While the noisiest competition at Sundance often seems to be the one among distributors vying for marketable films, or the one among filmmakers trying to drum up interest in their movies, Sundance also referees an official competition in which juries choose their favorites of the eligible films. Jurors this year included filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Eugene Jarecki, Lucrecia Martel, and Amir Bar-Lev, and in a press conference at the start of the festival many of them said how excited they were to enjoy the festival as viewers for a change, gladly avoiding the pressure and packed schedule that go along with presenting your own film at Sundance.
Of the many prizes awarded by juries, the most prestigious are the two “grand jury prizes” for American dramatic and documentary films and the two “world cinema jury prizes” for foreign dramatic and documentary films. Each category has 16 competitors, which means of the hundreds of films screening at Sundance, 64 are in competition.
Here are the winners:
• I saw 9 of the films competing for the grand jury dramatic prize, a category that includes two of my favorites of the entire fest and two of my least favorites. The winner, Frozen River, falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a melodrama about a mother of two who lives near a Native American reservation in upstate New York. All she wants is to make the down payment on a new double-wide, but in the search for extra cash she finds herself involved with a smuggler who brings people across the US border illegally. It’s not a groundbreaking, subtle, nor particularly insightful film, but it’s a compelling enough story—very nicely acted by the two leads—whose maudlin tone makes it look like a more serious film than it really is. I’d have chosen one of the other films in the category, but the jury certainly could have done much worse. Sony Pictures Classics has picked up Frozen River for distribution.
• I only saw 4 of the films competing for the world cinema dramatic prize, but of those, my favorite was the winner, King of Ping Pong, a sweet—or, rather, Swedish—and attractively-shot film about a boy who takes ping-pong very seriously. It’s the only sport that hasn’t been corrupted by money, politics, and drugs, he says. “Have you ever heard of a ping pong player doping?” he asks rhetorically. It sounds like a silly premise, and after the first few minutes I expected little more than a retread of Napoleon Dynamite, but it’s actually something else entirely: a gently-paced drama, occassionally (Nordically) humorous, about two boys, their hairdresser mother, and their impressive but absent father, whoever and wherever he is. I probably shouldn’t tell you that it features the songs “Heaven on Fire” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” since it’ll make you go back to thinking it’s silly. But it’s a film of smiles, not laughter, and even though it isn’t doing anything we haven’t seen before, and even though the final act is a bit over the top, it pulls back to sanity before the credits roll and manages to skirt most of the pitfalls that I feared it might blunder into. It was a fine choice for the jury.
(Neither film ranks among my favorite dramatic features of the fest, but I was pleased to see that the jury also gave a directing award to first-time filmmaker Lance Hammer for Ballast.)
• In the documentary category, I saw 8 of the 16. I tried but failed to catch the much talked about film Trouble The Water, a video shot by a woman who was trapped in her attic as the flood waters rose in New Orleans. Everyone I talked to who’d seen it said it was great, and the jury agreed. Of the 8 that I saw, my favorite was the documentary about Roman Polanski, but several of the others were nearly as interesting, if not as expertly assembled.
• I only saw 3 of the 16 films competing in the world cinema documentary category, but it was no surprise that the jury chose the universally adored Man On Wire as the winner, a thrilling look at the day in 1974 when French wire walker Philippe Petit secretly strung a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center—at the very top—and walked across it, untethered, unprotected, and unauthorized, performing acrobatics along the way. Comprised of amazing footage, still photographs, and new interviews with everyone involved, the film plays like an energetic bank heist, describing in detail how Petit planned the stunt, sneaked into the building, strung the cable, and walked on air, none of which was quite as easy as it sounds. Ahem.
In addition to the jury prizes, Sundance also gives awards based on audience voting, and those prizes went to The Wackness for dramatic feature (a film that I didn’t like very much, but I can understand the appeal), Fields of Fuel for documentary feature, Captain Abu Raed for world cinema dramatic feature, and Man On Wire for world cinema documentary feature. The film about Petit pleased both the jury and audiences alike; it’s an easy movie to recommend to just about anybody.
For a full list of winners, see indieWIRE.