Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and the Christopher Plummer film Beginners shared the top prize for best feature film on Monday at the Gotham Awards, a key event for independent movies which also marks the start of the film-awards season culminating in the Oscars.
The honors for The Tree of Life, a mystical period drama starring Brad Pitt, and Beginners, which stars Ewan McGregor as a man whose elderly father (Plummer) comes out of the closet, scored upset victories.
Alexander Payne's The Descendants, a well-reviewed Oscar front-runner which stars George Clooney in a family drama set in Hawaii, was nominated in three categories but won none.
Instead Beginners, directed by relative neophyte Mike Mills, also won best ensemble performance at the New York-based awards, co-hosted by Edie Falco and Oliver Platt.
Mills lauded his cast, singling out Plummer by saying there was "no good reason for Christopher Plummer to believe in me. But he did."
The best documentary honor went to Better This World, about two boyhood friends from Texas accused of attempting to bomb the 2008 Republican convention.
The Gotham Awards are held annually by the Independent Feature Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 1979 that supports independent filmmaking. The awards provide a focus on the year's top independent movies heading into award season.
Felicity Jones took the prize for breakthrough actor for her work in Like Crazy, playing a British student separated from her American boyfriend after her visa expires.
Dee Rees won the breakthrough director award for her debut non-documentary feature, Pariah, about a New York City African-American teenager confronting her sexual identity.
Girlfriend won the audience award, while Scenes of a Crime, the story of a man appealing a life prison sentence, was named best film without a distribution deal.
Special tribute awards were given to Charlize Theron, Gary Oldman, A Dangerous Method director David Cronenberg and Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO Tom Rothman.
Films and performances singled out at the Gothams often reflect those nominated for Independent Spirit Awards, another key set of honors for indie movies organized by Los Angeles-based group Film Independent, which announces its annual nominations for the year's best on Tuesday.
Last year's top Gotham winner, Winter's Bone, an ultra-low-budget indie that cost about $2 million, went on to score four Oscar nominations including best picture.
Presenters at the awards included Alec Baldwin, Stanley Tucci, Melissa Leo and Tilda Swinton.
(Reporting by Chris Michaud, editing by Todd Eastham)