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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Sundance: And the winners are…

By C. Glen Bellamy

When Sundance awards are handed out at the end of every festival, you can count on a few things. Some movies will be honored because they are “important.” Some will be roundly criticized but surprise everyone with an award or two. Some will be so good that no jury or audience can overlook them. And some will charm the pants off every audience by meeting a precise formula or style that is every bit as conventional as your typical Hollywood thriller. (See: “Grace is Gone,” “Padre Nuestro,” “Quinceañera,” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.”)

This year’s slate of winners had all of the above. We were bewildered, frustrated and pleasantly surprised all in one. So, without further ado:

Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic”Frozen River” Directed by Courtney Hunt

Admittedly, “Frozen River” didn’t have all that much to go up against, as this year’s Dramatic Competition was a considerably weak field. Still, it’s disheartening that, after Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson” lost out to the far-inferior “Quinceañera” two years ago, the rising filmmaking team was overlooked again this year.

Their “Sugar,” about the path of self and cultural discovery of a Dominican baseball player, was probably the best of the lot, as Boden and Fleck once again show a talent for exploring emotionally complex characters. With respect to the well-received “Ballast” and “Sunshine Cleaning,” “Sugar” was far more deserving than either “Frozen River” or the Audience Award winner, “The Wackness.” (But more on that later.)

I’ll give “Frozen River” this much: At least Courtney Hunt knows how to tell a story. The same can’t be said for category competitors Clark Gregg (“Choke”), Alex Rivera (“Sleep Dealer”) and Daniel Barnz (“Phoebe in Wonderland”). The problem is, as you’d expect from the small-town crisis archetype, “Frozen River” relies on generic visual minimalism and convenient plot mechanics. It goes down smoothly enough, but if this is supposed to be the best film on the docket, well…that’s all there is?

Grand Jury Prize: Documentary”Trouble the Water” Directed by Tia Lesson and Carl Deal

Here’s how it works: Hurricane Katrina, its aftermath and the carelessness of the federal government all have the scent of importance. For this reason, a mediocre film such as “Trouble the Water” picks up top honors because people want to feel good about themselves.

Never mind that this movie pales in comparison to Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” (in that Lee’s film actually seems as though it’s a movie made by a competent filmmaker), “Trouble the Water” is simply lazy and unfocused. Filmmakers Tia Lesson and Carl Deal follow, almost exclusively, Kimberly Rivers and her husband Scott as they catch footage of the hurricane and get displaced from their home.

The footage that Kimberly shot is not used in any interesting way by the filmmakers, and precious little that happens to the couple in the subsequent months is even as interesting as the human-interest stories you might see on the news.

“Trouble the Water” doesn’t deal with the Katrina tragedy in any new way, and it will be forgotten long before better documentaries are inevitably made on the same subject.

America’s steroid culture — and the pharmaceutical industry, the supplement industry, the legal loopholes and America’s culture of cutthroat competition — naturally seems trivial by comparison. But Christopher Bell’s comprehensive examination of those subjects and more, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*,” does exactly what “Trouble the Water” doesn’t: It takes its subject matter in unexpected directions and finds fascinating new insights and points of view in the process.

World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic”King of Ping Pong” Directed by Jens Jonsson

This was one of the films I missed, as it got such poor word-of-mouth in the days leading up to the awards announcement that I didn’t think it would be worth it. Obviously, a few people clearly disagreed, so color me (and many others) surprised.

“King of Ping Pong” tells the story of an ostracized teenager who has a special knack for ping pong. Other than that, I can’t say much about it sight unseen. Although the selection sounds dubious, at least the award didn’t go to the infuriating and idiotic “Riprendimi.”

Of the selections in this category, worthy winners would have been the Danish noir “Just Another Love Story” and the uniquely absurd comedy “Absurdistan.”

World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary”Man on Wire” Directed by James Marsh

Here’s where they got it exactly right. There was no other choice in this category, and the jury got it right.

The surprisingly poignant narrative doc “Man on Wire” recreates an event that occurred more than three decades ago, when high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked on a wire set up between the Twin Towers in New York City in what some have called the “artistic crime of the century.” Using actual video footage of his exploit, photographs of the day in question, interviews with those involved and dramatic re-enactments, “Man on Wire” is thrilling and moving filmmaking.

Audience Award: Documentary”Fields of Fuel” Directed by Josh Tickell

I talked to one industry member who said “Fields of Fuel” would be this year’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Although I’ll take that with a grain of salt, the growing importance of our reliance on foreign oil and the global warming crisis makes for potent material. I didn’t see Josh Tickell’s film, but the film is likely to be released…and then we’ll see if it can give Al Gore a run for his money.

Audience Award: Dramatic”The Wackness” Directed by Jonathan Levine

Take the teen angst drama, the mid-life crisis drama, throw in all the details that indie filmmakers still think are edgy after a decade or two of use — Adults smoking pot! Masturbation fantasies! Suicide attempts! Hip-hop! Drug dealers! Rich teenagers getting drunk and doing drugs! — and you’ve got “The Wackness.”

Clearly, the crowd ate it up.

Clearly, they need to get out more.

Here are the remainder of the award winners, in no particular order:

World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary”Man on Wire,” directed by James Marsh

World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic”Captain Abu Raed,” directed by Amin Matalqa

Directing Award: DocumentaryNanette Burnstein, “American Teen”

Directing Award: DramaticLance Hammer, “Ballast”

World Cinema Directing Award: DocumentaryNino Kirtadze, “Durakovo: Village of Fools”

World Cinema Directing Award: DramaticAnna Melikyan, “Mermaid”

Waldo Salt Screenwriting AwardAlex Rivera and David Riker, “Sleep Dealer”

World Cinema Screenwriting Award:Samuel Benchetrit, “I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster”

World Cinema Documentary Editing Award:Irena Dol, “The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins”

Excellence in Cinematography: DocumentaryPhilip Hunt and Steven Sebring, “Patti Smith: Dream of Life”

Excellence in Cinematography: DramaticLol Crawley, “Ballast”

World Cinema Cinematography Award: DocumentaryMahmoud al Massad, “Recycle”

World Cinema Cinematography: DramaticAskild Vik Edvardsen, “King of Ping Pong”

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