Sundance 2011. Awards

David Hudson

Rather than simply list Saturday night's award-winners in Park City, let's also have a look at what critics have been saying about each of them.

Grand Jury Prize: US Documentary Competition. For the New York Times' Brooks Barnes, the winner "is without question one of the most difficult-to-watch movies of the festival, this year or any year: How to Die in Oregon, a documentary from Peter D Richardson about physician-assisted suicide. The film opens with a man dying of cancer on camera. Maybe the lack of attention has something to do with this film's being one of the few at Sundance that people nationwide are guaranteed the opportunity to see. HBO produced How to Die in Oregon and plans to run it in the summer as part of its high-profile documentary series, or in the fall. But Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, said she thought people were also squeamish. Even half her staff — and this is not a crew unaccustomed to difficult topics — refused to watch the whole film, she said. Meanwhile, the movie's experienced publicity team said it had never witnessed such universal can't-cope-with-that rejection from members of the media at Sundance, who left some empty seats at the screening."

"How to Die in Oregon has a point of view, which is that people deserve to choose their time and mode of exit when they're on the way out," writes the Boston Globe's Ty Burr. "Richardson visits with a number of aged folks who've signed up, and to a man and woman they're profoundly relieved that when their suffering becomes unbearable, they have a remedy in their bedside table drawer. The decisions reached in this film are not reached lightly, and the brutal directness of almost everyone we meet oddly serves to lighten the experience: These people are past the ethical struggles, and their certainty has a purity that's singular and moving… I cried, too, but from several emotions in addition to sadness; the film's a hard but incredibly moving, even transformative watch."

More from Justin Lowe (Hollywood Reporter) and Eric Kohn (indieWIRE). Filmmaker has a brief interview with Richardson.

Grand Jury Prize: US Dramatic Competition. "We've got a new British ingenue on our hands," Kyle Buchanan announced in Vulture last week. "Two years ago, the Sundance Film Festival launched Carey Mulligan into stardom with the one-two punch of An Education and The Greatest, and this year, Drake Doremus's long-distance romance Like Crazy — which Paramount just snapped up for $4 million — could do the same for the heretofore little-known actress Felicity Jones. An intriguing blend of Anna Kendrick and Gemma Arterton, Jones has an avid onscreen presence and pursed sex-symbol lips (most recently, she played daughter to Helen Mirren in Julie Taymor's version of The Tempest). The movie works its way to a point where Jones and Winter's Bone star Jennifer Lawrence are both vying for Anton Yelchin's affections, and though Doremus dims Lawrence's star wattage enough that it becomes an unfair fight, Jones is so irresistible that she hardly needs the handicap." A Special Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented to Jones as well.

"Like the young love affair it chronicles, Like Crazy moves in fits and starts, hitting a few grace notes along the way, but ending up unfulfilling," finds Anthony Kaufman in Screen. On the other hand, the Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore writes, "Its elliptical construction and avoidance of melodrama may disqualify it for the most mainstream audience, but the film's undeniable beauty shouldn't be a tough sell to moviegoers who can take some actual pain (as opposed to contrived rom-com obstacles) along with their romance. Drake Doremus's follow-up to last year's Sundance entry Douchebag, it expands on the sensitivity that lurked, surprisingly, behind that film's provocative title."

More from Brooks Barnes (NYT), Erik Davis (Cinematical), Gregory Ellwood (HitFix), Kevin Jagernauth (Playlist), Eric Kohn (iW) and John Lopez (Vanity Fair). For MSN Movies, James Rocchi talks with Yelchin and Jones; indieWIRE interviews Doremus. Update, 1/31: Vulture has three clips, running about a minute each.

World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary. "Photojournalist Danfung Dennis's Hell and Back Again is the latest documentary to follow Western soldiers in Afghanistan, after last year's Sundance entry Restrepo and Danish Cannes winner Armadillo," writes Anthony Kaufman for Screen, noting "the ambitious and intriguing structure of the movie, as it intercuts between on-the-ground combat footage on the frontlines and a wounded, shell-shocked 25-year-old Sergeant named Nathan Harris, who is trying to adjust to life back home in North Carolina. Danfung's visual and aural strategy sometimes pays off, producing a highly subjective, even hallucinatory vision of one man's lived contradiction, trapped between war and peace, the intense and the prosaic." More from Duane Byrge (THR). Filmmaker has a brief interview with Danfung Dennis, who's also won the World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary.

World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic. "Norwegian couples in a snowbound suburb explore adultery as a cure for cabin fever as Christmas approaches in Happy, Happy, the feature debut of Anne Sewitsky," writes David D'Arcy in Screen. The AV Club's Noel Murray gives the film a B+, finding it "a little pat from a narrative perspective, but it unfolds in a fleet 85 minutes, with no wasted scenes and with strong performances from everyone. More importantly, Sewitsky and [screenwriter Ragnhild] Tronvoll have some keen insights into the ways that settled couples wound each other, mostly out of habit." Update, 2/1: "If it weren't so good-natured overall, Anne Sewitsky's feature debut Happy, Happy might seem entirely implausible, even for a comedy," finds Justin Lowe in the Hollywood Reporter.

Audience Award: Documentary. "A quietly captivating portrait of an unlikely character, Buck is as modest as its subject and wins viewers over just as easily," writes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter. "Buck Brannaman, who inspired The Horse Whisperer, proves as impressively gifted in reality as any fictionalized version could be." More from keelsetter (TCM). Interviews with director Cindy Meehl: IndieWIRE and Filmmaker.

Audience Award: Dramatic. "Circumstance is an amazingly accomplished and complex first feature from Iranian-American writer-director Maryam Keshavarz," writes James Greenberg in the Hollywood Reporter. "Drawing on some of her own experiences, she has created an insiders look at a world few of us will ever get to see. The political, sexual and religious labyrinth of Iran today feels at once contemporary and utterly foreign."

For the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris, "The movie's two progressively reared Iranian students — Atafeh and Shireen (Nikohi Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy) — are outrageously sexy… But lest you mistake their inability to keep their hands off each other for cheap erotic provocation, Keshavarz… throws in a surveillance plot that gives the movie allegorical heft. It's a cheap erotic provocation with political wrapping. She gives us a look us at Tehran's druggy, hormonal (and affluent) youth culture (she filmed in Beirut), and with every shot of a swinging booty and every pill popped, you feel like someone involved with this production could, at any moment, lose her life — or at least have her freedoms severely curtailed. That, of course, is what the movie is about: how to thrive amid cultural suppression… Keshavarz establishes herself as a smart, insightful voice who can be didactic and very funny at the same time. That's not a quality I need in a filmmaker but she's quite good at it. The sex, meanwhile — that's stuff you can see, with no problem, almost anywhere. Except, of course, in Iran." Update, 2/1: "Watching it, you lose count of the taboos that its Iranian-American director is violating," writes David D'Arcy in Screen.

World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary. "Since I've never been much of a racing fan, I'd never heard of legendary Formula One driver Ayrton Senna prior to seeing Asif Kapadia's documentary Senna," writes the AV Club's Noel Murray. "But ignorance (or even indifference) is no impediment when it comes to Senna, a solidly made sports-doc that uses only file footage (and a few voice-over interviews) to tell the story of how the spirited Brazilian took the circuit by storm in the late 80s and early 90s, before dying at age 34 from injuries sustained during a race." Grade: B. More from Daniel Fienberg (HitFix). IndieWIRE interviews Kapadia.

World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic. "Kinyarwanda is the first feature film to be produced by Rwandans and focuses on the 1994 Rwandan Genocide," notes Duane Byrge in the Hollywood Reporter. "Weaving six different true stories of the human devastation during that horror, Kinyarwanda is a very ambitious film. Unfortunately, its attempt to synthesize the overall story of the genocide through these representative stories proves overwhelming." For Andy Motz at the Alternative Chronicle, this "as one of those movies that I really wanted to love, but honestly couldn't." Interviews with director Alrick Brown: IndieWIRE and Filmmaker.

Best of NEXT!: Audience Award. "Five young women meet for an anything-goes waterfront getaway in to.get.her, a painful-to-watch drama that attempts to justify a thousand cliches with some climactic twists that, sadly, are ludicrous where what preceded them was merely lousy," finds the Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore. IndieWIRE interviews director, screenwriter and producer Erica Dunton.

Directing Award: Documentary. For Filmmaker, Mary Anderson Casavant interviews Jon Foy, whose "feature debut, Resurrect Dead, was entirely self-funded by a series of odd jobs. When he got the call that the film he'd been working on for five years was going to be at Sundance, he was working as a house cleaner. The story of one man's obsession, Resurrect Dead follows Justin Duerr, an artist determined to find the story behind the Toynbee Tiles, a series of cryptic messages that have been found embedded in the asphalts of city streets everywhere from New York to Buenos Aires." Justin Lowe in the Hollywood Reporter: "The strange tiles are handcrafted plaques roughly the size of license plates apparently assembled from linoleum and paving asphalt, and installed on street surfaces in locations ranging from Boston to Kansas City, but principally centered in Philadelphia. Each bears an arcane four-line message etched in the surface material: 'Toynbee Idea/In Kubrick's 2001/Resurrect Dead/On Planet Jupiter.' … As much as it's a chronicle of the quest to unmask the Toynbee tiler, Foy's film is also a portrait of the Quixotic sleuths themselves, particularly Duerr, an enthusiastic and capable researcher who comes across as a touch too absorbed with his subject matter." IndieWIRE interviews Foy.

Directing Award: Dramatic. We've already got an entry going on Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene.

World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary. Same goes for James Marsh's Project Nim.

World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic. "For his debut as a writer/director, Paddy Considine follows in the footsteps of his fellow thespians Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, making a movie so brutal and depressing that it practically dares the audience to watch," writes the AV Club's Noel Murray. "Peter Mullan stars as an angry widower who struggles to keep his emotions in check, but is so stressed out by the noise and stupidity he encounters every day that he frequently snaps, and takes his grudge against the world out on anybody or anything in range… I can't deny that Tyrannosaur features multiple moment that are as riveting as anything I've seen on the screen (small or big) over the past couple of years. But those moments would've been even more powerful if the movie itself were less relentless." Grade: B-.

"The British actor and long-time friend of Shane Meadows has described Tyrannosaur as a love story and it is, albeit one that at times makes Mike Leigh resemble, well, a Disney filmmaker," writes Jeremy Kay for the Guardian. "But while the story is harrowing it never strays into gratuitous territory. There is plenty of heart and there is redemption, but it is hard-earned. There are also two truly dazzling performances by Peter Mullan and — who knew? — Olivia Colman from Hot Fuzz and Peep Show." The pair has also won the World Cinema Special Jury Prizes: Dramatic for Breakout Performances.

"Put this one alongside Requiem for a Dream and Funny Games on the Mount Rushmore of One-Timers, movies you have to see once, but can't imagine seeing twice," recommends IFC's Matt Singer. "It's a powerful film you can't shake and won't want to revisit anytime soon." More from Mark Adams (Screen), Daniel Fienberg (HitFix), Eric Kohn (iW), Andy Motz (Alternative Chronicle) and David Rooney (THR). IndieWIRE interviews Considine. Update, 2/2: Michelle Kung talks with Considine for the Wall Street Journal. Update, 2/3: Damon Wise talks with him, too. For the Guardian.

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. "A family-dysfunction film that walks a fine line, Another Happy Day earns its share of dark laughs without ever trivializing the very real pain almost all its characters endure," writes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter. "First-timer Sam Levinson proves to be a confident and unshowy director, one fortunate to have a skillful cast investing its all in his screenplay. Though some of the movie's performances flirt with caricature (Siobhan Fallon's loud-mouthed aunt, Demi Moore as a brash and overtly sexual second wife), the movie has a center of gravity just strong enough to contain them. Ellen Barkin plays Lynn, a mother who has made her share of missteps but wasn't dealt a great hand to begin with… The picture is littered with supporting turns that leave their mark, particularly that of Ellen Burstyn, who as Barkin's mother, Doris, typifies the kind of moral ambiguities Levinson's script trades in." IndieWIRE interviews Levinson.

World Cinema Screenwriting Award. "An artfully made and intelligently nuanced film, Restoration (Boker Tov Adon Fidelman) is an elegantly made Israeli drama in which 'restoration' is both the core of the film (it is largely based in a failing furniture restoration business) and a metaphor for attempts to repair fraying family relationships," writes Mark Adams for Screen. "Restoration is a gently compulsive look at contemporary Israeli society, and director Joseph Madmony is aided by a thoughtful and insightful script by Erez Kav-el, which delves into little seen areas, but never opts for grandstanding moments, instead allows the delicate tension to develop." Filmmaker gets a quick word with Madmony.

Documentary Editing Award. "Remember the Earth Liberation Front?" asks Stewart Nusbaumer in Filmmaker. "In the 1990s, a collection of separate anonymous cells without any central leadership that carried out acts of sabotage and arson — burning lumber companies, torching a parking lot of SUVs, destroying a research laboratory. The clandestine group's goal was to halt the destruction of our environment. If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front gives us the larger context of the environmental movement and the more radical Earth Liberation Front, and then focuses on one cell in Oregon and on the activist Daniel McGowan. It is an intriguing and important film that pulls back the veil on an obscure historical organization while presenting the personal perspective from an activist in the thick of the action." More from Justin Lowe (THR). IndieWIRE and Filmmaker interview director Marshall Curry, who co-edited the film with Matthew Hamachek.

World Cinema Documentary Editing Award. An "incendiary view of race and social politics came from Göran Hugo Olsson's The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, a chronological mash-up of archival footage shot by Swedish filmmakers and broadcast journalists in the titular years — fields reports from the frontlines of the Black Power movement, interviews with key figures like Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale, images of historic demonstrations and appallingly violent police action — culled from newly plundered vaults." Damon Smith for Reverse Shot: "I've seen no better illustration of this too-often distorted and misunderstood movement's beginnings and radical thrust than the material on display here, which is paired with audio commentary by Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Questlove, Kathleen Cleaver, Melvin Van Peebles, and others… These expertly collated sociological documents are frankly too important to ignore, and we should be grateful that the Scandinavian producers who captured for posterity this history better than our own media made America's internal matters a priority."

For Melinda Newman, writing at HitFix, the doc "needed a stronger guiding hand and voice to reach its full potency," and, having seen it myself in the run-up to the Berlinale, where it'll be screening in the Panorama Dokument program, I tend to agree. The footage, particularly that of Carmichael and a riveting excerpt from an interview with Angela Davis, is invaluable, but the overall package is strangely slick and rubs up against the footage in the wrong way. Newman: "The filmmakers use some music from the day, including, oddly enough, Jackson 5's 'Rockin' Robin,' but most frequently goes back to  2008's 'Unwritten,' from the Roots and the song's opening refrain, sung by Mercedes Martinez: 'When I think about perfect times I think about yesterday/You can ask me about the future and I don't know what to say.' It's catchy, seemingly as a way to tie together chapters: but the past the movie makers are showing is anything but perfect so it comes across as just another odd choice in a movie full of them."

IndieWIRE and Filmmaker interview Olsson.

Excellence in Cinematography Award: Documentary. "You've heard the expression 'to err is human, to forgive is divine?'" asks IFC's Matt Singer. "By that measure, Joshua Milton Blahyi — aka General Butt Naked — is the most human protagonist you'll see in any movie this year. This man has made errors on an almost unimaginable scale. Back when he was known as 'General Butt Naked,' a vicious warlord in the Liberian Civil War so named for his penchant for charging into battle completely nude, he killed thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children. Some years later, Blahyi found religion and now he spends his day as a fiery preacher on a quest for divinity; a quest for forgiveness. But does a monster deserve forgiveness? That is the question that drives Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion's documentary The Redemption of General Butt Naked."

For David D'Arcy, writing in Screen, this is one "staggeringly cinematic doc." Its "cinematographers [Strauss, Ryan Hill and Peter Hutchens] follow Blahyi  — happy to oblige — as he lurches from laughter to tears with his former victims, mobile phone at the ready. Many revisit the frightening details of their families' killings. Some accept his apologies. Others watch warily, unconvinced that the former murderer has changed anything but his rhetoric as he mugs for the camera."

"In his transformation from butcher to preacher, Blahvi simply traded in one form of extremism for another," argues the AV Club's Nathan Rabin. "[L]ike all evangelists, Blahvi's banter has the disquieting feel of spin and propaganda; we never really seem to get to know the real Blahvi, just the paper saint and gothic monster. Late in the film, a clear-eyed soul says that like everyone, Blahvi in his current form is about 75 percent good and 25 percent bad — so is this compelling but oddly distant cinematic portrait of a man trying to shake a past he can never outrun." Grade: B.

More from keelsetter (TCM) and Eric Kohn in indieWIRE, also featuring an interview with the directors.

Excellence in Cinematography Award: Dramatic. We've got an entry going on Dee Rees's Pariah, whose DP is Bradford Young.

World Cinema Cinematography Award: Dramatic. "A farmer is making his rounds when he discovers a path going deep into his cornfield," writes Daniel Fienberg at HitFix. "And at the end of the path, he discovers a pile of dead bodies. He runs into the nearby town to alert the authorities, but with an election in process, he finds that nobody is eager to assist him. The Sundance program describes All Your Dead Ones as 'a silent indictment of Colombia's ongoing civil war,' which is an utterly ridiculous statement. All Your Dead Ones is about as clear and unambiguous an indictment as one could possibly hope to find. The farmer reaches out to most of his country's institutions — the press, the police and political officials — and finds all of them to be self-involved and uninterested in helping the common man, even as the walls are papered with signs for missing people. Where's the silence to that?" IndieWIRE and Filmmaker interview director Carlos Moreno. Update, 2/1: For Screen's Mark Adams, this is "a visually impressive film that wears its allegories on its sleeve and succeeds in delivering jolts of dark humour amidst the absurdly surreal story."

World Cinema Special Jury Prize: Documentary. "If the Loud family of Santa Barbara, featured in the landmark PBS documentary, An American Family, had lived instead in a shantytown in Jakarta, Indonesia, the resulting film would look something like a remarkable trilogy of docs made by Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmich, which concludes with Position Among the Stars." The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt: "Helmich has observed the Shamshuddin family living in a Jakarta slum for a dozen years to make his cinema verite saga. While the tumultuous changes that have rocked Indonesian society swirl around the family, of course, more than anything Retel Helmich has intimately captured a family in transition as they adjust to bewildering gaps in education, outlook, religion and even class among three generations jammed into cramped quarters."

"There's enough emotion and intrigue to make frequent 7 Up-esque successors," suggests the Playlist's Christopher Bell. IndieWIRE interviews Helmich. Update, 1/31: So does James Ponsoldt for Filmmaker.

Special Jury Prize: Documentary. "Constance Marks's documentary Being Elmo isn't exactly hard-hitting, daring or revelatory," writes the AV Club's Noel Murray. "Marks relies heavily on interviews with admirers, and footage of [puppeteer Kevin] Clash at work (including some remarkable film from his first trip to New York to meet [Muppet-builder Kermit] Love), and though Marks tries to make an obstacle out of Clash's guilt over not spending more time with his daughter, for the most part Being Elmo is an uplifting story about a talented, dedicated guy who was well-supported at home and professionally, and who tries to repay his good fortune by sharing his knowledge with other young puppeteers (as well as by sharing Elmo with children all over the world). But just because a movie is uncomplicated doesn't make it bad. There's still something deeply moving about the idea of someone joining a community that shares his artistic ideals, and working to extend the tradition." Grade: B+. More from Ethan Anderton (FirstShowing), Daniel Fienberg (HitFix, where Drew McWeeney has video of Marks and Clash discussing the film), Eric Kohn (iW) and Justin Lowe (THR). More interviews with Marks: IndieWIRE and Filmmaker.

As mentioned earlier, Mike Cahill's Another Earth won this year's Alfred P Sloan Feature Film Prize; now it's picked up the Special Jury Prize: Dramatic as well. And Sundance lists the awards going to shorts and a few other projects.



On Thursday, Slamdance announced its round of award-winners, including Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal's Stranger Things, which won the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Narrative Film. In Filmmaker, Brandon Harris finds it to be "a moody and clear-eyed drama from a pair of our 25 New Faces in Independent Film, is as tranquil and refreshing as an autumn afternoon along the rural British coast, where much of its story is set."


A Special Jury Mention goes to Without, "a regional film," according to the Stranger's Charles Mudede. "Its director, Mark Jackson, though currently living in New York City, was raised in Seattle, and the same goes for the film's star, [Joslyn] Jensen." The film "reinforces the natural cinematic beauty of our part of the world. The quality of light, the sharpness of colors, the lowness of clouds, the closeness of mountains, and the meshing of rural and urban codes."

Notes on highlights from the Sundance awards ceremony: Jada Yuan for Vulture and Eric Hynes for the festival itself.

"Among the roughly 120 features playing at this year's Sundance Film Festival, a surprisingly large number use faith — and specifically Christianity — as either a critical narrative fulcrum or a key expositional backdrop," notes John Horn in the Los Angeles Times. "And the dramas do not always take a neutral stance."

More roundups. Nick Fraser (Guardian) and Karina Longworth (NPR, 3'19").

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