Spirit Awards Hail Sunshine

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Any red carpet flanked by Porta-Potties must lead somewhere...different.

On Oscar eve this year, as it has for each of the last 22, the red carpet at Film Independent's Spirit Awards ceremony, sometimes referred to as the Indie Academy Awards, leads to a beachfront tent full of celebs in their best dressy casual, sharing cocktails and off-color jokes and honoring movies made for budgets slightly less than the cost of the jewels Fred Leighton will loan out to Oscar hopefuls the next morning.

Host Sarah Silverman began by reminding the audience of the event's significance in the film world: "If a bomb went off here," the comic said, "There would be no one left to make a documentary about it." A lot of Santa Monica, Calif., sun shone down on the dysfunctional family comedy Little Miss Sunshine, which won Best Feature, Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin — who's also nominated for an Oscar — Best Director for the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and best first screenplay for Michael Arndt.

Another little film that scored big was Half Nelson, about a crack-addicted junior high-school teacher and his student, which took both acting awards: Ryan Gosling for Best Actor and newcomer Shareeka Epps for Best Actress. "Forest called me last night and asked if I would win for him," said Gosling, who is nominated for a Best Actor Oscar against Forest Whitaker. "He said it's exhausting winning all the time. I wouldn't know. He better win tomorrow night. I've got a lot of money on him." In a sign of just how far under-the-radar Spirit Award winner performances like Epps' are compared to those honored at the Oscars, presenter Felicity Huffman called the young winner "Shakira" twice. "Oh, my name's Shareeka by the way," Epps said when she took the stage.

As befits an afternoon beach party, stars dressed down. Indie homecoming king and queen Sean Penn and Robin Wright Penn embodied the code — corduroy pants and sneakers for him, skinny jeans and heels for her, a look of mild amusement for both. Some celebs clearly found dressy casual a puzzling assignment — Laura Dern wore a red dress and jeans.

The Spirit Awards, which honor films that cost less than $20 million and are primarily financed outside the studio system, are supposed to be too cool for star worship. But when the new James Bond (Daniel Craig) appeared in the tent, nominated for his performance in Infamous — a movie few people saw and even fewer recognized — a collective inhale of breath was audible.

But most of the afternoon's honorees were of the strictest indie pedigree. Dennis Hopper introduced a special award celebrating the film collaborations of David Lynch and Dern. "At the core of every David Lynch movie is one fundamental mystery," said Hopper, showing clips from Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Inland Empire. "What the f___ was that about?"

Sundance's top prizewinner last year, the teen drama Quinceanera, won the John Cassavetes Award for a film shot for less than $500,000. A new award was created in honor of Robert Altman, which starting next year will be given to a director and acting ensemble, an acknowledgement of Altman's knack for corralling sprawling casts.

In the oddball spirit of the Spirit Awards, several unusual musical numbers kept attendees' toes tapping. Taylor Dane sang a tribute to Little Miss Sunshine to the tune of "We Are Family,": "Screwed up family/Such dysfunctionality" and Rosario Dawson performed an ode to Half Nelson to the melody of "Son of a Preacher Man,": "The only one who reached out to me/ Was a crack-headed teacher man." By the show's the end, the sun was just sinking on the Pacific Ocean, leaving independent-minded revelers enough time to party and still get their pre-Oscar beauty sleep.