Sundance 2007: A good mix of awesome and craperific

Where did 10 days go? Didn’t I just get here? Why is my vision so blurry? Why do I have an out-of-focus picture of Sienna Miller stored in my camera phone? Why haven’t I eaten in a week and a half?

Yes, it’s over. The deals have been made, the hardware has been handed out, and after watching 35 or 40 movies in 10 days, I’m going to bed.

The award choices, announced Saturday night, weren’t nearly as baffling as last year’s picks, though it’s still easy to take issue with the fact that “Grace is Gone” won the screenplay competition despite perfectly exemplifying a dozen or so indie-film clichs. The John Cusack drama also won the audience award for the dramatic competition and?well, I guess I can’t blame the fans for honoring a tearjerker like this. Maybe it was a lock for the award all along.

The grand jury prize in the dramatic competition was “Padre Nuestro,” which writer/director Christopher Zalla described Saturday night as The Prodigal Son meets Cain and Abel. Two young men from Mexico hitch a ride to cross the border and go on to New York, where Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola), hopes to meet the father he’s never met-not expecting, of course, that Juan, a smooth-talking young swindler, will find the father first and take on Pedro’s identity. Though I would have rather seen David Gordon Green’s “Snow Angels” win the award, “Padre Nuestro” is a potent, character-driven thriller more than worthy of recognition.

The absolutely correct choice, however, was made in the documentary competition. Grand jury winner “Manda Bala” makes a strong case for being the best film at the entire festival (at least of those I’ve seen). Director Jason Kohn is a protg of master documentarian Errol Morris, having worked on Morris’ “First Person” series as well as “The Fog of War.”

Kohn has clearly taken all the right lessons from Morris, creating a dazzling and horrifying documentation of cyclical corruption in Brazil-rich stealing from poor, poor stealing from rich. Kohn’s film is a non-fiction masterpiece that connects a pattern of scandal, economic developments and mystery and, as of right now, is not allowed to be shown in the country of Brazil.

Surprisingly, the excellent documentary “My Kid Could Paint That” was not honored in any category. The film is about 4-year-old “genius” abstract painter Marla Olmstead, whose work sold for more than $300,000 before a “60 Minutes” report suggested that she may, in fact, have been a hoax. Amir Bar-Lev’s film analyzes what constitutes “art,” and blurs the distinctions between valuable modern art and something that any 4-year-old could do.

I did not see all of the award winners, among them “Sweet Mud” (Grand Jury – World Dramatic), “Hear and Now” (Audience Award-Documentary) and “Dark Matter” (Alfred P. Sloan Prize). But I did see “Rocket Science,” which won the dramatic directing award. Though not all that unlike other movies about high-school outcasts, “Rocket Science” is a well-acted and well-written account of Hal Hefner, a reclusive 15-year-old with a stuttering problem who is recruited to join the debate team.

“Once,” a subtly romantic musical from Irish filmmaker John Carney, won the Audience Award for world cinema, while “In the Shadows of the Moon” won the same award in the doc category-an odd choice since there have already been dozens upon dozens of movies about landing on the moon. It’s simply par for the course.

Others I saw during the last few days of the festival include Luc Besson’s whimsical romantic comedy “Angel-A,” Adrienne Shelly’s completely charming but astoundingly predictable “Waitress,” the odd, allegorical Korean film “The Last Dining Table” (not sure quite how I feel about it yet), Gregg Araki’s mediocre stoner comedy “Smiley Face” and the horrifically bad “If I’d Known I Was a Genius,” one of those “cute” autobiographical movies that makes no case for its own existence. Writer and star Markus Redmond’s life story is just not very interesting, and as for the casting director-Tara Reid as a hot teenage girl? Have you SEEN her lately?

Finally, the best of the fest were: “Reprise,” “Manda Bala,” “Snow Angels,” “My Kid Could Paint That,” “Interview,” “Once,” “Rocket Science” and “An American Crime.”

And the worst: “Hounddog,” “Teeth,” “If I’d Known I Was a Genius,” “Year of the Dog” and “Joshua.”