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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 February 2007, 13:58 GMT
Sunshine and high spirits at the beach

By Victoria Lindrea
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Down on the beachfront in Santa Monica, the Independent Spirit Awards proved a relaxed affair as stars milled around in the Californian sunshine signing autographs and having their pictures taken with fans, before ducking into a tent for the big event.

Ryan Gosling
Winner Ryan Gosling signed autographs for fans before the show
Ryan Gosling, Frances McDormand and Britain's Daniel Craig were just a handful of the nominees who attended the annual awards, alongside Hollywood luminaries including Dennis Hopper, Lily Tomlin, Sean Penn and Matt Dillon.

Host Sarah Silverman's risque commentary - including a jibe that saw her mistake Djimon Hounsou for the newly bald Britney Spears - ensured an irreverent afternoon in the beachside big top that was a world away from the rigid constraints of the Academy Awards.

Celebrities dressed down for the ceremony, which honours independent feature films made for a budget of less than $20m (10.1m).

Key differences

Last year saw a strong overlap of films shortlisted by both the Academy and at the Spirit Awards. This year there were fewer common elements - and no George Clooney - but nonetheless the lion's share of the awards went to two films that have also won Oscar recognition.

Oscar hopeful Little Miss Sunshine took four awards from seven nominations, including best feature film, best supporting actor for Alan Arkin and best screenplay for Michael Arndt.

One key difference was the awarding of the best director award to Sunshine's John Dayton and Valerie Faris, who were notably ignored by the Academy in favour of bigger Hollywood names - despite their best picture nomination.

Sadly, only screenwriter Michael Arndt made it into the press tent.

Another Oscar nominee, Ryan Gosling, won best actor, despite facing competition from contender Forest Whitaker, here nominated for the independent drama American Gun - but noticeably absent from the awards.

"Forest called me last night and asked me if I would win one for him tonight," said Gosling, on receiving his award.

Lily Tomlin and Robert Downey Jr
Lily Tomlin and Robert Downey Jr led a tribute to Robert Altman
But added: "He had better win tomorrow, I have a lot of money on him."

Modest intentions

The self-deprecating 26-year-old, clearly a hit with both the public and his contemporaries, also went out of the way to praise his co-star, Shareeka Epps.

The teenager won best actress for her role alongside Gosling's crack-addicted teacher in Half Nelson.

Another Oscar contender, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmack, picked up the award for best foreign film for Germany's The Lives of Others.

But the 33-year-old director and writer, looming the microphone at a massive 6ft 9in, played down his chances of victory on Sunday.

"No one can imagine what the Oscars are like - it's too extreme to describe," he said.

"The betting odds are in Guillermo's [Del Toro] favour, but I already got to kiss Charlize Theron, which is quite an award in itself."

The ceremony also saw surreal film-maker David Lynch and his frequent collaborator, actress Laura Dern, receive a Special Distinction award.

Dern collected the award from Blue Velvet co-star Dennis Hopper, who said that Lynch was unable to attend because he was "doing something surreal in Paris".

Also honoured was the late director Robert Altman - in whose name an inaugural award will be presented to the best ensemble cast next year.

Shareeka Epps
Teenager Shareeka Epps won best actress for Half Nelson
Lily Tomlin and Robert Downey Jr were among those paying tribute to the maverick director, as clips of his work were shown to wide applause.

And it was a good showing for the British, despite Daniel Craig - nominated for Infamous - losing out to Alan Arkin in the best supporting actor category.

Award first

Michael Winterbottom's Road to Guantanamo won best documentary, and despite a mixed reception from the assembled audience, co-director Mat Whitecross insisted it was "important to make films that divide opinion".

Alan Cumming revealed a natural gift for producing, when Sweet Land won best debut feature film, marking the first time that a film without a distributor has won the prize.

And Wash Westmoreland, co-director and writer of Quinceanera, won the John Cassavetes prize - given to a feature made for less than $500,000 (254,570).

All in all, a sunny afternoon with a sunny conclusion.

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