'Nuestro,' 'Bala' shine best

Top Sundance nods; 'Grace' wins 2

The Sundance Film Festival grand jury honored Christopher Zalla's illegal-immigration drama "Padre Nuestro" and Jason Kohn's Brazilian corruption documentary "Manda Bala" (Send a Bullet) with its top prizes Saturday night.

"Nuestro" took the dramatic Grand Jury prize, while "Bala" won the documentary Grand Jury award.

Some features picked up by distributors during the course of the fest appeared to justify their high sales prices with popular appeal. Screenwriter-director James C. Strouse's family drama "Grace Is Gone" took home the Audience Award for a drama, while David Sington's Apollo program chronicle "In the Shadow of the Moon" won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award.

"Grace" sold for $4 million to the Weinstein Co. for worldwide rights, and "Moon" went for $2.5 million-$3 million to ThinkFilm for North American rights (excluding TV). Sington said onstage that Saturday was the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts.

A pair of films won two awards apiece: "Grace" also landed Strouse the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and a $20,000 prize, and Heloisa Passos was honored for documentary excellence in cinematography for "Bala."

"I've been a nervous wreck the entire time I've been here," said "Bala" director Kohn after delivering an exuberant, expletive-filled speech at the ceremony and leaving a message for his one-time boss, documentary director Errol Morris. A rep at Kohn's sales agent Cinetic Media, which hasn't yet sold the film, warned him that it would be a "roller coaster" week, with people paying attention, then not. "My self-worth has gone up and down. It's definitely up now," Kohn said.

After the awards, Strouse said, "To be honest, this was the one I was hoping for." The first-time helmer is looking at different projects and trying to get more of his fiction published, but a friend is trying to pull him down to earth. "He told me, 'You need to come back home; Sundance isn't the center of the world,' " Strouse said, laughing.

The World Cinema Jury Prizes went to Dror Shaul's Israeli kibbutz drama "Sweet Mud" for dramatic feature and the Afghani political examination "Enemies of Happiness" from Denmark for documentary feature.

Other awards revolved around people longing to connect through sound. "Hear and Now," Irene Taylor Brodsky's autobiographical tale of her parents who underwent surgery to cure their deafness, won the Documentary Audience Award, and director John Carney's much-buzzed-about Irish musical romance "Once" took home the World Cinema Audience Award for drama.

Brodsky brought her parents onstage, pointed to them and said, "This says it all," then thanked Sundance for providing screenings for the hearing impaired.

Carney said, "I hope I don't wreck this by crying — doing something Irish and emotional," but he held back the tears and reflected on how he turned from a struggling filmmaker a year ago to a success with the help and music of his friends.

Top directing awards went to Jeffrey Blitz for his teen comedy "Rocket Science," from Picturehouse/HBO Films, and Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine's Ugandan conflict documentary "War/Dance" from ThinkFilm.

"Ten years ago I came here as a student and ended up sleeping on a bathroom floor," Blitz said. "This year the real prize is that I had my own bed."

The Documentary Jury gave a Special Jury Prize to Charles Ferguson's Iraq War feature "No End in Sight." The director gave special thanks to his $7,000-a-day bodyguards, who formed a human wall around him, and the few people who were brave enough to be interviewed in Baghdad. "It might be too late for Iraq, but I hope it's not too late for this country to conduct itself differently in the future," he said.

The Independent Film Dramatic Competition jury delivered two special prizes for acting: Jess Weixler for "a juicy and jaw-dropping performance" as a girl with deadly anatomy in Mitchell Lichtenstein's "Teeth," and Tamara Podemski for "a fully realized physical and emotional turn" as a big-city woman who invites her brother from an American Indian reservation to stay with her in screenwriter-director Sterlin Harjo's "Four Sheets to the Wind."

Podemski gave a tear-filled speech, noting the "years of self-help books" that helped her to get through "a lot of crappy work."

Weixler showed up late after almost missing the show. She was on a plane when a stewardess said, "You're going to Utah next," prompting the actress to "just scream in her face." Discussing her character, Weixler said, "I'm glad people connected to a girl with teeth in her vagina."

The jury also honored Chris Smith with a Special Jury Prize for singularity of vision for "The Pool," his story of a young Indian hotel worker.

Benoit Debie won best cinematography for a dramatic film for the thriller "Joshua." The Independent Film Competition Documentary jury gave its docu editing award to Hibah Sherif Frisina, Charlton McMillan and Michael Schweitzer for the Chinese genocide chronicle "Nanking."

Two other Special Jury Prizes were issued: The World Cinema Documentary Competition Jury honored "Hot House," Shimon Dotan's examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its Dramatic Jury counterpart honored Gela and Temur Babluani's long-standing-feud drama "The Legacy" (L'Heritage).

Director Chen Shi-Zheng and writer Billy Shebar picked up the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for their film "Dark Matter," about a Chinese cosmology student who comes to the U.S. for his doctorate. The $20,000 award, made possible by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to the Sundance Institute's Science-in-Film Initiative, was given to the filmmakers for their "evocative portrayal of the scientific passions, career politics and cultural conflicts in an astrophysics research laboratory," overall filmmaking and performances by Liu Ye, Aidan Quinn and Meryl Streep.

In the short-film competition, the Jury Prize went to Don Hertzfeldt's "Everything Will Be OK," and the International Prize went to Radu Jude's Romanian film "The Tube With a Hat." A Special Jury Prize went to Cynthia Wade's docu short "Freeheld."

The Independent Film Competition Documentary jurors were Alan Berliner, Lewis Erskine, Lauren Greenfield, Julia Reichert and Carlos Sandoval. The Independent Film Competition Dramatic jurors were Catherine Hardwicke, Dawn Hudson, Pamela Martin, Elvis Mitchell (who replaced Mos Def midweek) and Sarah Polley. World Cinema Competition Documentary jurors were Raoul Peck, Juan Carlos Rulfo and Elizabeth Weatherford. World Cinema Competition Dramatic jurors were Carlos Bolado, Lynne Ramsay and U-Wei Bin Haji Saari. The Shorts jurors were Jared Hess, Daniela Michel and Mark Elijah Rosenberg.

Sundance festival director Geoff Gilmore hosted the event, and his stylish wardrobe prompted juror and NPR critic Mitchell to comment, "When did Geoff become John Shaft?"