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Sundance ’09: Prize-Winners, Memorable Characters & Summing Up  


The 2009 edition of the Sundance Film Festival officially came to an end tonight with the announcement of this year’s awards-winners:
Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic: Push
Audience Award, U.S. Dramatic: Push
Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: We Live In Public
Audience Award, U.S. Documentary: The Cove
World Cinema Jury Prize, Dramatic: The Maid
World Cinema Audience Award, Dramatic: An Education
World Cinema Jury Prize, Documentary: Rough Aunties
World Cinema Audience Award, Documentary: Afghan Star
U.S. Special Jury Prize, Dramatic: Mo’Nique for her performance, Push; director Lynn Shelton for “independent spirit,” Humpday
U.S. Special Jury Prize, Documentary: Good Hair
World Cinema Special Jury Prize, Dramatic: Catalina Saavedra for her performance, The Maid; directors Benoit Delepine and Gustave de Kervern for “originality,” Louise-Michel
World Cinema Special Jury Prize, Documentary: Tibet In Song
Directing, U.S. Dramatic: Cary Joji Fukunaga, Sin Nombre
Directing, U.S. Documentary: Natalia Almada, El General
Directing, World Dramatic: Oliver Hirschbiegel, Five Minutes Of Heaven
Directing, World Documentary: Havana Marking, Big River Man
Cinematography, U.S. Dramatic: Adriano Goldman, Sin Nombre
Cinematography, U.S. Documentary: Bob Richman, The September Issue
Cinematography, World Dramatic: John De Borman, An Education
Cinematography, World Documentary: John Maringouin, Big River Man
Editing, U.S. Documentary: Karen Schmeer, Sergio
Editing, World Documentary: Janus Billeskov Jansen and Thomas Papapetros, Burma VJ
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Nicholas Jasenovec and Charlyne Yi, Paper Heart
World Cinema Screenwriting Award: Guy HIbbert, Five Minutes Of Heaven
Of course, even before the Sundance jury and audiences registered their opinion, the media weighed in with theirs—though as always there’s been little consensus about what the best movies were, or whether the festival was a success overall. Generally speaking critics were pleased with this year’s Sundance line-up, which offered a little more range and variety than the usual. The '09 program had its share of earnest star-laden dramas about dysfunctional families, as well as its humorless agit-prop docs and cutesy arrested adolescent romances; but there was also room this year for science-fiction, broad comedy, and movies that didn’t think “reflecting the world as it is” meant telling artless, cynical stories about depressives and the war-damaged.
This year's Sundance did lack one or two unifying—or at least wildly successful—movies to define the program, a la sex lies & videotape or Little Miss Sunshine. Ask the art-minded critics and they’ll tell you that the highlights of the fest were the violence-as-theater meditation Bronson, or the Herzog-ian man-consumed-by-nature documentary Big River Man, or the dark-toned faith-and-sports comedy Big Fan. Ask the trades and the biz-minded and they’ll point to coming-of-age drama An Education, or the family weepie The Greatest, or the Ashton Kutcher/Anne Heche May-October romance Spread, or the eco-thriller doc The Cove. Ask the genre geeks and they’ll talk about the blaxploitation homage Black Dynamite, the post-modern kidlit riff Mystery Team, or the spare, twisty space opera Moon. And nearly everyone seems to like the inner-city character sketch Push and the political comedy In The Loop, though everyone also seems to agree that the commercial prospects for both are hard to predict.
As expected, the business news from Sundance was mostly—but not entirely—dispiriting. The days of the eight-figure deal in Park City appears to have gone the way of the dodo, and even movies that landed modest deals—like the semi-improvised relationship comedy Humpday, which sold for a few hundred thousand dollars, or the star-packed cop drama Brooklyn’s Finest, which sold for around $5 million—will be dealing with alternative distribution channels and possible post-fest tinkering in the months to come. The biggest buzzword at Sundance ’09 was “VOD:” standing for video-on-demand, where many of the fest's best-loved movies will debut. And while the thought of movies finding a home on TVs or computer screens or (avert your eyes, David Lynch) iPods might make traditionalist cinephiles anxious, it’s reassuring to know that there are people out there trying to find ways to get money in the hands of filmmakers who deserve it, and good movies to the eyes of those who’ll appreciate them. It’s also encouraging to see Hollywood’s fringe players exercising the kind of restrained spending that might assure some kind of future for the arthouse.
In the end though, Sundance ’09 won’t be remembered by the money that was (or wasn’t) thrown around, but by the new filmmakers who were introduced, and the new stories that were told. For me, now home after spending a week at the fest, I find that I'm missing some of the people I met among this year’s Sundance crop. So with no further ado, I offer:
The 20 Most Memorable Characters From Sundance ’09:
Max (as voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mary And Max) … This year’s Sundance was chock-full of characters (real and fictional) on the autistic spectrum, but few were as vivid as the star of the opening night film: an anxious, obese New Yorker who writes long letters to his Australian pen-pal about how he understands the world and the people in it. Despite writer-director Adam Elliot’s superior claymation, Mary And Max is too mannered in its quirks and pathos, but whenever Max starts narrating his life, the movie becomes absolutely riveting.
Michael “Charlie Bronson” Petersen (as portrayed by Tom Hardy in Bronson) … Petersen takes pains to explain at the outset that he’s the product of a normal family and a happy childhood. But normalcy doesn’t make a person famous; so throughout Bronson Petersen teases out each incident of bad attention until it turns from a minor flare-up into a major problem. He’s like an artist, coverting a doodle into a mural.
Andrew (as portrayed by Joshua Leonard in Humpday) … Andrew shows up at 2 a.m. on the doorstep of his married, upwardly mobile buddy Ben (played by Mark Duplass), having just returned to the States after a lengthy stint in Mexico. He’s got a big bushy beard—“My gravitas,” he jokes—and he’s quick with a belly laugh, but while the movie initially seems to be setting Andrew up as the uncomfortable contrast to what Ben has become, the situation proves far more complicated. When the two old friends dare each other to do a sex scene together for an amateur porn contest, the challenge becomes a test of who both men have become, and for Andrew in particular, proof that he’s an up-for-anything free spirit, not a directionless loser.
Paul from Staten Island (as portrayed by Patton Oswalt in Big Fan) … Paul’s the kind of guy who spends hours writing out what he’s going to say during his one minute of airtime each night on a contentious sports talk radio show. When his team wins, Paul’s bragging feels like prophesy. When they lose, he looks like a doofus. And when one of the team’s star players gets in trouble with the law—well, Paul, like all of us, has to decide how much immorality he’s willing to tolerate in order to justify his faith in “the good guys.”
Martin Strel (in Big River Man) … Did you know there’s a guy who’s swum the length of the Danube, the Mississippi and the Yangtze, all after turning 40, and all while consuming massive quantities of alcohol? I sure didn’t, and getting to know him as he attempts to complete a full tour of the Amazon was one of the freakiest experiences I had at this year’s festival. If Strel didn’t exist, Werner Herzog would’ve had to invent him.
Marjaneh Halati (in The Glass House) … The Iranian-born Halati has spent much of her adult life in London working as a psychoanalyst, but she returns to her homeland every month or so to supervise the work of a women’s shelter. In her absence, the women carry on, learning computer skills and artistic expression. But they especially come to life when Halati stops by, and bask in her presence as a self-confidant, successful, self-made individual, uncowed by governmental control or paternalism.
Mary Jones and Blu Rain (as portrayed by Mo’Nique and Paula Patton in Push) … It’s pretty hard to steal the show from a morbidly obese illiterate teenager with two children sired by her own father, but as unforgettable as Gabourey Sidibe’s Precious Jones is, she’s overshadowed by her profane, self-centered mother, who dominates Precious’ life right up until a climactic self-explanatory speech that gives her monstrous character an unnervingly human dimension. As for Ms. Rain, she’s a charismatic teacher in the mold of Marjaneh Halati, transforming lives by taking her sisters seriously.
Mr. Franklin (as portrayed by Colman Domingo in Passing Strange) … Like almost all the actors in Stew’s rock musical, Domingo plays multiple parts, but he leaves his biggest impression as the Los Angeles Baptist choir director who teaches “The Youth” about musical expression, European culture, and the concept of “passing as black” in a close-minded middle-class African-American community. When Passing Strange’s Stew-surrogate tells Mr. Franklin that he’s learned all he can from him, it’s the first of many cases where the hero takes what he needs from people and then leaves them behind. This musical serves as Stew’s thank you to all his Mr. Franklins, as well as a heartfelt, heart-rending apology.
GERTY (as voiced by Kevin Spacey in Moon) … Sam Rockwell does yeoman work in Moon as an energy company employee finishing a three-year solo stretch at a lunar outpost, but the particular spirit of the movie—offbeat, heartfelt, homemade—is best embodied by GERTY, a computer/robot who meets all of the hero’s needs, and interacts with him via a rotating set of smiley and frowny faces. This shtick is obviously derivative of 2001’s HAL, but the roughly rendered emoticons and Spacey’s familiar tones add a fun twist to the film: half put-on, half sincere.
Li’l Wayne (in The Carter) … It didn’t take long for critics to make the connection between Li’l Wayne in The Carter and Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back, given that both are inscrutable, incorrigible, intoxicated and defiantly brilliant. The difference is that Dylan seems a little more calculating in his cocky domination of popular culture, whereas Li’l Wayne comes off as going with the flow, letting a cloud of marijuana smoke, a double-cup of sizzurp and his own restless imagination carry him from stage to stage and studio and studio.
Muna Farah (as portrayed by Nisreen Faour in Amreeka) … She’s pudgy, insecure, divorced, devoted to her son and intemperately in love with America. No wonder Muna seems to fit right into the American Midwest once she emigrates from the Gaza Strip to small-town Illinois. And no wonder her struggle with old-world pride and new-world freedom is so engaging, even when the story she’s stuck in hits too many familiar notes.
Joel (as portrayed by Martin Starr in Adventureland) … We’re meant to identify with Jesse Eisenberg’s James: a recent college graduate who has his trip to Europe and his admission to Columbia University grad school cancelled when his upper-middle-class dad gets a cut in pay. Instead, I gravitated more to James’ amusement park co-worker Joel, a dirt-poor Pittsburgher paying out of his own pocket for a degree in Russian literature he knows he’ll never use. Joel’s at peace with his loserdom, and I’m completely on his side when he starts to get fed up with the whiny, persnickety James.
Grace Coddington (in The September Issue) … Though R.J. Cutler’s documentary about assembling an issue of Vogue is ostensibly about the magazine’s icy, tyrannical editor Anna Wintour, the real hero of the film turns out to be Coddington, an old colleague who weathers Wintour’s whims and stands up for what she values most: glamour, beauty, softness, and a certain timeless class.
Michel (as portrayed by Bouli Lanners in Louise-Michel) … Yolande Moreau’s mannish Louise hires Michel (a tubby, mustachioed woman) to assassinate a capitalist, but while Michel loves guns and projects herself as a stone-cold killer, she’s actually bumbling and meek, and instead sub-contracts the work out to a succession of terminally ill patients, who keep murdering the wrong people.
“Paul Giamatti” (as portrayed by Paul Giamatti in Cold Souls) … I have no idea whether the actual Paul Giamatti is as weighed down by the burden of playing tormented characters as is the depressive “Paul Giamatti” in Cold Souls, but if so, he’s got a surprisingly good attitude about his dilemma. Cold Souls ventures too far away from the funny too often, but when a newly soul-free Giamatti turns a rehearsal for Uncle Vanya into one extended William Shatner impression, it’s clear that first-time feature writer-director Sophie Barthes picked the right actor to play “himself.”
Richard O’Barry (in The Cove) … Once, O’Barry trained Flipper. Now he travels the world trying to free dolphins from captivity, and trying to draw attention to the inhumanity of dolphin-slaughters in traditional Japanese fishing communities. O’Barry is a clear-eyed zealot, at once pragmatic and fearless, but with a childlike faith in the power of images to change minds.
Beto (as portrayed by Diego Luna in Rudo Y Cursi) … When his lackadaisical brother Tato (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) gets plucked from obscurity to become a star Mexican soccer player, the obstinate Beto wills himself up to the professional ranks as well. Nicknamed “Rudo” because he’s such an unconscionable jerk, Beto becomes a top goalie in the league, though money and fame matters less to him than proving to his family that he’s still the man in charge.
Hal Riney (in Art & Copy) … Though spotty as a documentary—a disappointment, given that it’s by the usually reliable Doug Pray—Art & Copy is nonetheless fascinating for the way it introduces viewers to the personalities and philosophies behind some of the most famous advertising campaigns of all time. Riney—who died last year—is the most complex figure in the film, if only for the way he turned his yearning for a simpler life into incandescent commercials for regional banks, Perrier, Saturn cars and Ronald Reagan.
Glenn (as portrayed by Glenn Kenny in The Girlfriend Experience) … I’m betting that The Girlfriend Experience’s sneak preview screening at Sundance is likely the one and only time that the surprise appearance of film critic Glenn Kenny on the screen—playing a sleazy internet escort service critic named Glenn—will get an immediate laugh, before the character even opens his mouth. It may also be the only time that so many people who know Kenny (yet didn’t know he was in GFE) will be gathered in one place. (Full disclosure: I’ve met and chatted with Kenny a couple of times in Toronto, though I have no idea if he remembers those occasions or knows who I am.) But Sundance won’t be the last time an audience finds Kenny’s performance in Steven Soderbergh’s latest low-budget experiment hilarious. In just over a minute of screen time, “Glenn”’s undisguised come-ons and obnoxious patter change the whole tone of the movie, reshaping it from a study of fading New York opulence to an unglamorous glimpse into the stomach-turning compromises of a service economy.
And as a final wrap, here’s a round-up of my impressions of the Sudance films I saw, organized by grade (adjusted from the original report in some cases), with rankings within the grade-groupings:
Passing Strange
Big Fan
The Carter
Big River Man
The Cove
Don’t Let Me Drown
The Girlfriend Experience (work-in-progress)
Good Hair
Art & Copy
The September Issue
Cold Souls
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
O’er The Land
Rudo Y Cursi
The Informers
The Only Good Indian
Against The Current
Where Is Where?
The Killing Room
Paper Heart