‘River’ wins grand prize at Sundance

Drama about smuggling illegals takes top honor

“Frozen River,” Courtney Hunt’s somber and suspenseful film about two desperate women who smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States, won the grand jury prize for dramatic feature at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, while “The Wackness,” Jonathan Levine’s wacky coming-of-age serio-comedy about a teenage dope dealer, snagged the audience award.

On the documentary side, “Trouble the Water,” directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal and which offers a closeup, subjective account of survival during and after Hurricane Katrina, took the grand jury prize. Docu audience award went to Josh Tickell’s “Fields of Fuel,” the story of one man’s impassioned effort to wean the country from oil and improve the environment.

In the World Cinema Competition, grand jury prize for dramatic feature was given to Swedish helmer Jens Jonsson’s “King of Ping Pong,” which centers on the precarious social equilibrium of a chubby 16-year-old table tennis whiz. Audience award for international dramatic film was won by Jordanian-born helmer Amin Matalqa’s “Captain Abu Raed,” a heart-tugger about an Amman airport janitor mistaken by local kids for an airline pilot.

James Marsh’s “Man on Wire,” a British entry about Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who won instant notoriety in 1974 when he spent an hour walking back and forth on a wire between the newly constructed World Trade Center towers in New York, emerged as top doc for both the jury and the audience in the international competition.

Directing prizes for American films were bestowed upon Lance Hammer, in the dramatic division, for “Ballast,” an intense study of a 12-year-old boy in the impoverished Mississippi Delta region and, for documentaries, Nanette Burstein for “American Teen,” a slickly made account of several Indiana high schoolers’ senior year.

Directing nods in world cinema went to Anna Melikyan for her elaborately conceived modern Russian fairy tale “Mermaid” and, in the docu division, to Nino Kirtadze for the French-produced “Durakovo: Village of Fools,” a sobering look at a xenophobic leader-teacher who indoctrinates young recruits in the cause of right-wing nationalism.

Winners of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award were Alex Rivera and David Riker for their sociological quasi-sci-fier “Sleep Dealer.” This film also copped the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, an annual $20,000 award to the film with science or technology as a theme, or a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a major character. Award for scripting of an international feature was nabbed by Samuel Benchetrit from France for his comic crimer “I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster.”

Docu editing awards were handed out, on the American side, to Joe Bini for “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” and, for world cinema, to Irena Dol for “The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins.”

Awards for excellence in cinematography were given in four categories: for U.S. dramatic feature, Lol Crawley for “Ballast”; U.S. documentary, Phillip Hunt and Steven Sebring for “Patti Smith: Dream of Life”; world dramatic, Askild Vik Edvardsen for “King of Ping Pong”; and world documentary, Jordanian helmer-lenser Al Massad for “Recycle.”

There were several special jury prizes: In the U.S. dramatic competition, a Spirit of Independence award was given to director Chusy Haney-Jardine for “Anywhere, USA,” and a nod for work by an ensemble cast went to Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald and Brad Henke for “Choke”; in the American documentary field, director Lisa F. Jackson was singled out for “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo”; while in world dramatic cinema, a special jury prize was specified for Ernesto Contreras, the director of Mexican drama “Blue Eyelids.”

Jury prize for short films was shared by two films, Daniel Robin’s “My Olympic Summer” and Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s “Sikumi (On the Ice).” International short film prize was awarded to Simon Ellis’s “Soft.”

Honorable mentions in short filmmaking went to Rob Meyer’s “Aquarium,” Xuan Jiang’s “August 15th,” Amanda Micheli’s and Isabel Vega’s “La Corona (The Crown),” Ryosuke Ogawa’s “Oiran Lyrics,” Noah Edgerton’s “Spider,” Nicolas Provost’s “Suspension” and “W.,” directed by The Vikings.

In its 12th year, the Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Awards to support emerging filmmakers, one apiece from the United States, Japan, Europe and Latin America, were bestowed upon Alejandro Fernandez Almendras, from Chile, with “Huacho;” Braden King, from the U.S., with “Here;” Aiko Nagatsu, from Japan, with “Apoptosis,” and Radu Jude, from Romania, with “The Happiest Girl in the World.”

Among the winning U.S. titles, “Frozen River” was picked up midfest by Sony Classics. It features a strong performance by Melissa Leo as a white trailer-home mother forced by circumstances to team up with a young Mohawk Indian woman to sneak illegal immigrants across the New York-Canadian border. “Choke,” based on a novel by “Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk, was acquired during the fest by Fox Searchlight.

On the docu side, “American Teen” was bought at the outset by Paramount Vantage, while “Roman Polanski” was acquired by Weinstein for international and HBO domestically.