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A primer on indie cinema

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

True to its roots, the Sundance festival honors a sci-fi film with a minuscule budget but potent story lines.

January 26, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

PARK CITY, Utah — Ignoring glitzy surroundings that increasingly make the event look like a snow country Mardi Gras, the Sundance Film Festival stuck stubbornly to its gritty independent roots. It awarded its dramatic grand jury prize to the elliptical, yet compelling "Primer," a film that its writer-director has said was "shot for about the price of a used car."

"I completely do not know what to say," said flabbergasted filmmaker Shane Carruth at Saturday night's award ceremony. Just as impressed was emcee Jake Gyllenhaal, who added, "For a film made for $7,000 to win the grand jury prize is incredible."

A disturbing sci-fi story about a research breakthrough and its aftermath that also took the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for the best film on science and technology, "Primer" is a triumph of mood over dramatic coherence.

Though the film is often impossible to follow -- even the normally effusive festival notes call it "intermittently incomprehensible" -- that doesn't diminish its power to involve us in its mysterious story lines.

In addition to writing and directing and having his cast double as crew, Carruth costars as one of the film's scientists and cut the film on his home computer. "Post-production," he has said, "was mainly me sitting in my apartment for a year learning how to edit."

"DIG!," the film that captured the documentary grand jury prize, took seven years out of the life of filmmaker Ondi Timoner, who shot 1,500 hours of footage that display the divergent fortunes of a pair of West Coast alter-ego rock bands. The Dandy Warhols succeeded, the Brian Jonestown Massacre did not.

Taking the documentary audience award was Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski's outstanding "Born Into Brothels," which details how photographer Briski not only befriended children of Calcutta's prostitutes but taught them how to use cameras and helped them find a place in the world. Buoyant and alive despite their horrendous living conditions, these kids are the film's transporting soul.

Winning the audience award on the dramatic side was an HBO entry, "Maria Full of Grace," a Spanish-language film that was written and directed by Joshua Marston. It features Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno in an impressive performance as a strong-minded young woman who agrees to become a "mule," swallowing dozens of pellets of heroin and transporting them to the United States.

The world cinema section, always one of the festival's strongest, for the first time handed out a pair of audience awards, both going to Canadian films.

"The Corporation," a smart and sassy look at modern society's dominant institution, was the doc winner. Noting Sundance's many corporate sponsors, co-director Mark Achbar noted dryly, "While it's a callow ploy to put a caring face on a psychopathic institution, it doesn't mean it isn't appreciated."

The dramatic victor was one of the festival's half-buried treasures, the French-language "Seducing Doctor Lewis." A monster hit in its native Quebec, where it had more film award nominations than "The Barbarian Invasions" and earned more money than "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Matrix Reloaded," "Doctor Lewis" tells the droll tale of the enormous trouble to which a tiny fishing village goes to get a doctor to relocate there. A warmhearted film of considerable elfin charm, "Doctor Lewis" has yet to find an American distributor despite its certified crowd-pleasing ways.

Sundance's Waldo Salt screenwriting award went to Larry Gross for turning two Andre Dubus short stories into the well-received "We Don't Live Here Anymore," a lacerating, faultlessly constructed film, directed by John Curran, about the linked dissolutions of a pair of marriages, a script that Gross first wrote some 30 years ago.

Aside from "Primer," the only film to win two awards was "Down to the Bone," a bleak story of a woman in a small upstate New York town struggling with her cocaine habit. It won the directing prize for Debra Granik and a deserved special jury prize acting award for star Vera Farmiga, present and then some in almost every scene. A euphoric Farmiga jumped up and down when she got on stage, saying, "I still can't believe I got the part. This is incredible."

On the documentary side, the best directing award went to Morgan Spurlock for "Super Size Me," a personal doc that chronicles the director's visible physical disintegration as he eats nothing but McDonald's fast food for 30 days. "I don't know about you but I'm loving it," Spurlock told the crowd. "This has been the most amazing week of my life."

The two cinematography awards went to films with one-word titles. On the doc side, Ferne Pearlstein won for "Imelda," an examination of Imelda Marcos that attempts to get beyond the shoes. The dramatic winner was Nancy Schreiber for "November," a claustrophobic look at a woman's coping with the death of her boyfriend that gradually morphs into something else.

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