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Indie Spirit Awards pitch a big tent

SANTA MONICA, Ca. - On the eve of the Academy Awards, the Independent Spirits Awards sometimes provide advance clues to Oscar winners. But Saturday's indiefest under the big tent on the beach at Santa Monica spread the awards so evenly that omens were hard to spot. "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crash," thought to be the Oscar front-runners, both won -- "Brokeback" for best picture, "Crash" for best first film by a director.

Some wondered why such major Oscar contenders were even included in the Indie field. Shouldn't the awards be focused more on outsider and overlooked films? "Welcome to the awards that spotlight struggling artists," said emcee Sarah Silverman. "Like Ang Lee and George Clooney." Ang Lee, who won as best director for "Brokeback," remembered that he first attended the indees with his little comedy "The Wedding Banquet" in 1994.

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The best picture and directing awards for "Brokeback" didn't translate into acting prizes, however. Best actor, as expected, was Philip Seymour Hoffman, for "Capote," who praised his fellow nominees and said on the day before the Oscars, "I've been given enough." Best actress was Felicity Huffman, who played a male-to-female transsexual in "Transamerica," and got a big laugh remembering a day on location in the desert "when the driver got drunk and took the keys to Mexico, and the caterer quit and our producer had to go to Denny's, and a lamp exploded and blew glass all over the set, and I saw our key grip up on a 15-foot stepladder with a flashlight in his mouth, trying to rig another light, and saying, 'This ----ing movie better win some ----ing prizes or we're all wasting our ----ing time."

The best supporting actress award went to Amy Adams, who won for playing the youthful earth mother who holds her improbable family together in "Junebug." Best supporting actor was Matt Dillon, as a cop both corrupt and heroic in "Crash."

"Paradise Now," which has inspired opposition to its portrait of two Palestinian terror bombers, won as best foreign film; the voters apparently agreed with the nominating committee that the film's purpose was not to support bombers, but to shed light on the world that produces them. The best documentary was "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."

For cinematography, Robert Elswit's black and white images in "Good Night, and Good Luck" won the Indie. Best screenplay went to Dan Futterman for "Capote," and best first screenplay to Duncan Tucker of "Transamerica." ("Isn't that a strange name for the man who wrote and directed 'Transamerica'," mused Silverman.

The John Cassavetes award for best feature under $500,000 went to the makers of "Conventioneers," which plugged actors into the two 2004 political conventions. The $25,000 AMC/American Express Award to a visionary producer went to Caroline Baron, of "Capote" and "Monsoon Wedding." The $25,000 IFC/Acura Award for a director deserving wide recognition went to Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana, directors of "Cavite." And the $25,000 Truer than Fiction award, to emerging documentary directors, went to Garrett Scott and Ian Olds for their Iraq documentary "Occupation: Dreamland." A shaken Olds accepted the award: "Garrett Scott died of a heart attack four days ago, at 37. I wasn't going to come today, but I came for him."

Following hosts like John Waters and Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Silverman was hilarious as she negotiated a fine line between taste/no taste in her monologue about vaginal sprays. Director Kevin Smith broke through that line and did a couple of laps in his monologue, which recalled that he met his wife on a first date at the Indies nine years ago. Based on what he said next, he may be divorced by next year's ceremony.

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