Based on what I’ve seen at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and breaking all the rules and categories set up by the Festival poobahs, I humbly offer the following prizes:
FOR DRAMA: BALLAST
The grand jury consisting of directors Quentin Tarantino and Mary Harron and actors Marcia Gay Harden, Diego Luna and Sandra Oh went with Frozen River, a worthy film that tackles serious issues including illegal immigration. The audience voted for fun by picking The Wackness, about a teenaged dealer (Josh Peck) who pays his shrink (Ben Kingsley) for therapy in weed. But the one indisputably great film at Sundance ’08 is Ballast, a striking debut for writer-director Lance Hammer about a black family coming apart on the Mississippi Delta. Yes, Hammer is a tall, skinny white dude, but his poetic and profound movie transcends categories and announces the arrival of a major new filmmaker.
Runners-up: Sugar — writer-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden place a baseball recruit from the Dominican Republic in the middle of Huckabee Iowa and speak volumes about the America Way.
Momma’s Man — a California husband and father moves back in with mom and dad in New York as writer-director Azazel Jacobs examines grave issues with laughs that stick in the throat.
FOR COMEDY: HAMLET 2
Sundance doesn’t have a category for laughs. But watch the priceless Steve Coogan try to teach drama to high school kids in Arizona and the laughs don’t stop coming. Director Andrew Fleming does wonders with a fine cast that includes Catherine Keener, Melonie Diaz and Elisabeth Shue,who’s hilarious playing herself. Hamlet 2, which sequelizes and musicalizes the Bard wth such songs as, “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” and “Raped in the Face,” sold for a whopping $10 million — this year’s record. It’s worth the tariff. Giggles can also be had at The Wackness, The Deal and Choke, but Hamlet 2 is comedy heaven.
FOR DOCUMENTRY: TROUBLE THE WATER
Good on the doc jury for picking this indelible portrait of New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of a force of nature named Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott Roberts. Gifted filmmkers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal stick it to our absent government and in Kim — who raps her feelings in a voice that demands and deserves a record contract — they have found a human face to put on a national tragedy. Superb in every department.
Runner-Up: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired — Marina Zenovich looks at Polanski’s public trial for the rape of a minor as in indictment of the media. Derek is a spellbinder in which director Isaac Julien and actress Tilda Swinton pay tribute to the late gay filmaking icon Derek Jarman.
FOR HORROR: DIARY OF THE DEAD
Leave it to veteran George A. Romero to show the Cloverfield newbies how to use digital video to make a movie that scares us senseless about ourselves, never mind the zombies.
FOR MUSIC: PATTI SMITH — DREAM OF LIFE
U2 did it louder and in three dimnsions in U23D and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young did it with social commenrary in CSNY Deja Vu, and the demigods of Canadian metal showed they were still kicking in Anvil! The True Story of Anvil. But in Patti Smith — Dream of Life director Steven Sebring, using only one camera, makes visual and aural poetry with his fierce focus on the goddess of punk.
FOR JUST PLAIN AWFUL: THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH
Look, I liked what writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber did with Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story in 2004, but what Thurber does to Michael Chabon’s beautifully nuanced debut novel should be punishable by movie law. Good actors, such as Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller and Nick Nolte, all suck. The mystery is how this dog ever barked its way into the competition.
FOR BEST ACTOR: SAM ROCKWELL (CHOKE)
Rockwell delivers outrageous fun and rending emotion as the sex addict hero of writer-director Clark Gregg’s total immersion in the indefinable novel from Chuck Palahniuk.
FOR BEST ACTRESS: TARRA RIGGS (BALLAST)
I had never heard of Tarra Riggs before I saw her as a single mother trying to make a life for her twelve-year-old son in the unforgiving Mississippi Delta, now I know I’ll never forget her.
FOR BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: ALAN RICKMAN (BOTTLE SHOCK)
From Die Hard to Harry Potter and Sweeney Todd, Rickman has proved himself a master of villainy. But here, as a wine snob who opens up his mind and his heart to the vineyards of California, he finds the most ardent and appealing role of his career.
FOR BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: PATRICIA CLARKSON (PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND)
As a drama teacher for a student (Elle Fanning) with Tourette’s Syndrome, the reliably superb Clarkson surpasses even helself as an educator who is part Miss Jean Brodie and part Darth Vader.
FOR BEST SCREENWRITER: ANNA BODEN AND RYAN FLECK (SUGAR)
Two years ago, Boden and Fleck showed their promise with Half Nelson, now they make good on it by crafting a baseball movie like no other.
FOR BEST DIRECTOR: LANCE HAMMER (BALLAST)
We end where we began with the film of this Sundance year, no matter what the audience and the jury thought. Ballast has the feel of a classic that will stand the test of time. Hammer, defying Hollywood’s sensationalistic, sure-thing aesthetics, defines the independent spirit. Long may he endure.