Dark films, particularly those that engage with social and political themes, dominated the Sundance Film Festival awards Saturday night.
“Winter’s Bone,” writer/director Debra Granik's mystery-tinged tale about an impoverished teenager (Jennifer Lawrence) searching for her missing, meth-cooking father in the wooded Missouri Ozarks, won both the grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic category and the prestigious Waldo Salt screenwriting award.
And rugged terrain of a different sort was the setting for the winner of the U.S. documentary grand jury prize, “Restrepo,” Sebastian Junger's and Tim Hetherington's vérité examination of a U.S. Army unit stationed in Afghanistan's dangerous Korengal Valley.
In the world category, David Michod's “Animal Kingdom,” a gangster-themed coming-of-age drama from Australia, took home the grand jury dramatic prize, while Mads Brugger's “The Red Chapel,” a comic documentary about a Danish group's stunt infiltration of North Korea that explores the enigmatic and totalitarian country, landed the grand jury prize for best world documentary.
Domestic issues also resonated at Sundance as Davis Guggenheim's “Waiting for Superman,” an eye-opening indictment of the U.S. educational system from the director of global-warming jeremiad "An Inconvenient Truth," earned the audience award for U.S. documentary.
The lighter twentysomething comedy “happythankyoumoreplease,” the directorial debut of "How I Met Your Mother" star Josh Radnor, scored the audience prize for U.S. dramatic.
And the world cinema audience prize for documentary went to Lucy Walker’s art-world exploration "Wasteland," while Javier Fuentes-Leon's Peru-set ghost story "Undertow" won the world cinema audience award in the dramatic category.
"Winter's Bone," adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel by Granik and Anne Rosellini, marks the sophomore effort from Granik, who won the director's award at the 2004 Sundance Festival for her film "Down to the Bone."
A New Yorker, Granik told The Times last week that she made a film about rural America because she's "always attracted to a place I've never been [to] or a life that's outside my own experience."
On Saturday, Roadside Attractions announced that it had closed a deal to distribute the film, with plans to release it theatrically this summer.
Winning a prize at Sundance doesn't guarantee commercial success or even a commercial release, though it can be the first step toward a fruitful theatrical life.
Last year, "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire" scored the U.S. dramatic jury and audience prizes and a special acting prize on its way to more than $45 million in domestic box office and a collection of awards season accolades.
Sundance will officially conclude today after 11 days of screenings and events. Qualitative themes are difficult to extrapolate at a festival as sprawling as this one, but a consensus emerged that it was an especially strong year for documentaries.
In addition to the jury and audience-award winners, the list of notable nonfiction films included Amir Bar-Lev's Pat Tillman expose “The Tillman Story,” Jeffrey Blitz's lottery winner examination "Lucky," a documentary about and by legendary street artist Banksy titled “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” and Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost's ”Catfish,” which details a twisty online relationship between a young New York photographer and a family in Michigan.
The festival went through a reinvention of sorts this year, its first under new director John Cooper, who was promoted to replace Geoffrey Gilmore. Among the innovations Cooper and festival founder Robert Redford introduced were the creation of a programming section for low-budget films, distribution of select titles via YouTube and a program to screen festival movies concurrent with Sundance at theaters around the country.
"To me right now, it's not about getting more people to come to Park City," Redford said. "What I want right now is to bring the festival to people everywhere else."