The border smuggling saga "Frozen River" won the best picture award, and its star, Melissa Leo, won the breakthrough acting award. Courtney Hunt's drama beat out the other best picture nominees - "Rachel Getting Married," "Vicki Christina Barcelona," "Synecdoche, New York," "'The Wrestler," "'The Visitor," and "Ballast."
"Synecdoche, New York" and Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" shared the best ensemble cast award.
"Ballast" director Lance Hammer won the "breakthrough director" prize, and "Trouble the Water," about Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, won the award for best documentary.
Special tributes were given to Director Gus Van Sant, Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, director Melvin Van Peebles and HBO executive Sheila Nevins.
Van Sant got his tribute for contributions to independent film from his "Milk" star, Sean Penn. The movie itself was not finished in time to be screened by a Gotham jury.
Cruz was recognized by her "Elegy" co-star, Sir Ben Kingsley. She called the distinction "an honor."
Earlier in the day, nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards were announced in Los Angeles. The annual awards frenzy gets into high gear later this month with nominations for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, both of which are presented in January. It reaches a climax with the televised Oscars ceremony Feb. 22, 2009.