Whiplash, the tale of an obsessed drummer and his even more obsessive instructor at a New York college won top honors at this year's Sundance film festival, disproving the curse associated with the opening night premiere slot.
Often, big acquisition execs skip the festival's opening night on Thursday-- traditionally reserved for the artiest, non-commercial films-- preferring to arrive on Friday.
But Sundance programmers pulled a bait and switch this year, selecting Whiplash--which proved to be an audience and critical favorite--to kick off the fest. Sundance director John Cooper thanked the filmmakers for their "bravery to take this slot."
The film stars Miles Teller as a music student and J.K. Simmons as his abusive teacher locked in a power struggle. It opened the festival a week ago Thursday, and took home two awards at the closing ceremony Saturday nightthe Grand Jury prize (Drama) and the Audience Prize.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle, who had won an award for his short version of the film at last year's festival, said the story was loosely based on an experience he had in high school. It was, however, tough to finance, he said, because "no one wants to make a film about a jazz drummer."
He credited the film festival's selection of the short for paving the way to the feature being embraced as it was. Whiplash was bought by Sony Pictures Classics in the 2014 festival's first acquisition deal. and will be distributed in theaters later this year.
It's the second year in a row in which one film nabbed the top U.S. dramatic prizes. Last year the honors went to Fruitvale Station.
Another award winner was Dear White People, whose director Justin Simien was given a Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. The story of a quartet of African-American students who attend an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out over a black-themed party thrown by white students explores racial identity and misconceptions about black culture. The rich satire played to enthusiastic audiences. Making his feature film debut, Simien has said he wanted to start a conversation about a sensitive subject .
The Skeleton Twins, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award for writer-director Craig Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman. The film starred Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as estranged siblings who re-unite and confront what went wrong in their lives. Though it stars two actors known best for their SNL roles, they play primarily dramatic roles here. Acquired by Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions The Skeleton Twins is scheduled to be released in late summer or early fall of this year.
Married actors Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly were bawdy comic hosts for the awards ceremony-- held in Park City-- and even took to a guitar and ukulele, respectively, to sing a song with lyrics we can't print here.
"We have seen your movies and we have found them arousing," said Offerman. "We were just crazy about Love is Strange starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. Especially because one of our favorite role-playing games is called John Lithgow and Alfred Molina."
But seriously, folks, Offerman praised the filmmakers whose films played at the festival, celebrating its 30th year.
"Be very proud of yourselves, you made it here," said Offerman, who later donned a fur coat saying it was "a bit chilly." "It's an astonishing accomplishment."
A theme for the night's filmmakers was fertility and new babies, since many of the filmmakers who won awards had infants . Director Mike Cahill, the winner of the Alfred P. Sloan award for I Originsthe story of a molecular biologist and his lab partner who uncover startling evidence that could fundamentally change society-- was not on hand because of the birth of his new baby.
Other winners this year included:
U.S. Grand Jury Prize: DocumentaryRich Hill, an examination of the tough choices and financial challenges faced by a family in rural Missouri.
World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: DocumentaryReturn to Homs, about 2 young Syrian men who become involved in their nation's fight for freedom.
World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: DramaticTo Kill a Man, about a hard-working family man who gets mugged by a neighborhood delinquent.
Audience Award: U.S. Documentary--Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, about how songs embedded in the memory can ease pain and awaken fading minds for those suffering from dementia.
Audience Award: World Cinema DocumentaryThe Green Prince about one ofIsrael's prized intelligence sources recruited to spy on his own people for more than a decade.
Audience Award: World Cinema DramaticDifret, about a young Ethiopian lawyer who operates under the government radar to help women and children.
Audience Award: Best of NextImperial Dreams, about a 21- year-old reformed gangster who is released from jail and tries to get his life back on track.
Directing Award: U.S. Documentary-- Ben Cotner and Ryan White for The Case Against 8, a behind-the-scenes look inside the case to overturn California's ban on same-sex marriage
Directing Award: U.S. DramaticCutter Hodierne for Fishing Without Nets, a tale of Somali pirates from the point of view of struggling Somali fisherman.
Directing Award: World Cinema DocumentaryIain Forsyth and Jane Pollard for20,000 Days on Earth, in which reality and fiction are interwove in an exploration of the life of musician Nick Cave.
Directing Award: World Cinema DramaticSophie Hyde for 52 Tuesdays, about a 16 year-old girl whose mother reveals her plans for gender transition.
Screenwriting Award: World Cinema DramaticEskil Vogt for Blind, about a woman who recently lost her sight and who becomes consumed by her deepest fears and fantasies.
World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble PerformanceGod Help the Girl, a musical from Stuart Murdoch of indie band Belle and Sebastian about a trio of young Glaswegians who form a musical group.
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