31 January, 2012
by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
They call it the Sundance alchemy…..the strange and rather unknowable process by which films with advanced buzz fall flat and titles that come out of nowhere become the next big indie flings. Such was the case at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where several of the higher profile films did not get the love from audiences, critics or distributors, and where a few unheralded films walked away with the lion’s share of prizes and, most importantly, distribution contacts that will insure that they will get seen by a wider public in the months ahead.
The two most high-profile films before the festival — LAY THE FAVORITE, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the latest Brooklyn tale from iconic indie director Spike Lee, RED HOOK SUMMER, both landed with a critical thud and are still looking for buyers (Lee did not help matters by lashing out against the Hollywood and indie establishment for not understanding or supporting works about the African-American experience). Several highly touted comedies, including the romcom CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER, starring Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg, and BACHELORETTE, a mean-girl marriage comedy starring Kirsten Dunst that many were hoping would be the indie answer to the mega-hit BRIDESMAIDS, also did not get any critical love (although both will most likely end up with modest distribution deals). The documentary opener THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES, about a billionaire and his trophy wife that spawned a defamation suit before the Festival even began was dismissed by many critics as reality television fodder about big boobs, big expense accounts and the outrageous spending habits of the privileged 1%.
But this Sundance alchemy thing can work both ways. A film shot in Louisiana that had very little advance buzz and which, based on the Festival’s description of it as a mythological tale, had buyers rolling their eyes, became in just a few short days the toast of Sundance, winning major awards and securing a tasty deal with Fox Searchlight, arguably the most aggressive indie distributor on the block. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, a visually arresting drama tinged with magical realism about a 6-year-old named Hushpuppy in the outer reaches of bayou country, became an instant must-see after an early audience gave it a standing ovation, and critics drooled. All subsequent public screenings were immediately sold out and press and industry clamored for a repeat Press and Industry screening, which finally happened last Thursday. The built up demand required standing on line in advance of the screening for over an hour, but what awaited was definitely worth the wait…..maybe not the most commercial movie to come out of Sundance, but certainly the most inspiring and most original.
Other standouts that entered the Festival with either little heart or negative buzz also shined. ROBOT AND FRANK, starring Oscar nominee Frank Langella as a retired jewel thief and his robot caretaker and THE SURROGATE, a beautifully acted humanist tale about a man living in an iron lung who longs to lose his virginity at age 40, featured peak performances by John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy…..the kind that will be remembered at next year’s awards season. Other films that made this a memorable Sundance include the raunchy phone sex comedy FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL…, with hilarious performances by Ari Graynor and Lauren Miller; THE WORDS, an intense and personal journey of a writer’s deception and his ultimate redemption with an all-star cast that included Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Zoe Saldana and Olivia Wilde; SIMON KILLER, a highly atmospheric whodunit by New York wunderkind Antonio Campos; MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, a dramatically intense relationship drama about a woman trying to salvage her family and identity when her husband is incarcerated, with strong direction by Ava DuVernay; and ARBITRAGE, a crackerjack thriller set against the economic meltdown with strong performances by Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and last year’s Sundance “it girl” Brit Marling.
Documentaries were especially strong, with films exploring the crisis in health care, the failed drug war, the scandal of rape in the armed services, the legacy of a disappeared 1970s rocker and the downward spiral of American cities and institutions, among the primetime topics observed. International films were politely received with none emerging with distribution deals (so far) but expect to see these films branch out to the international film circuit and find audiences beyond Park City.
At Saturday evening’s gala awards ceremony, which in true Sundance style was a relaxed affair that was livestreamed for an international audience, the big winners were BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD for Best U.S. Drama, THE HOUSE I LIVE IN for Best U.S. Documentary, VIOLETA WENT TO HEAVEN (Chile) as Best World Cinema Drama and THE LAW IN THESE PARTS(Israel) as Best World Cinema Documentary. A more complete list of winners follows, with many worthy titles that will be making their way through the international film festival circuit, and also, hopefully to big screens and small screens via VOD in the months ahead. For more information on them, visit: http://www.sundance.org/festival
SUNDANCE 2012 AWARD WINNERS
The Grand Jury Prize: Documentary: THE HOUSE I LIVE IN (Eugene Jarecki)
The Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (Benh Zeitlin)
The World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary: THE LAW IN THESE PARTS (Israel, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz)
The World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic: VIOLETA WENT TO HEAVEN (Chile, Andrés Wood)
The Audience Award: U.S. Documentary: THE INVISIBLE WAR (Kirby Dick)
The Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic: THE SURROGATE (Ben Lewin)
The World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary: SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (Sweden, United Kingdom, Malik Bendjelloul)
The World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic: VALLEY OF SAINTS (India, Musa Syeed)
The Best of NEXT Audience Award: SLEEPWALK WITH ME (USA, Mike Birbiglia)
The U.S. Directing Award: Documentary: THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (Lauren Greenfield)
The U.S. Directing Award: Dramatic: MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (Ava DuVernay)
The World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary: 5 BROKEN CAMERAS (Israel, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi)
The World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic: TEDDY BEAR (Denmark, Mads Matthiesen)
The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED (USA, Derek Connolly)
The World Cinema Screenwriting Award: YOUNG & WILD (Chile, Marialy Rivas, Camila Gutiérrez, Pedro Peirano, Sebastián Sepúlveda)
The U.S. Documentary Editing Award: DETROPIA (Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady)
The World Cinema Documentary Editing Award: INDIE GAME (Canada, Lisanne Pajot, James Swirsky)
The Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary: CHASING ICE (Jeff Orlowski)
The Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Dramatic: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (Benh Zeitlin)
The World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary: PUTIN’S KISS (Denmark, Lise Birk Pedersen)
The World Cinema Cinematography Award: Dramatic: MY BROTHER THE DEVIL (UK, Sally El Hosaini)
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for an Agent of Change: LOVE FREE OR DIE (Macky Alston)
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance: AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY (Alison Klayman)
U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing: Andrea Sperling and Jonathan Schwartz for SMASHED AND NOBODY WALKS
U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting: THE SURROGATE (John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy and cast)
World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Artistic Vision: CAN (Turkey, Rasit Celikezer)
World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize for its Celebration of the Artistic Spirit: SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (Sweden/UK, Malik Bendjelloul)
Yahoo Short Film Audience Award: THE DEBUTANTE HUNTERS (USA, Maria White)