Big wins for Australia's female filmmakers are part of a wider trend at this year's festival.
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27 Jan 2014 - 8:40 AM  UPDATED 25 Feb 2014 - 3:44 PM

Awards were handed out on Saturday afternoon as this year's Sundance festival drew to a close. Whiplash and Rich Hill took the Grand Jury U.S. dramatic and documentary prizes, respectively, while Chile's To Kill A Man and the Syrian-German production Return to Homs took honours in the world dramatic and documentary categories. In even better news, Australia's Sophie Hyde won the directing award in its category for 52 Tuesdays (pictured) on the heels of Jennifer Kent's deal for her crowd-pleasing psychological thriller The Babadook, which was picked up for U.S. and Latin American distribution by IFC Midnight, making this an exceptional weekend for Australian female filmmakers.

Australia's good fortune was part of a larger trend at this year's festival of an increasing number of women seen in directing and key crew positions (I'm thinking of editing and cinematography in particular). Along with The Babadook, which left theatres painted with the spilled energy drinks of beguiled Sundance critics, Marjane Satrapi's The Voices, in which Ryan Reynolds stars as a seemingly ordinary man who talks to his pets (and whose pets talk back) was among the most adventurous and talked about films in this year's program. Both films deal with very private mental disturbances, and play with the inverted horror concept of the home as an isolating vessel and incubator of our worst impulses.

Lynn Shelton returned to Sundance with Laggies, in which Keira Knightley is spooked by her partner's marriage proposal, and Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) and Jenny Slate (The Obvious Child) won fans of their New York stories (both Shelton and Slate scored modest deals). Akhavan and Slate were subject to pervasive grumbling, though, about the abundance of Brooklyn hipster odysseys, a category that includes Anne Hathaway's Song One. Though set in Los Angeles, Zach Braff's Kickstarter-funded Wish I Was Here, which closed one of the festival's biggest deals ($2.75 million for distribution in the U.S. and some international territories), also grated on critics weary of watching privileged young white people feel gloomy about their lives.

Despite its undeniable gloom and undeniably white, privileged characters, The Skeleton Twins managed to avoid a similar fate. The freshness of the writing (writer/director Craig Davidson and his co-writer Mark Heyman took a screenwriting award on Saturday) and winning performances from Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Luke Wilson elevate a fairly standard story of stalled adulthood. Hader and Wiig play estranged twins both stuck in the signal trauma of their adolescence—their father's suicide. Battling an apparent legacy of self-destruction, following Hader's suicide attempt the twins reunite in Wiig's home, where she lives with Wilson, her relentlessly sunny yet not so bright husband. Here Wilson has the unique distinction of playing the most comic role against two established comedians, and this appears to energise him in a by-now familiar role. His scenes with Hader are some of my favourite from this year's festival, and Hader in particular inhabits his character, a gay man scarred by an early relationship with his high school teacher (Ty Burrell), with surprising subtlety and force.

The Skeleton Twins character is one of several Sundance films to highlight LGBT characters and themes. Love Is Strange, 52 Tuesdays, Appropriate Behavior, and To Be Takei are four more of an estimated 23 films that include gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered characters. One of my favourites on that list is Dear White People (review forthcoming), for which director Justin Simien won a special award for breakthrough talent.

Simien worked on the film, loosely based on his experience at an elite American college, for a number of years, and began a popular @dearwhitepeople Twitter feed. An example of the genuinely fresh voices Sundance is designed to champion, Simien's film torpedoes to the heart of a very tricky subject. Dear White People is an issue film that also feels deeply personal—reminiscent of Spike Lee (often directly) yet engaged with a new and ever-more complicated moment in race relations. Life imitated art imitating life this past weekend, when the climax of Dear White People, which takes place at a racist frat party, was repeated at an Arizona university. It's the kind of publicity Simien's film would rather do without, and the kind of thing that makes Dear White People one of the year's most urgent films.