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  january 29
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RED Reviews

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Sundance Announces Awards for Some of Fest’s Best Films
by Jeremy Mathews

[Note: More in-depth discussions on some of these films can be found in Jeremy’s Sundance coverage on the archives at]

he Sundance Film Festival’s awards ceremony Saturday night held a surprising amount of justice, with the top prizes going to two of the fest’s best films. Shane Carruth’s “Primer,” a super-low-budget science-fiction film, won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Ondi Timoner’s “DIG!” won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize.

Shot on Super-16-mm on a $7,000 budget, “Primer” is a sharp, stylish film with a smart script and a difficult, spiraling storyline that demands multiple viewings. The film also won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, which goes to a film about the sciences and comes with a $20,000 cash award. Its characters are two friends who develop a product in their spare time that soon reveals itself to enable time travel. Carruth observantly captures a friendship as trust and responsibility are truly tested.

“DIG!” also looks at the breaking apart of two friendly entities, the bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, ’60s revivalist bands who started in the early ’90s and went on radically different paths—one to destruction and one to success. Jonestown frontman and mastermind Anton Newcombe is considered the most talented of the pack, but destroys every chance of success he has with devastatingly destructive behavior while The Dandy Warhols members, with frontman Courtney Taylor, achieve considerably more success.

But “DIG!” isn’t a reconstruction of seven years of band history—Timoner was there from the beginning. She captures everything, from a record-label showcase show that turns into a brawl to the band getting pulled over while there are drugs in the car. Her dedication, which resulted in 1,500 hours of footage, proved completely successful in this thoughtful and poignant story.

The coveted audience awards for the festival were also pleasantly surprising, with quality films that didn’t necessarily have the biggest demand at screenings. While the theaters were full, Dramatic Audience Award winner “Maria Full of Grace” didn’t have the same crowded lines as “Garden State” and “Napolean Dynamite,” its strong characters and message must have hit the audiences hard. Writer/director Joshua Marston portrays a young, newly pregnant woman in Colombia who acts as a “mule,” swallowing plastic capsules full of heroine over the United States by air. Marston shows the humanity of his characters while examining important political material.

The same reason for audience victory can be assumed about the emotional impact of Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski’s “Born into Brothels,” which was surrounded by all the talk surrounding “Super Size Me,” Morgan Spurlock’s amusing self-centered journey into fast food and corporate responsibility that took home the Documentary Directing Award.

While that film’s amusing and surprising story drew people in, the sensitive material and dramatic ending of “Born into Brothels” must have proved more touching. Looking at kids in Calcutta’s red-light district, the film establishes the questionable fates of sweet, talented children as Briski, a photographer teaching them, tries to get them into boarding schools so that they don’t grow up into prostitution. The filmmakers wisely avoid centering the film on Briski and making a vanity piece, and instead get to know the kids so that the final moments are all the more dramatic when we consider how much depends on the near future.

The audiences are the only ones who decide winners in the World Cinema category. The World Cinema Audience Award went to “Seducing Doctor Lewis,” a charming and amusing Quebecois comedy about a small island town in a recession trying to get a doctor to move in so that a factory will open. The new World Cinema Documentary Audience Award winner was also a Canadian film, this one about a very U.S.-related topic: “The Corporation.” The film studies the questionable logic and actions surrounding corporate laws and ethics in an amusing way.

Debra Granik won the Dramatic Directing Award for her intense investigation into drug addiction and recovery, “Down to the Bone.” Vera Farmiga won a Special Jury Prize for her performance in the movie as a cocaine-addicted mother of two who realizes her addiction and struggles desperately to quit. Granik spent time with a real-life recovering addict to research her screenplay, and her work results in an authentic film.
Another Dramatic Special Jury Prize, for “passion of subject,” went to “Brother to Brother,” a partly fictionalized biography of gay Harlem Renaissance writer Bruce Nugent, who recently died a poor man. In the fictionalized story, a young, gay black artist named Perry fears selling out to white expectations and meets Nugent and learns about his life through flashbacks to Nugent’s past with icons like Langston Hughes. At the same time, Perry has to make decisions about his own future.
The screenplay is a nice examination of what it means to be a member of two minorities and is an interesting story, but an inability to resolve budget constraints stops the worthy effort from attaining greatness.

The Dramatic Special Jury Prize went to Catherine Tambini and Carlos Sandoval’s “Farmingville,” with its comprehensive look at both sides of a Long Island town where two Mexico day laborers were beaten and almost killed.

The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award went to Larry Gross for “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” adaptation of two Andre Dubus III short stories that look at four people in two unhappy marriages, featuring a powerhouse cast of Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Naomi Watts and Peter Krause, directed by John Curran. The film shows the humanity of people acting in ways that they know they shouldn’t be acting.

The Documentary Excellence in Cinematography Award went to Ferne Pearlstein for “Imelda,” one of the few documentaries shot on film about the so-in-denial-it’s-fascinating Imelda Marcos, wife of the ruthless, dictatorial Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos. The dramatic prize went to Nancy Schreiber for “November,” an atmospheric puzzle film starring Courtney Cox as a photographer who goes through three different versions of reality to unlock something from her mind.

While Schreiber made a much more valiant effort than other digital videographers, she admitted herself that the film looked soft after a screening at the Eccles Theatre. Half the shots look decent, but half looked amateurish. Chris Soos’ work on the bleak, desolate apartment building on “One Point O” was much more impressive. This is the third year in a row that the jury prize has gone to a digital film, as if the independent film community is trying to delude itself into believing that digital video looks as good as film. With his lower than low budget, Carruth still shot “Primer” on Super-16-mm film and had a nice look. It’s a mystery that a film with a star like Courtney Cox in it can’t find enough financing to have acceptable color, skin tones and resolution.

The documentary jury, including Rory Kennedy, Mary Ellen Mark, Robb Moss, Robert Shepard and Chris Smith and the dramatic jury, including Lisa Cholodenko, Frederick Elmes, Danny Glover, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ted Hope, both chose films well, and luckily the audience was able to pick up on recognition for “Maria Full of Grace.”

Kim Dong-won’s South Korean documentary “Repatriation,” which wasn’t eligible in most categories because it was in the World Cinema Documentary category, won the Freedom of Expression Award for its insight into North Korean political prisoners who are being detained in South Korea.

The short film prizes went to “When the Storm Came,” Shilpi Gupta’s surprising look at the violent rape of a village perpetrated by Indian soldiers in Kashmir, and “Gowanus, Brooklyn,” directed by Ryan Fleck. The Jury Prize in International Short Filmmaking was given to Paul Catling’s “TOMO,” probably more for its computer-animated robot than anything else. Honorable Mentions in Short Filmmaking went to Jacob Akira Okada’s “Curtis,” about a smart, nice artist who is dying of AIDS; the animated “Harvie Krumpet,” directed by Adam Elliot; David LaChapelle’s “Krumped”; “Papillon d’Amour,” directed by Nicholas Provost; and Larry Kennar’s “Spokane.”

This was one of the strongest years in recent memory for the dramatic category, with pretty much all of the films being watchable, which isn’t always the case. While there might not have been that many straight-out masterpieces, it was a very strong year overall, and one of few in which the category had more must-sees than the documentaries did. Overall, the festival was one of the strongest in years. Of the 60 films I saw, about 45 films were good and only a couple were unbearable.

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