Sundance sur-prizes

Surprise was the order of the evening as winners were announced at the 16th annual Sundance Film Festival on Saturday.

The Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature was given to Tom Noonan’s two-character first feature “What Happened Was,” while top documentary honors went to Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford’s “Freedom on My Mind,” about the voter registration drive in Mississippi in the early 1960s.

David O. Russell’s incest-themed “Spanking the Monkey” won the Audience Award for drama, as voted by the public. Audience nod for documentary was bestowed upon Steve James’ three-hour “Hoop Dreams,” which follows two basketball career hopefuls through their high school years.

The Filmmakers Trophy, voted by participants with pictures at the fest, was divided for drama between Kevin Smith’s low-rent Generation X comedy “Clerks” and Boaz Yakin’s “Fresh,” a study of one boy’s way out of the New York ghetto’s drug environment. Steven M. Martin’s “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,” about the mysterious Russian musical inventor, copped the Filmmakers’ docu prize.

Although the voting by the five-member dramatic jury, comprised of writer-directors Allison Anders, Maggie Greenwald and Neal Jimenez, and thesps Tantoo Cardinal and Matthew Modine, reportedly was unanimous, the decision on behalf of “What Happened Was” nonetheless came as quite a surprise to the crowd shoehorned into the Z Place club.Actor Noonan’s theatrical adaptation, which also won him the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, was generally respected and well-liked, but was not one of the handful of films that had generated a strong buzz during the fest’s 10 days, nor had it snared a distributor, as some other entries had.

The Audience Award for “Spanking the Monkey” came as even more of a shock, given the walk-outs at some screenings and divided reactions among critics. Nevertheless, offbeat pic was picked up by Fine Line Features just before awards time.

“Clerks,” which was acquired by Miramax during the fest, and “Fresh,” another Miramax title, certainly were among the most talked-about films at Sundance this season. By contrast, there was surprise that two Goldwyn pickups were relatively ignored: Rose Troche’s lesbian romantic comedy “Go Fish” had been widely touted heading into the awards but came away empty-handed, and Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s stylish mystery “Suture” was cited only for Greg Gardiner’s black-and-white widescreen cinematography.

‘Cowboy’ corrals honor

On the documentary side, where the jury was populated by filmmakers Bill Couturie, Barbara Hammer, Chris Hegedus and Marco Williams, and writer-editor-teacher Betsy McLane (no critics were on either jury this year, a first), black-and-white lensing was also honored, in this case Morten Sandtroen’s striking work on “Colorado Cowboy: The Bruce Ford Story.”

The Freedom of Expression Award, for a docu on an issue of social concern, was split between Allie Light’s “Dialogues With Madwomen” and Gini Reticker and Amber Hollibaugh’s “Heart of the Matter.”

A special Jury Award for technical excellence was voted to Arthur Dong’s docu “Coming Out Under Fire.” In addition, the dramatic jury chose to single out three performances for special recognition, all by very young thesps: Sean Nelson in “Fresh,” and Alicia Witt and Renee Humphrey in “Fun.”

Also cited were two shorts: Leslie McCleave’s “Avenue X” and Tamara Jenkins’ “Family Remains.”

Label-defying event

Reactions of festgoers differed widely as to what sort of year this was at Sundance. Numerous participants, notably those in their 20s, were gratified that so many young filmmakers were breaking through with interesting expressions of their generation’s views and lifestyles, while others felt that there were, at best, three or four truly noteworthy new films in the dramatic competition.

Indisputably, the running theme this year was dysfunctional families and their fallout. At least eight, or half, of the dramatic entries –“Blessing, “”Clean, Shaven,””Fresh,””Fun,””Risk,””River of Grass,””The Secret Life of Houses” and “Spanking the Monkey”– had deteriorated family relations as at least a factor, if not driving force, in their narratives.

Other, and sometimes overlapping, issues that popped up repeatedly in this year’s crop were abuse, crime and alienation. Overt violence, notably in such pix as “Clean, Shaven” and “Killing Zoe,” was a turnoff for many viewers, and the first taste of films from the so-called “multiplex generation” of British directors, courtesy of “Shopping” and “The Young Americans,” proved less than appetizing.

There was the usual crush of cellular phone-carrying agents and execs on the final weekend — a new sight this year was deal-makers calling from their theater seats — and an unseemly situation developed Friday night when the Z Place party featuring the band Los Lobos became so overcrowded so early that the doors were locked, preventing hundreds of fest regulars from entering and setting off some fisticuffs and arrests.

On the programming side, there was grumbling at the increase in foreign film entries. No one takes issue with the highly useful Latin American and Asian sidebars, but several indie filmmakers wondered why some offshore productions that already have U.S. distribs, such as “Sirens” and “The Scent of Green Papaya ,” were included at the presumed expense of more U.S. titles.

It was also widely felt that shorts should live up to their name. A five- to seven-minute short subject before a feature is fine, but some of the pre-feature attractions ran anywhere from 15-23 minutes, which rarely does the main event any favors, particularly in latenight slots. Longer shorts should arguably be reserved for the various short-film programs.

During the fest’s final weekend, the premieres of Ben Stiller’s “Reality Bites” and Andrew Fleming’s “Threesome” were quite well-received.

The retrospective tribute to Arthur Penn provided a welcome opportunity to see some of his films again on the big screen and to reconsider the career of a fascinating, intellectually stimulating filmmaker who has been far too inactive of late.

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