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2008 Sundance Film Festival Awards

FROZEN RIVERFROZEN RIVER 

Sunday, January 27-----------FROZEN RIVERa film about a struggling single mother in upstate New York who teams with a Mohawk woman to smuggle people across the Canadian border, has won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The film, a debut feature from writer/director Courtney Hunt, is adapted it from her own 2004 short of the same name. The film was one of a handful to actually be picked up by a major distributor during the Festival......having found a home with arthouse distributor Sony Pictures Classics in a deal reported at less than $1 Million (a steal). In an interesting twist, FROZEN RIVER becomes the third film in a row to win the top Sundance prize to deal with the subject of immigration (the other two films in the troika: PADRE NUESTRO last year and QUINCENERA the year before).

FROZEN RIVER (www.frozenriver.com) takes place in the days before Christmas near a little-known border crossing on the Mohawk reservation between New York State and Quebec. Here, the lure of fast money from illegal smuggling presents a daily challenge to single moms who would otherwise be earning minimum wage. Two women- one white, one Mohawk, both single mothers faced with desperate circumstances- are drawn into the world of border smuggling across the frozen water of the St. Lawrence River. Melissa Leo (21 GRAMS, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA) and Misty Upham (EDGE OF AMERICA, DREAMKEEPER) star as the two women, with Oscar nominee Michael O'Keefe (THE GREAT SANTINI) playing the New York State Trooper who ultimately brings the two to justice.

With its Sundance win, the film will certainly be making the rounds of the international film festival circuit and will open in theaters by the end of the year. Sony Pictures Classics is a pro in extending the life of films that can be described as "small" and "specialized". However, it remains to be seen if the film will be a breakthrough. It is well known in the industry that a Sundance win is no guarantee of mainstream boxoffice success. The past two year's winners, which have comparable immigration themes, hardly made a ripple. PADRE NUESTRO, which was released by IFC Films in May, made less than $100,000 in the US. QUINCENERA, which was released by Sony Pictures Classics, fared better, but did not crack the $2 Million mark. However, considering the low budgets of all three films, breaking even with a modest profit is certainly possible. Pickups of Sundance winners is more of a "prestige buy" for a distributor anyway.

As in past years, the documentaries at Sundance captured much of the critical and industry attention. Although several high profile Sundance docs from last year were also rather anemic at the box office, (including the superb, important and Oscar nominated NO END IN SIGHT), documentaries still are among the best "bangs for the buck", because of their modest budgets and their built-in thematic interests that can benefit from viral marketing rather than traditional media ad buys. The Documentary Grand Jury Prize is very much in this historic investigation tradition. TROUBLE THE WATER (www.troublethewaterfilm.com) , about the survival of a New Orleans couple through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The film, produced and directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (who served as supervising producers on Michael Moore's BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and FAHRENHEIT 9/11), utilizes footage shot by one of its subjects, Kimberly Rivers Roberts. Roberts traveled to the festival with her husband Scott and gave birth to a daughter, Skyy, in Salt Lake City on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. TROUBLE THE WATER makes unapologetically clear that Hurricane Katrina rages on as an unnatural disaster of governmental and journalistic neglect.

THE WACKNESS, a satire starring Ben Kingsley as a psychiatrist who trades therapy for marijuana, won the Audience Award for favorite U.S. drama as chosen by balloting among Sundance movie-goers. The film is set in 1990s New York City during the mayoral reign of current Presidential candidate Rudolph Guiliani. Hilarity ensues when a troubled teenage drug dealer meets up with a drug-addled psychiatrist, then falls for the doctor's daughter.. The coming-of-age dramedy had been expected to be picked up for distribution, but so far has not. Perhaps this high profile win will bring more buyers to the table. The crowd-pleaser will certainly be making the Festival rounds in the coming months.

KING OF PONGKING OF PONGThe international component of the Festival has certainly been primed for a higher profile in the past few years, with competition sections for World Cinema Drama and Documentaries added to the Festival's roster less than 3 years ago. What this has done has made canny filmmakers and sales agents wait for Sundance to premiere their films, when in the past they would have waited for festivals like Venice, Berlin, Toronto or Cannes to have their first public and industry showings. The World and International Premiere status of most of the international films in competition is just another illustration of how Sundance has become vital for both American and international exposure. KING OF PING PONG, a quirky coming-of-age story from Swedish filmmaker Jens Jonsson, earned both the Jury and Cinematography prizes in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. The film, about about two at-odds brothers who uncover their family history over spring break, was produced by BOB Film Sweden, has been a boxoffice sleeper in its native country and screened at Sundance as an International Premiere. MAN ON WIRE, by British director James Marsh, won CAPTAIN ABU RAEDCAPTAIN ABU RAEDthe World Cinema Jury and Audience Awards in the documentary category. The film is an entertaining look at the French aerial artist Phillipe Petit's daring (and illegal) 1974 wire-walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. His prosecution in the US court reflected the absurdities and blindness of the US judicial system, while also prophetically anticipating the iconic status of the Twin Towers as a symbol of US power and vulnerability. The film was produced by the UK Film Council and had its world premiere at the Festival. CAPTAIN ABU RAED, the first feature film produced in over 50 years in Jordan, won the World Cinema Audience Award. In this heartbreaking story, an old airport janitor who has always yearned of seeing the world but has never been able to afford to travel. One day a group of children in his poor neighborhood assume he is a pilot and beg him to share stories of the world outside of Amman, Jordan. Through imaginary tales a friendship forms and he finds the grim realities of the children's home life. He takes it upon himself to make a difference.
FIELDS OF FUEL, a cautionary wake-up call from activist -filmmaker Josh Tickell about the repercussions of America's dependence on foreign oil, earned the US Audience Award for Documentaries. The film, which has taken over 10 years to produce, tells the story of biodiesel, an alternative fuel for diesel engines. Made from vegetable oil, it is non-toxic, has low carbon dioxide emissions and can ultimately replace all liquid fuels used in the United States, thus freeing America's dependence on oil needed for gasoline. With oil selling for over $100 a barrel on world markets, this film is both timely and necessary.

William H. Macy hosted the awards ceremony Saturday night, opening with an off-color monologue that incorporated the titles of many films at the fest, from DOWNLOADING NANCY to FLOW: FOR LOVE OF WATER. This year, Sundance hosted a diverse group of professionals for the various juries. The U.S. dramatic jury, which included Marcia Gay Harden, Diego Luna and Sandra Oh, presented a Special Jury Prize for work by an ensemble cast to CHOKE, an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel, which featured award-worthy performances by Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston. Other jury members included: Documentary Competition: Michelle Byrd, Heidi Ewing, Eugene Jarecki, Steven Okazaki and Annie Sundberg; World Dramatic Competition: Shunji Iwai (Japan), Lucrecia Martel (Argentina) and Jan Schütte (Germany); World Documentary Competition: Amir Bar-Lev (US), Leena Pasanen (Finland/Denmark) and Ilda Santiago (Brazil); American and International Shorts: Jon Bloom, Melonie Diaz and Jason Reitman; and The Alfred P. Sloan Prize: Alan Alda, Michael Polish, Evan Schwartz, Benedict Schwegler and John Underkoffler.

 Other 2008 Sundance Film Festival Awards incuded:

Directing, U.S. drama: Lance Hammer, BALLAST

Directing, U.S. documentary: Nanette Burstein, AMERICAN TEEN

Cinematography, U.S. drama: Lol Crawley, BALLAST'

Editing, U.S. documentary: Joe Bini, `ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED

Special jury prize for singularity of vision, U.S. drama: Chusy Haney-Jardine, ANYWHERE, USA

Special jury prize, world cinema dramatic competition: BLUE EYELIDS (Ernesto Contreras)

Special jury prize, world cinema documentary competition: GREATEST SILENCE: RAPE IN THE CONGO (Lisa F. Jackson)

For a complete list of winners, film clips and footage from the Awards Ceremony, visit the Sundance Film Festival site: http://www.sundance.org

Sandy Mandelberger, Awards Watch Editor

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