“Forty Shades of Blue,” Ira Sachs’ quiet, reflective story of an aging music impresario, a younger woman and the man’s adult son, was awarded the Sundance Film Festival’s American dramatic grand jury prize on Saturday at the Park City Racquet Club.
Taking the American documentary grand jury prize was Eugene Jarecki’s “Why We Fight,” a careful analysis that places the war in Iraq in the context of the needs of the military-industrial complex first identified by President Eisenhower.
Though it didn’t take the top dramatic prize, Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” did exceptionally well, taking both the dramatic directing award and the Waldo Salt screenwriting award. Incisive, heartfelt and painfully funny, “The Squid and the Whale” is a film that shows how even familiar material -- the way a family’s life turns when the parents get divorced -- can be transfixing if intelligence and ability are added to the mix.
With wonderfully nuanced performances from Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as the parents and Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline as their sons, this remarkable film, at once clear-eyed and emotional, personal yet unsparing, is a model of what independent films can achieve.
Two other Sundance films walked away with two awards. Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow,” the festival’s first major sale, lived up to its Hollywood-in-hip-hop-disguise reputation by winning the American dramatic audience award as well as the cinematography award for Amelia Vincent.
Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s “Murderball,” which introduces viewers to the harshly competitive world of quadriplegic wheelchair rugby, took the American documentary audience award and a special jury prize for editing for Geoffrey Richman and Conor O’Neill.
For the first time at Sundance, grand jury awards were also given in world documentary and world dramatic categories.
The world documentary award went to Leonard Retel Helmrich’s “Shape of the Moon,” which spends quality time with a Christian family in heavily Muslim Indonesia.
The world dramatic prize went to “The Hero,” an involving drama from Angola, a country that has recently emerged from a 30-year civil war. Set in an uncertain society, the film focuses on how a veteran who lost a leg in the fighting attempts to adjust to civilian life. It offers a unique look from inside a cinematically underrepresented country as well as a neglected continent.
An audience award for world drama went to Denmark’s highly regarded “Brothers.” The audience award for world documentary was taken by “Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire,” directed by Peter Raymont. It tells the moving story of the compassionate Canadian general (the model for Nick Nolte’s character in “Hotel Rwanda”) whose experience commanding the underfunded U.N. troops in Rwanda nearly shattered his life. As always, truth is more compelling than fiction.
Another film from the world documentary category, “Grizzly Man,” one of the most remarkable works of Werner Herzog’s long career, took the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for a film on science and technology.
Using gripping excerpts from more than 100 hours of video shot by its subject, “Grizzly” explores the frenetic life and unquiet death of Timothy Treadwell, a self-dramatizer with genuine gifts who was convinced that he could live among Alaska’s bears.
As Herzog puts it, this is “a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil.”
World documentary might have been this year’s strongest Sundance category, with two more films worth mentioning. “Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works” is a thoughtful investigation of the history and continuing popularity of a series of agitprop Chinese operas. As didactic as they were stylized, the operas were the only works of entertainment allowed on stage or screen during 10 years of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s rule.
“Unknown White Male,” by British filmmaker Rupert Murray, tells perhaps the strangest and most disturbing story of the entire festival. It introduces us to a 35-year-old man who, without warning and without apparent cause, suddenly found his memory wiped clean of every experience he ever had. Even when found by family and friends, he had no memory of ever meeting any of them before. An unexpectedly emotional, disturbing film.
An especially charming American documentary was Greg Whiteley’s “New York Doll.” It’s about how Arthur “Killer” Kane, one of the original members of the highly influential glam-punk group New York Dolls, became a practicing Mormon and what happens when a 30-years-later band reunion is proposed.
Other documentary awards included best director to Jeff Feuerzeig for “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” best cinematography to Gary Griffin for “The Education of Shelby Knox” and a special jury prize to Jessica Sanders for “After Innocence.”
The dramatic jury also handed out a series of special jury prizes. Lou Pucci, the star of the whimsical, sweet-natured “Thumbsucker,” got one for his acting, as did Amy Adams for “Junebug.” Rian Johnson, director of the high school film noir “Brick,” and Miranda July, director of the unapologetically elfin “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” were both given prizes for originality of vision.
Not receiving official recognition but worthy of it were two other dramatic films.
The Garcia girls of Georgina Garcia Riedel’s “How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer” are not three sisters but a romantically challenged mother, daughter and grandmother all living in a slow-paced Southwest town where everybody knows everybody’s business. The film takes its pace from the town but adds a fine appreciation of the pleasures of ordinary life.
Robinson Devor’s “Police Beat” is a cool, measured piece of work. What we see is a Seattle bicycle patrolman, originally from West Africa, responding to a series of unusual police calls. What we listen to, in his native Wolof with English subtitles, is the policeman ruminating about his troubled romantic relationship.
It’s a tricky combination but it’s handled with the kind of grace that marks Sundance at its best.