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The 24th Annual Spirit Awards:

Santa Monica Beach once again played host to Film Independent’s 2009 Spirit Awards, which pays tribute to independent filmmakers who are not constricted by studio demands and make films that are true to their vision and challenge the status quo.

The Spirit Awards ceremony is the most casual of them all, and with few exceptions celebrity guests and honorees typically show up wearing their best or not-so-best tee shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes. Being broadcast live on cable, there are no language restrictions, so there is always a healthy splattering of the “F” word which for some reason always gets a laugh. Mickey Rourke gets the prize for using the “F” word more than anyone else during the proceedings.

But, the “anything goes” is at the heart of the Spirit Awards and is what makes it unique.

The films receiving top honors were among some of the most outstanding of the year and include The Wrestler, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Milk, The Visitor, Frozen River, In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Man on Wire, The Class, and Synecdoche, New York.

Here are award highlights and a few comments from the honorees during the Q & A in the press tent:

Best First Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black – Milk .

When questioned about how Milk plays around the country, Black, from a Mormon family, said, “I took the movie to Salt Lake City, Utah for a premiere, and it wasn’t just gays and lesbians who showed up. There were also a lot of people from a women’s group, and at the end of the film we got a standing ovation.” He continued, “If gay and lesbian people do the work to introduce themselves to these communities that vote against us election after election, it will change,” adding, “I do believe America loves gay and lesbian people, but they just might not know it yet.”

Best Supporting Female: Penelope Cruz – Vicky Cristina Barcelona .

“I’m always surprised when I hear my name,” said Cruz. “I get very terrified about having to go up there, and at the same time you want to go. When the Mirror asked about what personal challenges she faced in developing her character, the breathtakingly beautiful actress answered, “It was a very exhausting process and was good that my character got done in four weeks because I was destroyed at the end of each day because Woody [Allen] really wanted that level of chaos in every scene. I remember thinking that if this was one of those shoots for seven months, I don’t know what I would have to do later to recover.”

Best Supporting Male: James Franco – Milk.

“There were incarnations of this movie, and I don’t know what happened with them, but I do know that when Gus [Van Sant] and Lance [Black] got this version going, they really made it a point to reach out to all the people who knew Harvey to really bring them into the process and make it as authentic as possible.”

Franco is currently in the graduate directing program at NYU’S Tisch School and is thinking about making his own movies. “When I think about the movies I want to make, I want to make the same kind of movies Gus Van Sant makes.”

Best First Feature: Director/Producer: Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York

Kaufman denied not being cooperative with the press saying, “I’ve been doing press for every movie since Being John Malkovich. I was camera-shy and still am and kind of have to do this. I won an award here for Being John Malkovich and was in this very press tent answering questions. I’ve done a little bit more for this one because I’m the director and want to promote it.”

When asked to define independent spirit, Kaufman said, “I don’t know if I define it at all. I feel like this is an independent movie in the sense that we are doing something different and it’s not adhering to some kind of formula. It didn’t set out how to get a lot of people into the theatre,” musing, “and obviously we were successful in not getting a lot of people into the theatre.” “Perhaps independent spirit is doing something, without looking at demographics, that is sincere and honest and you’re trying to express something which I think we did.”

Other winners:

Best Director: Tom McCarthy, The Visitor.

Best Screenplay: Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Best Male Lead: Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler.

Best Female Lead: Melissa Leo, Frozen River.

So once again, the tents were folded up and put away until next year when the Independent Spirit Awards once again returns to Santa Monica Beach to bring its own special brand of “entertainment.”

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