At the Sundance Film Festival, Everyone's a Winner (More or Less)

Director Courtney Hunt, accepting the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition from Quentin Tarantino for her film Frozen River
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PARK CITY, Utah -- As the 2008 Sundance Film Festival drew to a close with a bizarrely country-and-western-themed awards ceremony hosted by William H. Macy, a jury headed by Quentin Tarantino awarded the Grand Jury Prize of this year's U.S. Dramatic Competition to Courtney Hunt's upstate New York border-crossing thriller Frozen River, while the coveted Dramatic Audience Award went to Jonathan Levine's marijuana-haze coming-of-age story The Wackness. Taking to the stage, an ebullient Levine remarked, “I just accepted an award from William H. Macy in a cowboy hat. That is fucking weird.”

In the festival's U.S. Documentary Competition (whose jury members included Why We Fight director Eugene Jarecki), the Grand Jury Prize went to co-directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's post-Katrina Trouble the Water, with the Audience Award going to Josh Tickell's oil-consumption cautionary tale, Fields of Fuel.

Once a relatively brief, low-key affair, the Sundance awards show has, in recent years, grown to Oscar-like proportions, with some two-dozen prizes doled out to films from four separate competition sections -- a distinctly American, everyone's-a-winner mentality that means if your film screens in the festival, there's a better than one-in-three chance you 'll win something.

Still, no matter how many awards exist, the work of festival juries is fraught with compromise, and worthy films reliably go home empty-handed -- a fact humorously acknowledged by Tarantino, who reminded the awards-night crowd that his own Reservoir Dogs got shafted in 1992, as did fellow juror Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol in 1996.

That's good company, at least, for Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's remarkable Sugar, about a Dominican baseball prospect struggling to make it in the U.S. minor leagues. After their Half Nelson earned no love from the Sundance jury in 2006, Fleck and Boden are now 0-for-2 at the festival. And to paraphrase Spike Lee commenting upon the shut-out his Jungle Fever received at Cannes in 1989: They wuz robbed.

Second only to the omission of Sugar in the evening's “what-the-fuck?” category was the awarding of the Documentary Competition's directing prize to Nanette Burstein for American Teen, a vapid, sub-MTV chronicle of life in an “average” Midwestern high school.

Among those films both deserving and awarded were Lance Hammer's Ballast, which copped the dramatic directing and cinematography prizes for its widely acclaimed portrait of poverty-line black life in the Mississippi delta region, and director Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for its imaginative depiction of a near-future in which Mexican laborers come to America via virtual-reality border-hopping. In the festival's international documentary competition, British director James Marsh scored both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Man On Wire, a ridiculously entertaining account of the quixotic Philippe Petit and his 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. --Scott Foundas

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