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Indie Spirits are high for "The Artist"

SANTA MONICA, Ca. -- "The Artist," a nearly silent film, made most of the noise here Saturday at the Independent Sprit Awards, wining for best picture, best actor, best director and its cinematography. It was the latest in a series of good omens for the surprise hit, which seems headed for victory at the Academy Awards on Sunday night.

A no less significant award, for best documentary, was won by "The Interrupters," made by Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz for Chicago's Kartemquin Films. The doc, about former gang members trying to keep the peace among street gangs, inspired an uproar when it failed to win an Oscar nomination. Many remember similar incredulity when James's "Hoop Dreams" (1994), widely considered the best documentary of recent decades, was snubbed by the Oscars.

Michel Hazanavicius, the French director of "The Artist," arrived breathless on stage after racing from LAX with a police escort. He had flown in from Paris after his film won the Cesar Award, the "French Oscar," on Friday. He was named best director by both groups. His star, Jean Dujardin, won the Spirit Award for best actor, but not the Cesar. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, whose distinctive black and white photography helped capture the spirit of a circa-1930 silent film, also won a spirit.

"The Artist" steamroller has been so dramatic that it was necessary to take a breath and look around the Indie Spirits venue, a big tent on the beach, and reflect that this group, founded to support a new wave of American cinema, had joined in the applause for a throwback that was (almost) entirely silent, and (almost) entirely b&w.

"We created the Best Foreign Film award to stop this s**t from happening," joked Seth Rogen, emcee of the high-spirited ceremony. "Did we learn nothing from Roberto Benigni?"

The Spirit Award for best actress was won by Michelle Williams, who played Marilyn Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn." She recalled that at her first Indie Spirits she wore her own clothes and did her own hair, and they weren't so great. "Today," she smiled, "the only thing I'm wearing that I own is my dignity." She wore a tailored blue blazer with shirt and tie -- conservative, except that the blazer was cut as high as a pair of daisy dukes.

The most popular winner was Canadian veteran Christopher Plummer, who won for best supporting actor by playing an old man, long and happily married, who after his wife died revealed to his son that he was gay. The best supporting actress was Shailene Woodley, who played George Clooney's troubled daughter in "The Descendants."

"The Descendants" also won for best screenplay, by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. "Margin Call," an HBO production about unethical trading practices on Wall Street meltdown, won as best first feature for writer-director J. C. Chandor.

The best international film award went to "A Separation," from Iran. Its writer- director, Asghar Farhadi, accepted in person and may be accepting an Oscar on Sunday night.

Other awards: Best first screenplay, Will Reiser for "50/50." The John Cassavetes Award, "Pariah," written and directed by Dee Rees, produced by Nekisa Cooper. The Piaget Producers Award, Sophia Lin of "Take Shelter." The Audi Someone to Watch Award, Mark Jackson's "Without." The Nokia Truer Than Fiction Award, Heather Courtney's "Where Soldiers Come From." The Robert Altman Award, for best use of an ensemble cast, to "Margin Call."

Two $10,000 grants were announced during the ceremony. The Chaz and Roger Ebert Fellowship, which recognizes a social-issue documentary, was given to Katie Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, co-directors of the documentary "Call Me Kuchu." The Giorgio Armani Directing Fellowship, was awarded to Grace Lee, director of the documentary "American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs."

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