The very first Oscar precursor every year is the announcement of the Gotham Independent Film Awards. It’s not a strong precursor, but sometimes the oldest and largest organization of independent filmmakers have some influence with Golden Globe and Oscar voters.

Back in 2004, Gotham voters got behind Maria Full of Grace in a big way giving its Breakthrough Actor Award to Catalina Sandino Moreno, and she landed an Academy Award nomination for her heartbreaking performance as a “drug mule.” In that same year Sideways won IFP’s Best Feature and went on to crack the Best Picture field at Oscar time. The 2005 Gotham winners for Best Feature (Capote), Breakthrough Director (Capote director Bennett Miller) and Breakthrough Actor (Amy Adams from Junebug) all became Oscar nominees. In the last 2 years, the Gothams have helped Half Nelson screenwriter Ryan Fleck, Babel actress Ringo Kikuchi and Ellen Page from Juno reach the movie industry’s biggest night.

Here are 2008’s Gotham nominees along with some analysis.

BEST FEATURE
Ballast (Alluvial Film Company)
Frozen River (Sony Pictures Classics)
Synecdoche, New York (Sony Pictures Classics)
The Visitor (Overture Films)
The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
ANALYSIS: Ballast is the big surprise here. Director Lance Hammer originally had a distribution deal with IFC Films, but took the movie back in order to self-distribute. IFP is likely paying tribute to his chutzpah. Sony Classics must be disappointed that Rachel Getting Married didn’t make the cut. The Visitor is a beautiful, subtle film, and I love lead Richard Jenkins in the Best Actor category this year and writer/director Thom McCarthy is a likely Best Original Screenplay contender. The Wrestler seems like the only legit Best Picture possibility of the group.

BEST DOCUMENTARY
Chris & Don: A Love Story (Zeitgeist Films)
Encounters at the End of the World (THINKFilm)
Man on Wire (Magnolia Pictures)
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (THINKFilm)
Trouble the Water (Zeitgeist Films)
ANALYSIS: Man on Wire, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and Trouble the Water seem like sure bets for Oscar nominations. I will use this and future opportunities to highlight Stefan Forbes’ excellent Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story.

BEST ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE
Ballast (Alluvial Film Company)
Rachel Getting Married (Sony Pictures Classics)
Synecdoche, New York (Sony Pictures Classics)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (The Weinstein Company)
The Visitor (Overture Films)
ANALYSIS: Hard to imagine anyone from Ballast receiving Oscar consideration. Anne Hathaway (lead), Debra Winger (supporting) and Rosemary DeWitt (supporting) have real Oscar shots. Phillip Seymour Hoffman (lead) and Catherine Keener (supporting) for Synecdoche, New York always provide Oscar bait. Penelope Cruz delivered what may be my favorite performance of the year in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and the movie represents a breakout for Rebecca Hall (and, don’t forget Patricia Clarkson’s small, but impactful turn). Veteran character actor Jenkins (The Visitor) has a real shot at the Oscar in a decidedly inconsequential Best Actor field.

BREAKTHROUGH DIRECTOR
Antonio Campos, Afterschool
Dennis Dortch, A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy (Magnolia Pictures)
Lance Hammer, Ballast (Alluvial Film Company)
Barry Jenkins, Medicine for Melancholy (IFC Films)
Alex Rivera, Sleep Dealer (Maya Releasing)
ANALYSIS: In a word…nope. Nothing for Oscar here, although I wish Hammer much luck in his self-distribution venture. That’s a tough road.

BREAKTHROUGH ACTOR
Pedro Castaneda, August Evening (Maya Releasing)
Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married (Sony Pictures Classics)
Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (The Weinstein Company)
Melissa Leo, Frozen River (Sony Pictures Classics)
Alejandro Polanco, Chop Shop (Koch Lorber Films)
Micheal J. Smith, Sr., Ballast (Alluvial Film Company)
ANALYSIS: The 3 actresses here are all in the conversation for Best Supporting Actress. Rosemarie DeWitt is a bit over-shadowed by Hathaway, but Mad Men gives her a healthy profile. Hall is terrific (especially burying her British accent). And Leo’s career is very much like that of Richard Jenkins. Frozen River is underrated, and she could be the Catalina Sandino Moreno of this Oscar cycle.

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