The Sundance Film Festival gave its awards on Saturday, and the prizes were spread widely over subjects and genres. Typically, the festival's prizes are given over a broad range and are meant to encourage more independent filmmaking.
In the weakened box office for independent film, the last thing one expects from an award at Sundance is financial success. Yet prizes help filmmakers make the next project.
The Grand Jury prize for a US Dramatic Film went to Like Crazy, directed by Drake Doremus, and starring Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence. Jones also won the festival prize for Best Actress in the film about young love.
The awards were presented by the actor Tim Blake Nelson, who played a bank robber in the world premiere of the comedy Flypaper, written by the screen writers of The Hangover, Scott Moore and Jon Lucas. Nelson appeared on the stage wearing a huge snowflake, prompting the actress Vera Farmiga to call him Tim Flake Nelson. Farmiga made her directing debut at Sundance 2011 with the drama Higher Ground. Although her film may have set an unofficial record for pre-festival hype, it received no prizes.
The directing award in the US Dramatic category went to Sean Durkin for Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, starring Elizabeth Olsen (sister of the acting twins Mary-Kate and Ashley), the story of a young woman's escape from a commune cult. Given its star, this film is expected to have a commercial future.
Also in the US Dramatic category, the cinematography award went to Bradford Young for his work on the film Pariah, about a black woman struggling with the pressures of growing up in New York. The film, the directorial debut of Dee Rees, a recent student at New York University, has been called "Precious II" because of its similarity to Precious, the drama by Lee Daniels about a young woman overcoming hardship through literacy, which won awards at Sundance 2009.
Audience awards at Sundance tend to carry more weight than jury awards. The audience prize for the US Dramatic category went to Circumstance, a drama about the problems faced by young Iranians directed and written by Maryam Keshavarz, and shot with Iranian actors in Lebanon. Circumstance was supported financially by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute.
The directing award for a documentary in the World category went to Project Nim, by James Marsh, an inquiry in the effort to teach human sign language to a chimpanzee. Widely viewed as the best film of the festival, this documentary tracked the linguistic experiment of teaching human communication to chimps from its optimistic beginnings to the eventual abandonment of Nim Chimpsky (named for the distinguished linguist Noam Chomsky) to an animal shelter, where he died in 2000. Marsh won an Oscar for his 2009 documentary, Man on Wire. Project Nim is expected to be one of the films that premiered at the festival that prove that there can be a commercial life after Sundance.
In the US Documentary category, the audience award went to Buck, a look at the man who inspired the feature film directed by Robert Redford, The Horse Whisperer, Buck Branaman. The film was one of the festival's crowd-pleasers. On receiving the award, its director, Cindy Meehl, said: "Buck is about hope, inspiration and triumph over adversity."
Hope sprang at Sundance 2011 for the humblest of entrants. In the World Dramatic category, Happy Happy from Norway won the honours for its story about two families in the snow in a Norwegian suburb.
The film was the feature debut of the Norwegian-American director Anne Sewitsky, 33. Even with that prize, Happy Happy has but a slim chance of opening commercially in the United States, although its lead actress, Agnes Kittelson (a dead ringer for the British actress Sally Hawkins), will get plenty of attention from Hollywood agents.
After any awards ceremony, attention goes to the films that received no prizes. My Idiot Brother, directed by Jesse Peretz, is a fable about an incurable optimist (played by Paul Rudd) which will reach a broad public in the US. Hobo with a Shotgun, a Canadian horror saga by Jason Eisener of Halifax, Nova Scotia, brings the veteran Rutger Hauer back to one of his genres of choice in a wildly imaginative twist on the revenge drama - part Death Wish, part Gran Torino.
One major award at Sundance 2011 went to a filmmaker who did not have a film at the festival. The Sundance NHK International Filmmakers Prize was awarded to Cherien Dabis, the Jordanian/Palestinian filmmaker (living in the US) whose feature, Amreeka, premiered at Sundance 2009. The expectation is that there will be greater things to come from this director.
Another important unrecognised film was On the Ice, a murder story shot in the Arctic near Barrow, Alaska, by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean. Set in midwinter in the ice and snow, the film's logistical achievement is extraordinary.
Its script, which begins with an accidental death in a fight and leads to a moral crisis in the small native community, is the kind of drama that few expected to come from somewhere near the Arctic Circle. There was no sighting of the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin at the festival, although she may have followed the cue of other celebrities with a secret appearance.