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Nightmarish 'Push' a triple Sundance winner

The film tells of a pregnant teen who tries to escape the domination of her terrifying mother. 'We Live in Public' gets the grand jury prize for documentary. 'Rough Aunties' is top world documentary.

January 25, 2009|Kenneth Turan | times film critic

"Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire" scored a rare triple victory Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival, winning both the grand jury prize and the audience award for drama as well as a special jury prize for acting.

Directed by Lee Daniels, best known for producing the Oscar-winning "Monster's Ball," and adapted by Damien Pearl from the 1997 novel, "Push" tells the raw, nightmarish story of a 16-year-old pregnant girl who tries to escape from the domination of her terrifying mother (played by Mo'Nique, who won that acting prize) and make something of her life.

Taking the U.S. documentary grand jury prize at the Park City, Utah, festival was Ondi Timoner's "We Live in Public," about a renegade artist who did just that. The world documentary prize went to Kim Longinotto's "Rough Aunties," about a South African organization that works with sexually abused children.

Havana Marking's "Afghan Star," a look at an "American Idol"-type TV program in Kabul, was the only documentary to win two prizes, taking both the world documentary audience award and the world documentary directing nod.

Four other films, all dramas, took home a pair of prizes apiece, starting with Lone Scherfig's captivating "An Education," about a British high school girl meeting an older man, which earned both the world drama audience award and the world drama cinematography award for John De Borman. Two other world drama films received two awards apiece, including Sebastian Silva's "The Maid," from Chile, which received the world dramatic prize and a special world drama jury prize for acting for star Catalina Saavedra. The other world double winner was Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Five Minutes of Heaven," starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbit. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert constructed an intense narrative about what might have transpired if two people, involved in different ways with a murder that actually took place in Northern Ireland in 1975, met decades after the event. Hirschbiegel won the world drama directing award, Hibbert the world drama screenwriting nod.

The only film in the general dramatic competition to win two awards was writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre," about the intersecting lives of a Guatemalan teen fleeing to the U.S. and a Mexican gang member. Already set for distribution by Focus Features, the film won the dramatic directing award and the excellence in cinematography award for Adriano Goldman.

Because the quality of U.S. documentaries was so high, five others won deserved awards. They were:

* "The Cove," a muckraking doc by Louie Psihoyos that plays like a thriller and follows pro-dolphin activists as they try to expose slaughter in Japan, which won the audience award.

* "El General," made with assurance by documentary directing award winner Natalia Almada and beautifully shot by Chuy Chavez, which examines the long shadow the past casts over the present by looking into the connections between the director and her great-grandfather, revolutionary general and Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles.

* "Sergio," director Greg Barker's moving examination of the life and death of top U.N. diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, which took the editing prize for Karen Schmeer.

* "The September Issue," directed by the veteran R.J. Cutler, which won the documentary cinematography award for Bob Richman's ability to gain access to the Kremlin of fashion, the offices of Vogue magazine, and its editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour.

* "Good Hair," which earned a special jury prize for director Jeff Stilson. The film makes the most of comedian Chris Rock as he turns an investigation into the nature of African American hair into a window into black culture.

A trio of worthy world documentaries also took home awards. They were:

* "Burma VJ," which captured the world editing award for Janus Billeskov Jansen and Thomas Papapetros, and features riveting footage smuggled out of the repressive Myanmar.

* "Big River Man," which won the world cinematography award for director John Maringouin for its examination of the exploits of the overweight Slovenian who is the world's most famous endurance swimmer.

* "Tibet in Song," directed by Ngawang Choephel, which won a world special jury prize by linking Tibetan music to that country's quest to preserve its cultural identity.

On the dramatic side, the Waldo Salt screenwriting award went to Nicholas Jasenovec and Charlyne Yi for "Paper Heart"; Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" won a special jury prize for spirit of independence; and France's "Louise-Michel" earned a world cinema special jury prize for originality.

Though it didn't win anything, one of Sundance's most haunting films was the Japanese science-fiction drama with a most unusual title, "The Clone Returns Home," written and directed by Kanji Nakajima. A mysterious and mystical story, both deeply human and futuristic, this tale of attempts to clone an astronaut held audiences rapt even when they couldn't quite understand what was going on.

Over on the Slamdance Film Festival side of town, awards were given out as well. The grand jury award for narrative went to "A Quiet Little Marriage," and the audience award was given to "Punching the Clown." For documentaries, "Strongman" took the jury award and "Heart of Stone" the audience prize.


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