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Sundance #9: The Winners

PARK CITY, Utah--Ira Sachs' "Forty Shades of Blue," the story of a marriage that does not work and never could have, won the Grand Jury Prize here Saturday night, as best feature film at Sundance 2005. Eugene Jarecki's "Why We Fight," a film about an America moving toward a state of continuous war, was named best documentary. Jarecki's brother Andrew won the same category in 2003 with "Capturing The Friedmans."

In the parallel World Cinema category, newly established at the most important film festival in America, Zeze Gamboa's "The Hero" won as best feature. Set in Angola, it tells stories of people trying to rebuild their lives after the recent civil war. The best documentary in the World category was "Shape of the Moon," by Leonard Retel Helmrich. Set in Indonesia, it follows three generations of a Catholic family living in harmony with their mostly Muslim neighbors.

The other major victors at Sundance this year were the Audience Award winners -- the films selected by moviegoers who ranked each movie as they emerged from a screening. The Audience Award for best feature went to Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow," starring Terrence Howard as a pimp with ambitions to leave his business and became a rapper. The audience chose as its favorite documentary "Murderball," by Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, about quadriplegics who play wheelchair rugby as a full-contact sport.

In the World Cinema category, the Audience Award for feature went to Susanne Bier's "Brothers" (2005), from Denmark, about an ex-con required to assume responsibility in his family. The audience's favorite World doc was Peter Raymont's "Shake Hands with the Devil," from Canada, about General Romeo Dallaire, whose story is also dramatized in the Oscar nominee "Hotel Rwanda."

So those are the top eight awards. There were about a zillion more, in an awards ceremony that used to last about 45 minutes and found time for a few jokes or songs. Saturday night it lasted 100 minutes and no one sang and no one was very funny. It tells you something when the biggest laugh of the evening came from an Iraqi -- Samir Peter, subject of the doc "The Liberace of Baghdad." It wasn't so much what he said as that he kept on saying it, with mounting enthusiasm.

The awards list grew longer because of the addition of the World Cinema category, and because many of the juries found themselves unable to choose one winner and added one or two Special Jury Prizes. Altogether, there were 22 awards for feature-length films, seven for shorts, the $20,000 Alfred P. Sloan award to Werner Herzog for his documentatry "Grizzly Man," and four winners of the Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award, in which the Japanese network selects four new screenplays to support and promises to televise them in Japan. An American network should be so generous.

The Sundance awards used to have the atmosphere of a family reunion, with laughter, kidding around and raucous comments. This year, they were not broadcast live (they were taped for Bravo), and someone speculated that was because of concern about FCC language violations. Yet even on tape, the presenters and winners found themselves unable to utter so much as a single f-word. There were two oblique references to politics, I think.

"Who are these people?" Todd McCarthy, Variety's chief film critic, asked me as we surveyed the rows set aside for filmmakers. "I wish Werner Herzog had stayed so I would know somebody." Kevin Smith was in the house, but not on stage; the presenters included Jennifer Jason Leigh, John C. Reilly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and jury members instead of, oh, say, Kevin Smith. The Sundance awards used to be as much fun as the Indie Spirits; this year they were more boring not only than the Oscars, but a corporate retirement dinner.

Yet the quality of the festival was high this year, the winners are strong, and Sundance 2005 represented good omens for the future of the independent film community.

Consider, for example, the performance artist Miranda July, whose first film, "Me and You and Everyone We Know" was given a Special Jury Prize for "originality of vision," and Rian Johnson, who got one, too, for directing "Brick." I thought July's film was the best at Sundance and greatly admired "Brick," a film noir set in a high school.

The Waldo Salt screenwriting award, named for the legendary writer who mentored for years at the summer Sundance Institute Filmmakers' Lab, went to Noah Baumbach for "The Squid and the Whale," about two brothers caught in the middle of their parents' failing marriage.

Baumbach came back to the stage to collect a trophy as best director of a dramatic film. Best director of a documentary was Jeff Feuerzeig, for "The Devil and Daniel Johnston," about a singer-songwriter who has achieved cult status despite a battle with manic depression.

The Special Jury prizes for acting went to Amy Adams, as a pregnant country girl uneasy about her new northern relatives, in "Junebug," and to Lou Pucci, playing the title role in "Thumbsucker." The American Excellence in Cinematography Award went to Amelia Vincent for "Hustle & Flow" in the feature category, and Gary Griffin for the doc "The Education of Shelby Knox."

The documentary jury wanted to recognize the key role editors play in docs, and singled out Geoffrey Richman and Conor O'Neill for "Murderball." Another special jury prize went to Jessica Sanders for directing "After Innocence." In the World category, special jury prizes went to Sean McAllister's "The Liberace of Baghdad," about the high-spirited Iraqi entertainer, and Simone Bitton's "Wall," about the wall built by Israel to seal off Palestinian territories. The World dramatic jury voted a special jury prize to Jorge Gaggero's "Live in Maid," about the relationship of a wealthy woman and her maid during a time of economic crisis in Argentina and Germany's "The Forest for the Trees, directed by Maren Ade.

The Jury Prize for short subject went to Patricia Riggen's "Family Portrait." Special recognition went to "Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story," by Terrence Fisher and Daniel Howard. In the World category, the winner was Andrew Arnold's "Wasp." Honorable mentions in the shorts category were for Eric Escobar's "One Weekend a Month," Chris Landreth's "Ryan," Katherine Leggett's "Small Town Secrets," Taika Waititi's "Tamu Tu," and Cary Fukunaga's "Victoria Para Chino."

And just make a note of these names and titles: Catalin Mitulescu's "How I Spent the End of the World," Rodrigo Moreno's "The Minder," Richard Press's "Virtual Love" and Mipo Oh's "Yomoyama Blues." These were the Sundance/NHK project winners, and in a year or two we may see them finished and winning awards at Sundance. Or maybe not. It was balmy in Park City all week, but for first-time indie filmmakers, it's a cold world and a long struggle.

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