From the moment Fruitvale screened on the first weekend of Sundance no film came to match the verve it generated from Sundance viewers. A riveting drama and tearjerker boasting impeccable performances and storytelling, the film deservedly took out not only the Grand Jury Prize but the audience award as well.
Last year the prizes were clearly demarcated with the artier Beasts of the Southern Wild taking out the Grand Jury prize and Australian director Ben Lewin's heartfelt crowdpleaser The Sessions taking out the audience award. It's therefore significant that this year Fruitvale took out both. The ever-savvy Harvey Weinstein picked up the film for English-language territories.
A gritty portrayal of the last day in the life of a 22-year-old African American, Oscar Julius Grant III, who in 2009 was shot dead by a transit policeman in the San Francisco Bay area, the film was written and directed by Ryan Coogler and stars up-and-coming Michael B. Jordan. (Jordan is currently filming a boys-on-the-tear movie Are We Officially Dating? with Zac Efron and another young actor-of-the-moment, Miles Teller. Teller, who played alongside Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, shared Sundance's U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award with Shailene Woolly for their performances in James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now, a poignant bitter-sweet coming-of-age drama about the perils of adolescence and alcoholism.)
In his acceptance speech Coogler said Fruitvale was “about human beings and how we treat each other, how we treat the people we love and how we treat the people we don't know.” He praised the Sundance Institute, which nurtured the film through its Filmmakers Lab program.
“The Sundance Lab mentors kindred spirits, like David Lowery who has Ain't Them Bodies Saints at the festival,” Coogler noted. “You get to form crazy relationships with other directors and I hope to stay in touch with them for the rest of my life.”
(On the snow-covered Main Street I ran into former Sundance Lab participant, Taika Waititi, with his latest production, a baby girl. Certainly no one would sing the praises of Sundance Labs more than the NZ director of Boy and Eagle vs Shark.)
Regarding this year's awards it was equally as significant—and rare--that like Fruitvale, Blood Brother took out both the Grand Jury and audience prizes, but in the documentary categories. Director Steve Hoover's intimate look at his friend Rocky Braat's volunteer work in an Indian orphanage for HIV-infected children, is “an incisive and compassionate documentary that's as much a transformative experience for audiences as it was for the filmmakers,” writes The Hollywood Reporter.
“It's so encouraging for the kids,” Braat told the crowd after receiving the awards. "Their lives are so challenging. They die and no one remembers their names.” Proceeds from the film will go to help the kids Braat works with in India. “I can't wait to see the difference we can make in the world doing this,” Hoover said.
Perennial Sundance alumni Joseph Gordon-Levitt acquitted himself admirably as the MC of the awards evening, mixing charm, cool, the occasional f-word and multiple 'awesome's into the proceedings. He told the crowd how Redford gave him a Sundance Institute t-shirt when he was ten, while making A River Runs Through It, and he has been part of the Sundance family ever since.
The actor, who has appeared in Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper and Lincoln, was in fact awesome himself in Don Jon's Addiction, which he wrote, directed and starred in. While the 31 year-old admits he loves to work, how he convinced the usually reluctant Scarlett Johannson to embrace and send up-her blonde bombshell image was quite a feat. That his character finds jerking off to porn far preferable than having sex with her makes for quite a scenario. Johansson's'New Joisey' accent has to be heard to be believed—and that's not mentioning her skintight hot pink dresses and gum chewing. Tony Danza is a stand-out as Don's Italian father, especially when his eyes pop out of his head at the sight of his son's new girlfriend. In fact Gordon-Levitt's creation of the New Jersey Italian milieu is superb.
Of course the films in the more commercial Premieres section are the ones audiences are most likely to see in Australia and many have already been picked up for distribution. Two films which are still to be bought are the revenge western Sweetwater and Big Sur, based on Jack Kerouac's last great novel as he struggled with sobriety. While both films came unheralded they were ultimately pleasant surprises and highly original.
Who doesn't want to see Betty Draper from Mad Men (aka the gorgeous and talented January Jones) with a shotgun picking off all the men who have done her wrong? Jason Isaacs from the Harry Potter films is dastardly again as a wayward clergyman and while I was initially worried that Ed Harris might be way over the top as the sheriff, he was, but it was all a heck of a lot of fun. When the two directors, the wild and woolly brothers, Logan and Noah Miller, took to the stage at the massive Eccles Theatre it was easy to see where the mayhem originated. As the film progressed I couldn't resist hoot'n and howl'n as well. There are Australian connections here in the form of Andrew McKenzie who wrote the story, which the Millers adapted into their screenplay, while the director of photography Brad Shield, who has been based in the U.S. for some time, was praised for his work in the trade magazines.
Big Sur has Australian connections too, with actress Radha Mitchell as Neal Cassady's wife Carolyn and American actor Josh Lucas, the star of Red Dog, as Cassady. Directed by Michael Polish and featuring Kate Bosworth as Kerouac's mistress, Billie Dabney, the film boasts some of the festival's best cinematography, which serves in re-creating the atmosphere of Kerouac's writing (which we hear in voice-over and is off-putting to some.) French actor and Lars von Trier regular Jean-Marc Barr gives possibly the best ever portrayal of Kerouac in his later years when he wrote this highly autobiographical tome.