THE EVER-ZANY GOTHAM AWARDS

The Oscar folks ought to take their cue from the Gotham Independent Awards, which kicked off awards season November 28. Whoever's in charge, and that's got to include Frank PR, the Gothams are a helluva show. This 26th year there was a zaniness careening around the cavernous Cipriani on Wall Street, the event's usual site. Up on the balcony the braying melded in a great blast of bellini-infused egos. James Schamus, fresh off Indignation, seemed drunk on talk.

In keeping with the indie vibe, Anya Taylor-Joy, winner of Breakthrough Actor for The Witch, rocked a crinoline bordered in what looked like gosling peacock feathers. Cate Blanchett, who honored Amy Adams and professed an actor-crush on her, wore yuuge pastel frames and said "fuck" a couple of times. In a class by himself was Damien Lewis; he needed only to angle through the crowd in impeccable tailoring to be Fabulous.

A shared love of story telling was in the air, along with a mutual admiration of craft and solidarity among all the players in movie world. Well, the appearance of solidarity: it can't have been fun to lose; Lily Gladstone should have snagged Breakthrough Actor, dammit, for her turn as the farmhand smitten with Kristen Stewart in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women.

The only downside remained, as in previous years, the ambient sound from the audience during the actual awards. You'd think the entire room had just been released from a vow of silence. One presenter marveled, "If you start cursing and yelling they stop the chit chat." My table in Siberia included a couple who deserved an award for nonstop yakking. That's when they weren't canoodling, preferable, because it shut them up. Conceivably, they'd wandered in off the street, sneaking past the bouncers, in search of a warm, dimly-lit place.

The evening's big winner was Moonlight, a coming-of-ager about a boy growing up gay and poor in Miami, which collected 4 awards: for Best Screenplay, Best Ensemble, and the Audience Award. Repeatedly called back to the stage to be honored, director Barry Jenkins - surrounded by his cast -- seemed alternately dazed and amazed; he kept marveling, "but I haven't made a film in 8 years!" I have yet to see Moonlight but Jenkins already has me with the still of a man in the sea smiling radiantly as he holds a skinny kid in his arms.

The other big winners were Casey Affleck, sporting a weird pony tail and facial hair, for his turn as a janitor frozen by unspeakable loss in Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea. It's a performance for the ages. His reedy voice, with its overtones of Appalachia, rings as indelibly as Michael Douglas's. On the podium Affleck looked more bewildered than honored. He seemed bemused that a role which allowed him to strut his outsize talent had not come along sooner.

This year, of course, politics were front and center. Emcee Keegan-Michael Key lead off by pretending he'd missed the election, and had to scotch a pre-written speech about Hillary Clinton as the next president. Unfortunately, I missed some of the jokes on account of the late-life lovers at my table. I wondered where Cate and Casey and Isabelle were seated. Damien Lewis - for him the crowd fell silent -- took a wicked swipe at America's electoral college. Oliver Stone, director of Snowden, and honored for making over fifty films, lent the evening gravitas, exhorting filmmakers to "stay independent. You can be critical of your government. The next president ... will have the authority to really close down the system in a way that is much more oppressive than it's ever been. The surveillance state, 1984, cyber warfare, drone warfare is with us."

This speech I mostly heard; the greying Casanova was deep in a kiss, two fingers to his date's carotid artery. "Why don't they get a room," a neighbor muttered. By now my table was deserted, a mini Chernobyl, with only a strapping, impassive guy remaining, maybe a bodyguard.

The crowd gave it up for Ethan Hawke, honored for being ... Ethan Hawke. He joked that he'd been declared "washed up" at fourteen. Regarding the movie biz: "The only thing I know for certain: I'll be washed up again very very soon."

Loony Award for the evening went to Winona Ryder and her tribute to Hawke, a long, weepy aria that sounded more like a psychiatric breakthrough than a tribute. The charm of the Gothams: they allowed her to let it rip.

Justice was served with Best Actor awarded to Isabelle Huppert for Elle, a twisted tale of vengeance from Paul Verhoeven about a woman's unorthodox response to getting raped. To crown a French actor was a true departure for the Gothams. Coming off the red carpet, Huppert, age-proof and make-up free, had sounded fatalistic; surely the prize would go to an American. How gratifying, then, that the jury chose to salute Huppert not only for the provocation of Elle, but as a cinematic presence non-pareil. Through her body of work Isabelle Huppert has created a new kind of female persona not seen before in film.