Director Danny Boyle has been made a BFI fellow at the London Film Festival Awards where the top prize went to Russian drama How I Ended This Summer.
He said he was "the runt of the litter" of top names who had become fellows.
Clio Barnard won best newcomer and the Sutherland debut feature award for documentary The Arbor, about Rita, Sue and Bob Too playwright Andrea Dunbar.
The documentary prize went to Janus Metz Pedersen's Armadillo, which follows Danish soldiers in Afghanistan.
Boyle, whose drama thriller 127 Hours will close the festival on Thursday, picked up the award from Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry.
The 54-year-old - who won the best director Oscar in 2009 for Slumdog Millionaire - said being awarded the British Film Institute's highest accolade was "quite intimidating actually but a great honour".
"There's a lot of very prestigious people have had this award and I'm quite happy to be the runt of the litter," he said.
"Every litter needs a runt and I'm quite happy to be that amongst them, following in their footsteps."
127 Hours recalls the true story of extreme sportsman Aron Ralston, who had to amputate his own arm after being trapped by a boulder for nearly five days while canyoneering alone in the Utah desert.
Previous winners of the fellowship include Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Michael Caine, Bette Davis and Martin Scorsese, who was at Wednesday night's awards to pay tribute to the BFI National Archive on its 75th anniversary.
Documentary The Arbor uses actors to lip-synch to audio interviews with the friends and family of Dunbar - writer of cult 1986 British film Rita, Sue and Bob Too.
Dunbar died of a brain haemorrhage in 1990, at the age of 29.
Awards juror Tony Grisoni praised the "genre-busting film" as "innovative, eloquent and emotionally resonant".
"This film, which touched all of us, both challenges conventional film-making and at the same time engages with real lives - a stunning debut," he said.
Best film How I Ended This Summer, directed by Alexei Popogrebski, tells the story of two men - played by Sergei Puskepalis and Grigory Dobrygin - isolated on a meteorological station in the Arctic Circle who begin to lose their grip on reality.
Jury chair Patricia Clarkson said it was "a visceral psychological drama set in the immersive landscape of the windswept Arctic".
"Tense, moving and universal in its scope, this is a cinematic tour de force," she continued.
It beat a shortlist that also included British film The King's Speech, starring Colin Firth, ballet thriller Black Swan and Thai Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
More than 300 films from 68 countries have been shown at the two-week festival which opened on 13 October with Never Let Me Go, starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield.