The film breathes exhilarating life into its tired premise, thanks to some dazzling action choreography, stylish visuals and–most importantly–a vintage anti-hero performance from Keanu Reeves.
PARK CITY, Utah "The Believer," a controversial film about a Jewish anti-Semite, won the Grand Jury Prize as best dramatic film at the 20th Sundance Film Festival here Saturday night. "Southern Comfort," about an extended family of transsexuals in rural Georgia, won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries.
The selection of "The Believer" was a surprising and not particularly popular choice; louder applause greeted the Audience Award winner for most popular feature, "Hedwig And The Angry Inch," a transvestite rock musical, and the audience also cheered prizes for "Memento" and "In the Bedroom."
On the other hand, "The Believer" is the kind of film that inspires admiration, opposition and debate more than cheers. The film, written and directed by Henry Bean, stars Ryan Gosling in a powerful performance as a young Jewish skinhead who grew up in angry debates with his religion teachers, and became convinced God is an egotistical bully. Concealing his Jewish identity, he commits hate crimes and muggings and is an articulate spokesman for anti-Semitic beliefs at meetings of a fascist organization - whose leaders are embarrassed by his fervor, believing anti-Semitism is passe.
Bean said after the ceremony that his film is based on the true story of a Jewish anti-Semite from two decades ago, "and is also inspired by my own love and hate for my religion."
Two films with gay themes were double winners. John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig And The Angry Inch," which he starred in and directed, won not only the Audience Award but also the jury prize for best direction. And "Scout's Honor," directed by Tom Shepard, shared the Audience Award for documentaries and the Playboy Foundation's Freedom of Expression Award. It deals with a fight joined by two heterosexuals, one 12, the other 70, against the anti-gay policies of the Boy Scouts. The Audience Award for docs was a tie; also honored was "Dogtown and Z-Boys," directed by Stacy Peralta, about a tightly knit group of young skateboarders in Santa Monica, and Peralta become another double winner by taking home the Directing Award in the doc category.
The Audience Award for world cinema went to "The Road Home," by the Chinese director Zhang Yimou. It stars Zhang Ziyi, from the current hit "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," who prepares to return her father's coffin to his native village.
A special jury prize went to Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek for their acting in "In the Bedroom," the story of a marriage tested by tragedy. In the doc section, a special jury prize went to "Children Underground," by Edet Belzberg, about homeless small children living in a Bucharest subway station.
The Excellence in Cinematography award went, in the doc section, to legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles, for "Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton," and in the feature section to Giles Nuttgens, for his work in "The Deep End," which stars Tilda Swinton as a mother whose attempts to protect her child involve her in danger. "The Deep End" also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, given to Christopher Nolan, who also directed it. The Maysles film is about a Mississippi Delta family struggling out of poverty.
A special jury award in the Latin American section went to "Coffin Joe," a documentary about "the most banned man in Brazil," horror filmmaker Jose Mojica Marins. The 65-year-old filmmaker was present to accept, sporting his trademark long fingernails.
The award for "Southern Comfort" led to a dramatic grouping onstage, when director Kate Davis was joined by Lola Cola, a male-to-female transsexual whose partner, a female-to-male transsexual named Robert Eads, died after being refused surgery for ovarian cancer. Also on stage were Maxwell Anderson and Cori Anderson, another transsexual couple.
Some partygoers at the post-awards bash expressed surprise that "The Believer" won, since it falls far outside the politically correct spectrum on anti-Semitism. It is not an anti-Semitic film, but its hero voices his opinions more or less unchallenged, and his personal fate is not necessarily a reply to those views. Bean said that ambiguity, confusion, contradiction and paradox are at the heart of his film.
Two of the winners have been snapped up by major indie distributors. "In the Bedroom" has been purchased by Miramax, and "The Deep End" by Fox Searchlight - although after that deal was signed, Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein reportedly called with his own bid, and was said to be trying to obtain the rights from Fox.
Sundance audiences headed home Sunday after a festival that was generally agreed to be the best in recent years. They were not looking forward to next year, when the Winter Olympics come to Park City. Sundance will be held a week earlier, but many rooms are already booked by Olympic advance forces, and it's said many festival events may be moved to Salt Lake City, 30 miles down the hill.
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