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'Sunshine' win burnishes its pre-Oscar glow

The dark comedy takes best feature at the Spirit Awards, adding buzz to its chances of upsetting 'The Departed' at the Academy Awards.

February 25, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

"Little Miss Sunshine," the dark comedy about a dysfunctional family, won best feature at the 2007 Film Independent's Spirit Awards on Saturday.

"Sunshine," which is nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, won three other awards at the beachside event: best director for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, supporting male actor for veteran Alan Arkin and best first screenplay for Michael Arndt.

"Sunshine," which was made for just $8 million, has been one of the Cinderella stories of this year's awards season. Fox Searchlight Pictures purchased the distribution rights to the film at last year's Sundance Film Festival for $10 million.

The film recently won the Producers Guild of America Award, the Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble and the Writers Guild of America Award, as well as the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards for screenplay and supporting actor. "Sunshine" is considered the trump card at tonight's 79th annual Academy Awards -- the film that could upset "The Departed" for best picture of 2006.

Arkin, who received a standing ovation as he approached the stage, said, "I feel very small, which is how I felt when I started in this business."

A delighted Arndt thanked the organization "for having this category."

Ryan Gosling was named best male lead for his performance as a drug-using urban junior high school teacher in "Half Nelson." Gosling is also nominated for an Oscar for the role.

Gosling's co-star Shareeka Epps, who plays a student who befriends the teacher, received best female lead.

After joking that Forest Whitaker, who has been sweeping the awards circuit with best actor wins, let him win this time, Gosling thanked his mother and the film's team, and then thanked his co-star. "She doesn't believe this," he said of Epps, "but this wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for you. I've been doing this, making movies, for a while now and this has never happened. I do one with you and look what happens."

Familiar faces filled the tables at the awards, held in a tent on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier. Anjelica Huston, Daniel Craig, Sean Penn, Tobey Maguire and Zach Braff were among those in the crowd.

Frances McDormand picked up the best supporting female award for her performance in the comedy-drama "Friends With Money." Best screenplay honors went to Jason Reitman for the satire "Thank You for Smoking," and "Quinceanera" received the John Cassavetes Award for the best feature made for less than $500,000. Best first film honors went to the romantic drama "Sweet Land."

Guillermo Navarro won the cinematography prize for his meshing of the fantasy world in "Pan's Labyrinth" with its scenes of stark realities. "The Lives of Others" from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck won best foreign film.

The late director Robert Altman received an honorary Spirit Award for his lifetime commitment to independent filmmaking. Film Independent also created the Robert Altman Award, which, beginning next year, will be given to one film's director and ensemble cast.

The Spirit Awards, begun 22 years ago as a small event to honor independent films, has become one of the hottest tickets of the awards season. The ceremony is loose and irreverent. On Saturday, Cuba Gooding Jr. got risque with co-presenter Ileana Douglas. And acerbic comedian Sarah Silverman, who hosted for the second year in a row, went off on an eyebrow-raising riff about her love of cheese.

The show featured song parodies tailored to the best film nominees, so Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man," for instance, became an ode to a "crack-headed teacher man," in a salute to "Half Nelson."

The other winners:

Best documentary: "The Road to Guantanamo"

Axium Producers Award: Howard Gertler and Tim Perrell, producers of "Shortbus" and "Pizza"

IFC/Acura Someone to Watch Award: Julia Loktev, director of "Day Night Day Night"

Axium Truer Than Fiction Award: Adele Horne, director of "The Tailenders"

Special Distinction Award: David Lynch and Laura Dern for their collaborative work.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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