‘Sunshine’ brightens Spirit Awards

Comedy wins feature, directing, first screenplay

“Little Miss Sunshine” turned on the heat Saturday at the Independent Spirit Awards, winning top feature, director for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, first screenplay (Michael Arndt) and supporting actor (Alan Arkin).

Arkin drew a big laugh from those in attendance, quipping, “If my mother was alive, she would be asking if I had something to fall back on.”

With its quartet of wins, the Fox Searchlight laffer dominated the awards, announced in afternoon ceremonies in a tent on Santa Monica Beach. ThinkFilm’s “Half Nelson” was the only other pic to garner more than one award, as Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps took the male and female lead actor awards, respectively.

Gosling joked with the crowd that Forest Whitaker, who was nominated for “American Gun,” had requested Gosling win the Spirit Award because Whitaker wanted to avoid giving an acceptance speech. Gosling then said he hoped Whitaker would win the Oscar for “The Last King of Scotland,” adding, “I got a lot of money on him.”

“Little Miss Sunshine,” the brightest box office performer among indies last year with worldwide grosses of $95 million, topped “Half-Nelson,” IFC’s “American Gun,” First Look’s “The Dead Girl” and Picturehouse’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” in the feature category. The win maintains recent awards-season momentum for the dysfunctional family comedy following victories at the Producers Guild, Screen Actors Guild for ensemble and Writers Guild for original screenplay.

As with the PGA award, the Spirit for “Little Miss Sunshine” went to all five producers — David Friendly, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. The latter two have been excluded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences from receiving an Oscar should “Sunshine” win the picture Oscar due to the Acad rule limiting the number of recognized producers to three.

“Many say that the Spirit Award is the highest honor in American film,” Yerxa said in his acceptance speech. “It’s never been more so than today.”

“Little Miss Sunshine” could join “Platoon” as the only Spirit Award feature winners to also take home the Academy Award for picture. Last year’s Spirit winner, “Brokeback Mountain,” lost the picture Oscar to “Crash,” which also took the Spirits’ first feature trophy.

“Sunshine” and “Half-Nelson” had led the Spirit nominations with five each. Arkin topped castmate Paul Dano for supporting actor trophy.

Jason Reitman drew the screenplay nod for “Thank You for Smoking,” giving Searchlight five of the 13 awards. Sony Clas-sics took three trophies, winning for Frances McDormand in the supporting actress category for “Friends With Money,” foreign film for “The Lives of Others” and the John Cassavetes Award for “Quinceanera” for top feature made for under $500,000.

Marking a first for a pic without a distributor, “Sweet Land” drew the first feature trophy for producers Alan Cumming, James Bigham and Ali Selim, who also directed.

Roadside Attractions’ “The Road to Guantanamo” took the documentary award for directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross.

Howard Gertler and Tim Perell, producers of both “Shortbus” and “Pizza,” received the Axium Producers Award, which hon-ors emerging producers; Julie Lotkev, director of “Day Night Day Night,” took the IFC/Acura Someone to Watch award; and Adele Horn, director of “Tailenders,” won the Axium Truer Than Fiction Award, presented to an emerging director of nonfiction features who has not yet received significant attention.

Film Independent, which administers the awards, decided in 2005 to limit noms to pics with budgets of less than $20 million. Nominees were selected by Spirit Awards panels from more than 250 submissions; members of Film Independent and the Independent Film Project voted on the winners.

Previously announced kudos included a special distinction award to David Lynch and Laura Dern for their collaborative work and an Honorary Spirit Award to the late Robert Altman.

Sarah Silverman emceed the show. She got a big laugh at the top of the ceremonies by noting that most of the leaders of the independent film community were attending the event, adding, “If a bomb went off, there would be no one left to make a documentary about it.”

And the 2007 Independent Spirit winners are…

FEATURE (Award given to the Producer)
“Little Miss Sunshine,” Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, producers

FIRST FEATURE (Award given to the director and producer)
“Sweet Land,” Ali Selim, director Alan Cumming, James Bigham, Ali Selim, producers

Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, “Little Miss Sunshine”

Ryan Gosling, “Half Nelson”

Shareeka Epps, “Half Nelson”

Alan Arkin, “Little Miss Sunshine”

Frances McDormand, “Friends with Money”

Jason Reitman, “Thank You For Smoking”

Michael Arndt, “Little Miss Sunshine”

Guillermo Navarro, “Pan’s Labyrinth”

JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD (Given to the best feature made for under $500,000; award given to the writer, director, and producer)
“Quinceanera,” Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, writer/directors; Anne Clements, producer

DOCUMENTARY (Award given to the director)
“The Road to Guantanamo,” Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, directors

FOREIGN FILM (Award given to the director)
“The Lives of Others,” (Germany); Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, director

Howard Gertler and Tim Perell

David Lynch, Laura Dern

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