Sundance 2012. Awards

An overview of what the critics are saying about the winners.
David Hudson
The Daily

Parker Posey was all set to host last night's awards ceremony, but fell ill —  and so, as live-bloggers Eric Hynes and Claiborne Smith report, Sundance festival director John Cooper reluctantly took the helm, choking up a bit right at the top as he drove himself through a remembrance of Bingham Ray. Rebounding, he brought on director and actress Katie Aselton as co-host and it was on to the awards. You can actually watch all this here (select "2012 Sundance Film Festival"). An overview of what the critics are saying about the winners:

The House I Live In

Grand Jury Prize: Documentary. The House I Live In, "a lucid, long-view unpacking of the War on Drugs from Eugene Jarecki, who ably dissected the lead-up to the Iraq War in Why We Fight." The Boston Globe's Ty Burr: "The movie marshals a wide selection of talking heads, from Oklahoma prison guards and Reagan-era appointees to street dealers and Jarecki's own nanny, who lost her son to drugs and now regrets working for her white employers at the expense of her own family."

The AV Club's Noel Murray finds that it "connects anecdotes to hard data, making a compelling case that the drug war has never been about drugs, but about controlling the underclass. And for those with a less conspiratorial bent, Jarecki shows how the drug war has become a self-sustaining business, where the government seizes money from dealers and uses it to buy more prison beds, necessitating more arrests. Much of the information in the movie will be familiar to anyone with any passing knowledge of the subject, but Jarecki's comprehensiveness and passion sell this story, scoop or no."

More from John DeFore (Hollywood Reporter), Anthony Kaufman (Screen) and Michał Oleszczyk (House Next Door). Interviews with Jarecki: Filmmaker, Keith Harten (Sundance) and indieWIRE.

Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic. Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, which also wins the Excellence in Cinematography Award: US Dramatic for Ben Richardson's work. See the roundup.

World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary. The Law in These Parts, "a cleverly staged and structured film which attempts to explain and understand how Israel seizing Palestinian-occupied territory became accepted practice," as Noel Murray explains at the AV Club. "Mixing archival footage and new interviews with lawyers and judges who've been involved with Israeli law since the 60s, director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz documents the slippery slope of 'security measures,' as laws originally drafted to protect the Israeli population from Palestinian violence gradually turn boldly oppressive, denying people of their human rights as recognized under international law."

Eyal Press for the New York Review of Books: "The Law in These Parts appeared in Israel during a period in which many of the organs of an independent civil society — including the civil court system — have been under attack. The repressive climate may explain why the film has generated enormous interest in Israel, screening in more than 100 locations and receiving the prize for best documentary at the 2011 Jerusalem Film Festival. Of course, the warm reception also underscores a paradox: while many Israelis seem open and even sympathetic to critical examinations of the occupation, no political constituency has emerged to challenge the creeping colonization of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which has continued to advance under the Netanyahu government."

More from Christopher Campbell ( IndieWIRE interviews Alexandrowicz. Viewing (9'46"). In The Justice of the Occupation, an Op-Doc for the New York Times, Alexandrowicz "asks about the role of the Supreme Court in the legal underpinnings of the longest military occupation in modern times."

World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic. Andrés Wood's Violeta Went to Heaven. Sundance: "A portrait of famed Chilean singer and folklorist Violeta Parra filled with her musical work, her memories, her loves and her hopes."

[Update, 1/30: THR's Justin Lowe finds that the film "awkwardly blends melodrama with elements of magical realism. Although Violeta Went to Heaven hints at the artistic vitality of the Chilean folk hero’s life, the execution is too oblique to have much of an impact."]

The Invisible War

Audience Award: US Documentary. The Invisible War. The LA Weekly's Karina Longworth: "Director Kirby Dick's expose of the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in the armed forces doesn't break any formal ground — it was made for PBS' Independent Lens series, and it looks like it. But within a staid, conventional structure, Dick mounts a convincing polemic against the military's boys club bureaucracy, backed by devastating testimony from what seems like dozens of women — and men — whose careers and lives were irreparably damaged by rape, and the military's systematic indifference to their trauma."

More from David D'Arcy (Screen), Daniel Fienberg (HitFix), Ray Greene (Box Office, 3.5/5), Tom Hall (Filmmaker) and David Rooney (THR). And Kirby Dick talks to Filmmaker and Sundance.

Audience Award: US Dramatic. Ben Lewin's The Surrogate, which also wins a US Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting. See the roundup.

World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary. Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man, which also wins a World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize for its Celebration of the Artistic Spirit. See the roundup.

World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic. Musa Syeed's Valley of Saints. See yesterday's post on the Alfred P Sloan awards. More on this "lyrical, tender film" from Justin Lowe (THR).

Sleepwalk With Me

Best of NEXT <=> Audience Award. "Grown-ups behaving childishly or at least struggling with, or shrugging off, the trappings of adulthood is as much a familiar theme at Sundance as in the multiplex," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "The comic Mike Birbiglia assumed the role of both director and star to make Sleepwalk With Me, a fictionalized version of an autobiographical story that will be familiar to This American Life listeners and New York theatergoers. On the radio, Mr Birbiglia's story about his increasingly dangerous sleepwalking episodes — he didn't just walk, he also dangerously meandered — enthralled. Here, though, the movie weighs too much in the direction of another guy who can't commit, a tedious, trite turn for such an agreeably shambling, empathetic screen presence as Mr Birbiglia, who's best when he's confessing straight into the camera."

More from Duane Byrge (THR), Nathan Rabin (AV Club, B) and Jordan M Smith (Ioncinema, 4/5). Filmmaker's Scott Macaulay has a fun conversation with first-time producer Ira Glass, indieWIRE interviews Birbiglia and Claiborne Smith talks with both for Sundance.

US Directing Award: Documentary. Lauren Greenfield for The Queen of Versailles. See the roundup.

Middle of Nowhere

US Directing Award: Dramatic. Ava DuVernay for Middle of Nowhere. At Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell notes that DuVernay's returned "less than a year after her awesome yet terribly unappreciated 2011 debut, I Will Follow, and also a film as equally nuanced about loss and love. As writer and director of both features, DuVernay, a seasoned publicist, has solidified herself as one of the best new directorial voices not only in what's being cited as a current wave in independent black centered cinema, but in independent American cinema overall. She's got a knack for not only writing excellent female characters, but casting actresses in them that are criminally underused."

THR's John DeFore sets it up: "Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, who trades dreams for obligations in the film's first scene: Meeting with husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) during his first weeks in prison, she reveals she's dropping out of med school so she can make the four-hour round trip every visiting day and be home when he's allowed to call during the week. Working nights as a nurse and helping her sister raise a young boy, Ruby puts all her excess energy into keeping Derek's spirits up and planning for early parole." Interviews with DuVernay: indieWIRE, Dan Schoenbrun (Filmmaker) and Sundance.

5 Broken Cameras

World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary. "An effective pairing of political history with personal life, 5 Broken Cameras offers a first-hand look at five years of West Bank protests," writes John DeFore in THR. "Emad Burnat had 'never thought of making films' with his consumer video camera; he just wanted to capture memories of his growing family. But when his son Gibreel is born on the same day that Israelis start ripping up olive trees near his home in the Palestinian village Bil'in, Burnat feels compelled to film both events…. The focus on Gibreel anchors the film, but Burnat and his filmmaking partner Guy Davidi (an Israeli) use another conceit to give the film chronological structure." Hence, the title. Filmmaker and indieWIRE interview the directors.

Teddy Bear

World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic. "Teddy Bear is a view of the love life of a gentle giant who can lift weights but can't carry a conversation," writes David D'Arcy for Screen. "Can he bring back real love from Thailand, where Danish men journey for low-priced exotic sex and shop for wives? Mads Matthiesen's minimalist unadorned romance meditates on brooding solitude with a glacial pace and a lifeless palette."

THR's David Rooney: "In other hands, the material might have drowned in cute quirks, but Matthiesen's unadorned observational style has a distinctly Scandinavian stoicism that trusts both the comedy and sentiment to emerge organically." More from Andy Motz (Alternative Chronicle). Interviews with Matthiesen: Filmmaker and indieWIRE.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Derek Connolly for Safety Not Guaranteed, directed by Colin Trevorrow. Aubrey Plaza plays "a Seattle magazine intern getting to the bottom of a classified ad asking for time travel volunteers," blogs the Boston Globe's Ty Burr. "All-purpose indie guy Mark Duplass plays the possible lunatic who placed the ad and Jake Johnson (The New Girl) is Plaza's sleazy boss; the movie is small and shaggy and thoroughly enjoyable if your expectations are correctly tweaked. And Plaza is easily the most charming thing in it. As her character's slacker cynicism melts away under the spell of Duplass's craziness, the actress loosens up — smiles, even! — and her persona and potential blossom as you watch. I was reminded of Winona Ryder in her earliest roles, a young actress wary of giving anything away and astonished to find herself doing so."

More from Alex Billington (FirstShowing, 8/10), John DeFore (THR), Todd Gilchrist (Playlist, B-), Anthony Kaufman (Screen) and Eric Kohn (indieWIRE). Interviews with Trevorrow: Dan Schoenbrun (Filmmaker) and Sundance. Interviews with Plaza: Kyle Buchanan (Vulture) and John Lichman (Playlist).

Young & Wild

World Cinema Screenwriting Award. Marialy Rivas, Camila Gutiérrez, Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Sepúlveda for Young & Wild, directed by Rivas. This is "another welcome addition to the roster for impressive new films charting the forthright sexuality of teens, though given the story is set in Chile the spectre of religion looms large over 17-year-old Daniela and her sexual drive," writes Screen's Mark Adams. And Rivas talks to Filmmaker.

US Documentary Editing Award. Enat Sidi for Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Detropia. See the roundup.

World Cinema Documentary Editing Award. Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky for their doc, Indie Game: The Movie. "Is making a movie that special anymore?" asks Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay. "Maybe the ones who really care about the meaning of 'independent' are in other fields, like video games." The game-makers profiled here "are creating games during a historical moment that feels both somewhat new and not unlike the rush that the filmmakers behind films like, say, The Blair Witch Project, must have felt when their homemade creations suddenly burst forth on 2000 screens…. Getting deep into the emotional life of the artist, the film will resonate with anyone pursuing, or interesting in pursuing, a creative endeavor."

More from Mark Zhuravsky (Playlist, A-). Interviews: Filmmaker and Bryce J Renninger at indieWIRE, where Jason Guerrasio reports that Scott Rudin and HBO have picked up the rights to remake the doc as a fictional half-hour comedy series.

Chasing Ice

Excellence in Cinematography Award: US Documentary. Jeff Orlowski for his Chasing Ice, "a doc so stuffed with eye-soothing images one prays it can seduce a climate-change skeptic or two," writes THR's John DeFore. "Nature photographer James Balog spent years photographing endangered animals for clients like National Geographic before discovering what looks to be his life's work. After shooting an important article on glaciers, he soon came to think of that as 'a scouting mission' for a much larger project: Gathering a team of glacier researchers and other kinds of experts, he launched the Extreme Ice Survey, setting up dozens of cameras in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana that would automatically photograph ice formations throughout the year, providing visceral evidence of glaciers' astonishing shrinkage rate."

Interviews with Orlowski: Filmmaker and Sundance. And Jason Combs has a clip at indieWIRE.

Putin's Kiss

World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary. Lars Skree for Lise Birk Pedersen's Putin's Kiss. Pedersen tells indieWIRE that her film "follows Masha Drokova, a rising star in Russia's popular nationalistic youth movement, Nashi. She's a smart, ambitious teenager who embraces Vladimir Putin and his promise of a greater Russia, and her dedication as an organizer is rewarded with a university scholarship, an apartment, and a job as a spokesperson. But her bright political future falters when she befriends a group of liberal journalists who are critical of the government; she's forced to confront the group's dirty — even violent — tactics."

My Brother the Devil

World Cinema Cinematography Award: Dramatic. David Raedeker for My Brother the Devil, directed by Sally El Hosaini, who "takes to the streets — the London streets — in her portrait of two Egyptian brothers from an immigrant family who fall into the neighborhood gang culture," writes David D'Arcy for Screen. "Egyptian kids in a London youth gang thriller offer a novel twist on an urban growing pains formula that's been almost everywhere." Interviews: Filmmaker and indieWIRE.

Love Free or Die

US Documentary Special Jury Prize for an Agent of Change. "Despite the insurgent rallying cry implied by its title, Love Free or Die is a probing, even-handed account of the experience of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay, non-celibate bishop ordained in a major Christian denomination," writes THR's David Rooney. "Examining the ripple effect of his actions both in the US Episcopal Church and the 78 million-strong worldwide Anglican network to which it belongs, Macky Alston's engrossing documentary sheds light on a significant chapter in the broader struggle for LGBT rights." More from Daniel Fienberg (HitFix). Interviews: Filmmaker, indieWIRE and Sundance.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

US Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance. "Ai Weiwei is everywhere and nowhere this season," writes Evan Osnos in a dispatch from the artist's home to the New Yorker. "At Sundance last week, the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry premiered to a standing ovation. 'A year ago he would have been here,' the filmmaker Alison Klayman told the crowd. Ai had hoped to join then by a video link, but it was scrapped out of concern for the consequences."

THR's John DeFore: "Klayman gives us enough family history to make sense of Ai's reform-mindedness, and spends enough casual time with him to give us a feel for his personality. But she seems much more interested in his political actions — which, to be fair, are what has kept him in the news — than in chronicling the development of the art that brought him to prominence." Interviews with Klayman: Filmmaker, indieWIRE and Sundance.

US Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing. Andrea Sperling and Jonathan Schwartz for Smashed and Nobody Walks.


"In the powerful, uncompromising relationship drama Smashed, a hard-partying schoolteacher (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her slacker music journalist husband (Aaron Paul) share a bond sealed through poisonous co-dependence and alcoholism," writes the AV Club's Nathan Rabin. "Paul and Winstead's relationship is initially defined by mutual enabling and codependence that first passes for tenderness but morphs into something much darker and more unsettling once Winstead unsteadily embraces sobriety while Paul continues to lose himself in a boozy haze." James Ponsoldt's film is one of "pummeling intensity and bruised emotions, a refreshingly complex look at how one partner's emotional development can play havoc with the other partner's security and sense of self."

More from Simon Abrams (House Next Door), Tim Grierson (Screen), Todd McCarthy (THR), Andy Motz (Alternative Chronicle), James Rocchi (Playlist, A), Lisa Schwarzbaum (EW) and Chase Whale (Twitch). IndieWIRE and Sundance interview Ponsoldt, Mina Hochberg meets up with Paul for Vulture, Simon Abrams (Playlist) and Daniel Fienberg (HitFix, 4'46") talk with Winstead and Steven Zeitchik talks with the bunch of them for the Los Angeles Times.

Nobody Walks

"Nobody Walks is a dreamy, scattershot drama about unbelievable people and outcomes of no consequence at all," writes Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, "except for the round-robin sexual and emotional upheaval that rocks every member of an artsy, privileged LA family, precipitated by the arrival of a New York stranger. A resolutely secular variation of Pier Paolo Pasolini's more spiritual 1968 Italian film Teorema, Ry Russo-Young's follow-up to her fine 2009 Sundance entry You Won't Miss Me suggests that a 23-year-old gamine artist (an odd casting fit for Juno's delightful Olivia Thirlby) can wreak domestic havoc while rocking a pixie haircut. Thirlby's Martine arrives at the home of Peter (John Krasinski), a movie sound designer, and his psychotherapist wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), for help in completing her arty video installation about bugs. Soon everyone on the premises of Peter and Julie's design-perfect Silver Lake house is tripped up by out-of-bound lusts."

"Though only 85 minutes long, Nobody Walks rambles, jumping from vignette to vignette with nothing in the way of narrative drive or sparkling dialogue to justify its existence," finds the AV Club's Noel Murray. For Ray Pride, "moment to moment, smile to smile — there are an uncommon number of gentle smiles, and many of them are Thirlby's — from emphatic sound design to precise framings, Nobody Walks is decidedly a movie about variations (and variables) of feeling and sensation. It leaves a bittersweet bruise." And for Cory Everett, writing for the Playlist, "Nobody Walks is an emotionally complex, acutely observed and sensual film and in this writer's opinion, one of the best at the festival." More from Anthony Kaufman (Screen). Interviews with Young: Filmmaker and indieWIRE, where Peter Knegt reports that Magnolia Pictures has picked up distribution rights, and Sundance.


World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Artistic Vision. Raşit Çelikezer's Can, the first Turkish film to screen in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. THR's John DeFore: "When young, kid-hungry couple Cemal and Ayşe (Serdar Orçin and Selen Uçer) learn he can't father children, Cemal feels it's a reflection on his manhood. He convinces Ayşe to adopt, padding her dresses for nine months so the boy will appear to be their natural child." Complications ensue and the chronology is toyed with. Interviews: Filmmaker and indieWIRE.

Sundance adds that the inaugural Short Film Audience Award, "based on online voting for nine short films that premiered at the Festival and are currently featured on Yahoo! Screen, was presented to: The Debutante Hunters (Director: Maria White). In the low country of South Carolina a group of true Southern belles reveal their more rugged side, providing a glimpse into what drives them to hunt in the wild."

A list of awards presented at separate ceremonies follows; and the Slamdance roundup has been updated with notes on their awards as well.

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