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Hang the Sundance Jury
Four Sundance Juries Award Mostly Worthy Films, But Fail With Dramatic Grand Prize

by Jeremy Mathews

[In addition to this festival wrap-up, Jeremy wrote over 40 reviews for Film Threat that are available online.]

he 2005 Sundance Film Festival juries displayed uneven success in their award allocations when they announced their decisions on Saturday night at the closing ceremonies in Park City, Utah. The documentary jury awarded its grand prize to Eugene Jareki’s “Why We Fight,” an interesting examination of the military industrial complex’s influence on U.S. operations, while the dramatic jury blind-sided everyone by giving its top prize to Ira Sachs’s “Forty Shades of Blue,” which generated so little enthusiasm that many didn’t even see it because so many people had warned them against it.

Jareki’s documentary is a worthy winner for its examination of the economic machine that propels the weapons industry and prevents politicians from standing up to it. While it’s fairly routine, the filmmaking is topnotch and some of the insights are new.

But to be frank, ”Forty Shades of Blue” is the kind of movie that’s so forgettable I normally wouldn’t even bother to write about it in a festival wrap-up, but since it won the top prize, I’ll say a few words. Rip Torn plays the film’s only notable character, a thoughtless legendary music producer who lives in Memphis with a younger Russian woman who falls for his estranged son when he comes to town for a grumpy visit. Problem is, these two characters are boring, even when drunk, and the pair has no chemistry together. The best thing I can say is that there are some interesting shot compositions involving cutting off parts of the characters’ faces at the edges of the frame, but this didn’t do much to move the lagging story along.

The cast and director of 'Brick' on stage during the Q & A in the Eccles auditorium.

Two other movies, Rian Johnson’s “Brick” and Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” towered well above the top winner’s accomplishments, but were relegated to Special Jury Prizes for “originality of vision.” Johnson’s film is a stunning and assured directorial debut with a screenplay worthy of the skill. Johnson perfectly recreates the hard-boiled dialogue of writers like Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler and the character types and story structure of a classic detective noir. Just one catch: It takes place in modern times, and in high school. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a loner who’s been eating lunch in the back of the school ever since his ex-girlfriend left him. But her murder sends him on a journey into an underworld of crime and drugs. More than a gimmick, the film tells a sincere story with comic relief emerging through its clever style, and never gets old or lets up on the intrigue. July’s movie is also a completely unexpected dose of originality. July stars as an aspiring performance artist in a moving, bizarre, unforced and hilarious ensemble piece about divorce, creative Internet chat icons, underage sex, nostalgia and a goldfish left on the top of a moving car. July’s characters and scenarios are so thoroughly her own that it will take a full-length review to adequately explore them.

This was the first year that Sundance juried its world documentary and dramatic categories in an attempt to give them more prominence. Their position in this article suggests moderate success in that goal, but the categories both had noteworthy titles. The World Documentary Grand Prize went to Leonard Retel Helmrich’s “Shape of the Moon,” a look at a Christian family in heavily Muslim Indonesia that has such poetic and amazing visuals it’s sometimes hard to believe it’s really a documentary. The top world dramatic award went to Zeze Gamboa’s “The Hero,” which tells parallel stories to examine the affect of a 30-year Civil War on Angola. While occasionally awkward, the film is moving in its look at the different lives that war changes.

The Audience Award, voted on by audiences at public screenings, didn’t go to any surprising U.S. movies, because the winners had received nothing but hot word of mouth for the festival’s 10 days. Documentary winner “Murderball,” directed by Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, was loved for its depiction of quadriplegic rugby players that is both honest and inspiring. “Murderball” also won a special jury prize for Geoffrey Richman and Conor O’Neill’s editing. Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow” had an equally strong buzz for its depiction of a pimp who dreams of becoming a rapper, although this buzz ignored some of the unresolved issues such as how this lively and funny film portrays women, in favor of praising Terrence Howard’s energetic performance.

The awards in the two world categories were a little more surprising, however. The dramatic award usually goes to a heartwarming and/or quirky comedy, preferably from an English speaking country. This year, however, it went to Susanne Bier’s “Brothers,” a Danish film about the scarred life of a soldier who ends up in a prison camp in Afghanistan and returns with memories that make it impossible to reenter his old life. The film is extremely powerful, but contains one scene of such horrific violence that a warm audience reception reveals just how emotionally true it is. The documentary winner was also one with unpleasant subject matter, “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire.” The documentary studies the Canadian general who was assigned to Rwanda peace keeping in 1994 but didn’t receive enough aid to halt the genocide, despite his best efforts, because no one cared about a country like Rwanda. Returning to the country for the genocide’s 10th anniversary, Dallaire still carries the guilt on his shoulders, despite most people’s belief that he did everything he could have and saved many lives.

The Dramatic Directing Award went to “The Squid and the Whale,” by writer/director Noah Baumbach, to whom the jury also presented the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, even though just one of the honors would probably have gotten the message across. The decision to give two awards to one film, usually frowned upon at festivals, reflects a likely split in “Forty Shades of Blue” support. Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film is in the ultimate Sundance genre, the coming-of-age story, but sets itself apart with great dialogue and amusing observations in its depiction of a family suffering through a dysfunctional divorce and how a 16-year-old who can’t see his father’s flaws deals with it. Jeff Daniels offers one of the best performances of his career as the arrogant father who is seeing his success wane while his wife (Laura Linney) starts writing and grows in prominence.

In a year with an excellent lineup in the usually strong U.S. documentary category, it was hard to pick a favorite, but mine was “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” which won Jeff Feuerzeig the Documentary Directing Award. Using old tape recordings, modern footage of old locations and interviews with friends and colleagues, Feuerzeig has structured a unique look at a unique artist. The outsider musician and artist Johnston has fought mental illness and a lack of training to become a favorite songwriter of many despite being inaccessible to many more. The movie will draw more attention to the body of work and the dark psyche of this brilliant artist, but more importantly, it does him justice with quality work.

Other awarded documentaries were also worthy of recognition. Jessica Sanders won a special jury prize for “After Innocence,” her moving and distressing look at the lives of prisoners who were exonerated of their crimes after spending up to 22 years in prison due to a flawed legal system. Gary Griffin was awarded for his cinematography on Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt’s “The Education of Shelby Knox,” an intimate and inspiring look at a high school student in Lubbock, Texas who matures as a young activist during her four years of high school and leaves behind her parents’ conservative views for her own.

The dramatic jury went all out on the special jury prizes. In addition to those given to “Brick” and “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” two more were given for acting. Amy Adams received recognition for her portrayal of a pregnant young woman with childlike energy and conversational skills that don’t require the other person to speak in “Junebug,” by Phil Morrison. And the promising actor Lou Pucci won for his performance as a high school student who has trouble finding his way in life without any psychological crutches in Mike Mills’s solid if not great “Thumbsucker.”

The World Documentary Jury gave special prizes to Sean McAllister’s “The Liberace of Baghdad,” a somewhat interesting look at a famous pianist in Iraq who is now playing at a high-security hotel while his country is under U.S. occupation and terrorist attack, and Simone Bitton’s “Wall,” an idiosyncratic and fascinating look at the security area between the Israeli-Palestinian border.

And two more films won special prizes from the World Dramatic Jury. Jorge Gaggero’s assured feature debut “Live-in Maid” was one of the fest’s best films and features two great performances by Norma Aleandro and Norma Argentina as a formerly wealthy woman and her longtime maid struggling through Argentina’s economic crisis. The other Special Jury Prize winner, Der Wald vor lauter Bäuman’s “The Forest for the Trees” is authentic in its portrayal of a socially inept hanger-on, played well by Eva Löbau, but unfortunately moved into repetitive, cringe-inducing mean-spiritedness by the film’s conclusion.

I always imagine that the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, which honors films about people in the scientific fields and comes with $20,000, creates more of a problem for its jury members to find eligible films than to select the recipient, but last year the winner was Shane Carruth’s brilliant “Primer,” and another notable film has won this year, “Grizzly Man.” The great Werner Herzog’s documentary studies the life of Timothy Treadwell, an environmental activist who lived with grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness for thirteen years before a bear finally killed him. Herzog uses some amazing footage that Treadwell shot himself as he lived with the bears and his level of mental health fluctuated.

As you may have noticed if you’ve made it this far, there were a hell of a lot of awards this year due to the two additional juries and a slew of special awards. These factors practically doubled the usual length of the award ceremony, which most attendees considered humorless and tedious. After seeing over 75 features at this year’s festival, I’m happy to say that while the festival had its share of mediocre films, there are many that don’t fit the ceremony’s description, and if the distributors make the right choices, there will be plenty of noteworthy releases this year.

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