At the Sundance Film Festival, 2008 became a banner year for large bodies of water as "Frozen River" took the grand jury prize for drama and "Trouble the Water" walked off with the top documentary award at the fest's closing-night ceremonies Saturday at the Racquet Club here.
Written and directed by Courtney Hunt and set in upstate New York, "Frozen River" costars a magnificent Melissa Leo and Misty Upham as two women who face desperate economic straits and turn to smuggling illegal immigrants across the Canadian border. Acquired at the festival by Sony Pictures Classics, this is a powerful story that makes strong emotional connections.
"Trouble the Water," co-directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, starts with the harrowing home movie footage that New Orleans resident Kim Roberts shot of Hurricane Katrina and evolves into a remarkable story of community resilience in the face of government indifference. Roberts, who came to the festival more than nine months pregnant, gave birth to a baby girl in Salt Lake City the day after her film's premiere.
On the world cinema side, James Marsh's riveting "Man on Wire" took both the jury prize and the audience award for world documentary. Treating French aerialist Philippe Petit's 1974 walk between the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center like a daring bank robbery, this exhilarating film makes you shake your head in amazement. The extraordinarily single-minded Petit, who was in Park City for the premiere, insisted, not surprisingly, that "life should be lived on the edge of life."
Three other festival films won two awards each, starting with the rigorous "Ballast," the rare Sundance film also to be in competition in Berlin, which took the dramatic directing award for Lance Hammer and the cinematography award for Lol Crawley. Shot with nonprofessionals in the Mississippi Delta, "Ballast" is a deliberate, beautifully artistic film that deals with the effects of a suicide on three people with a complex emotional history.
Alex Rivera's "Sleep Dealer" won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award as well as the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for a film with science or technology as a theme. A visually exciting sci-fi epic with a strong sense of social commentary, "Sleep Dealer" created a fully realized world on a shoestring budget.
Director Rivera, who had terrific assistance from cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, said at the premiere that his crew went beyond teamwork into "collective delirium and insanity."
The world cinema screenwriting award went to France's Samuel Benchetrit for his "I Always Wanted to be a Gangster."
In the world cinema dramatic category, Sweden's "King of Ping Pong," amusingly bleak in the classic Scandinavian manner, took the world cinema jury prize for director Jens Jonsson and the cinematography award for Askild Vik Edvardsen. Two other films won cinematography awards: the documentary "Patti Smith: Dream of Life," shot by Phillip Hunt and Steven Sebring, and the world documentary "Recycle" by Mahmoud Al Massad.
Aside from "Man on Wire," Sundance gave three other audience awards: The dramatic prize went to Jonathan Levine's teen comedy "The Wackness"; the documentary prize to "Fields of Fuel," Josh Tickell's look at the oil crisis; and the world cinema dramatic award to Amin Matalqa's "Captain Abu Raed," Jordan's first feature film in half a century.
Though they didn't win anything, two other docs found favor with Sundance audiences, most notably "Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains." The story of the aftermath of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes in which 16 young men survived for 72 days by eating the flesh of those who died has been told before in "Alive!," but "Stranded" improves on that with penetrating interviews with the survivors.
During the question-and-answer session at the film's premiere, director Gonzalo Arijon, a friend of the survivors since childhood, introduced Roberto Francois, one of the two men who walked for an excruciating 10 days through the mountains to reach help. Francois held the audience spellbound as he talked about what the experience had meant to him. "Make plans for 100 years," he said, "but you must be ready to die at any moment."
In a different vein altogether was Sacha Gervasi's endearing "Anvil! The True Story of Anvil," likely the only heartwarming film ever made about a heavy metal band. It follows the affable members of Canada's longest-lived metal group as they depart on the most comically haphazard rock tour since the fictional days of "This Is Spinal Tap!"
Not getting any awards on the dramatic side was "Sugar," written and directed by "Half Nelson's" Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Made with care and concern and a nice sense of unforced reality, it follows a young baseball prospect from the Dominican Republic as he struggles to adjust to rural America's minor leagues.
At the crosstown Slamdance Film Festival, one film, Greg Kohs' "Song Sung Blue," a documentary about a Milwaukee-based singing duo that covers Neil Diamond songs, won both the grand jury prize and the audience award. The grand jury prize for narrative went to Tom Quinn's "The New Year Parade," and the narrative audience award was given to Ryan Piotrowicz's "The Project."
Sundance's dramatic directing award went to Nanette Burstein's "American Teen," based in Warsaw, Ind. On the world side, documentary directing was given to Nino Kirtadze for "Durakovo: Village of Fools," and the dramatic prize went to Russia's Anna Melikyan for the whimsical "Mermaid." There were also two editing awards: to world documentary's Irena Dol for "The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins" and to Joe Bini for his work on the powerful competition doc "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired."
Despite having given out all these awards, the Sundance juries were not ready to quit and handed out four more special jury prizes. The recipients were Ernesto Contreras, director of "Blue Eyelids"; Lisa F. Jackson, director of "Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo"; Chusy Haney-Jardine for "Anywhere, USA"; and the ensemble cast (Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly MacDonald and Brad Henke) of "Choke," written and directed by Clark Gregg and based on the novel by "Fight Club's" Chuck Palahniuk. And with that, Sundance rested.