For Your Consideration: Oct. 24, 2014

People usually hesitate to call the Independent Film Project’s Gotham Awards the official start of the awards season – as the East Coast-little sibling to the Spirit Awards (which are already themselves the awkward cousin of the Oscars, Golden Globes, et al), the Gothams are hardly an influential affair. But hey, they’re the first group to actually start putting out competitive categories, and there’s just something so damn fun about an end-of-year list. This year’s list of nominations seem as suitably discerning as ever, with “Boyhood” leading the way and love for “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Under the Skin,” among others (I’m particularly intrigued by their Best Actor nod for Oscar Isaac in J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” – an interesting way to sneak around the review embargo that’s been placed on the film so far).

In any case, we’re going to kick off the season by celebrating Gotham Awards past – here are three films that took the top prize from the New York indie scene.

– Ethan

“Half Nelson” (2006)

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie

Available to purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

“The Notebook” may have catapulted Ryan Gosling to the A-list, but it was “Half Nelson” that made him a critics’ darling too. His turn as a drug-addicted inner-city junior high school teacher is riveting (and remains his only Oscar-nominated role), but revisiting the film the real shocker is how well Shareeka Epps, as Gosling’s student-turned-confidante, holds her own. Combine those two with Anthony Mackie’s electric performance as a neighborhood dealer who draws Epps into his business, and “Half Nelson” is a great example of what the 21st-century indie scene has offered so far: raw, rough talent, standing out in a well-written, on-the-fly production.

– Ethan

“Frozen River” (2008)

Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O’Keefe, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Jr.

Available to purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

This pick also serves as a bittersweet tribute to Misty Upham, who died under tragic and rather mysterious circumstances a few weeks ago. Courtney Hunt’s drama finely balances elements of a crime thriller with scathing indictments on the American economy and immigration policy. As Ray Eddy and Lila Littlewolf, two women who form an uneasy partnership to smuggle immigrants across the St. Lawrence River from Canada to a Mohawk reservation, Leo and Upham are a well-matched odd couple, never quite falling into the sappy screen clichés of unlikely friendship. Amid the snow and ice, the film smolders, fueled by Ray and Lila’s desperation to support themselves and their children in a society where they’ve run out of options.

– Ethan

“Winter’s Bone” (2010)

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Doesn’t it seem an eternity ago that we had no idea who Jennifer Lawrence was? It’s been a whirlwind few years, but even after a blockbuster franchise and an Oscar, “Winter’s Bone” remains Lawrence’s best work (sorry, David O. Russell fans, it’s true). The film bears a passing resemblance to “Frozen River,” as another chilly, rustic thriller about a woman driven to extreme measures to protect herself and her family – but “Winter’s Bone” drops to an even darker place, where drugs, poverty and violence are inescapable. The menace in Debra Granik’s vision of the Ozarks is palpable, especially whenever John Hawkes is on screen as Lawrence’s hostile, enigmatic uncle. Watching “Winter’s Bone,” it’s not hard to see how Lawrence won the lead in “The Hunger Games” – Ree is nothing if not the real-life version of Katniss Eberdeen, and all the admirable for it.

– Ethan

One thought on “For Your Consideration: Oct. 24, 2014

  1. I stumbled across both Frozen River and Winter’s Bone and really liked both of them. I too thought Jennifer Lawrence was so good in Winter’s Bone even though it was such a dark film.

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