater received a lifetime achievement award too, and if the talk from presenters Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wasn't up to their sizzling patter from the films, it did justice to their director, whose clip reel demonstrated just what an influence he's been over independent cinema over the last two decades. The introduction also included this Delpy line, "I can actually immolate myself on stage. Not that anyone would know because no one is listening. But I'm not gonna do it. Because we might do a fourth film one day."
The most touching part of the evening came when James Gandolfini was given a posthumous lifetime achievement award, with his family taking the stage after a moving series of clips. It provided a template for how to do a tribute properly (here's hoping the Oscars take note).
In presenting the award to Gandolfini's family, frequent "Sopranos" collaborator Steve Buscemi, who directed and starred in episodes of the HBO show, said that "to be accepted by Jimmy as a director was the best feeling in the world," adding, "I can't imagine any actor out there who could make us care about someone who inflicted so much pain on everyone around him."
Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT