John Cusack Comeback, Hot-Button Political Flicks Nab Sundance Prizes

Buzz is strong for Cusack's 'Grace Is Gone,' host of films exploring real-life dramas in Middle East.

PARK CITY, Utah — The snow was melting, the most notable celebrity walking around town was Chad Allen and you could actually get a seat at a screening. It could only mean one thing: Another Sundance Film Festival was coming to a close.

The 2007 installment of Robert Redford's love letter to independent film concluded over the weekend with a packed awards ceremony, a communal sense of support and a general consensus that the war in Iraq had gone on long enough. Following a groundbreaking week and a half that saw more than a dozen films purchased for theatrical release, the closing ceremony honored budget-challenged blockbusters, a charismatic actress who could be the next Reese Witherspoon and a drama that has suddenly cast John Cusack as an Oscar front-runner for 2008.

"I would like to thank all of the families who opened up and told me their stories and really informed this script," said James C. Strouse, the writer/director of that Cusack film, "Grace Is Gone," while accepting one of the two awards the film took home. "Every family has their own particular heartbreaking story, and they're all worth hearing."

In "Grace," one of the first films to be purchased this year, Cusack stars as a father who receives the news that his wife has been killed in the Iraq war, then takes his daughters on a road trip to postpone breaking the news to them. Positive buzz at Sundance had some expecting Cusack to receive the first Academy Award nomination of his more than 20-year career, a notion that was reinforced as the film took home the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Audience Award: Dramatic. "Grace" is expected to be released by the Weinstein Company in late 2007.

If the veteran Cusack had the most talked-about performance of the festival, a silver medal went to newcomer Jess Weixler — who arrived in Utah carrying her own bags and left with her phone ringing off the hook. Weixler, who bravely took on the starring role in "Teeth" — with its gimmicky script about a woman with teeth in the one place no man would want them to be — embarked on a startling transformation over the course of the flick and left Utah for San Diego after the press heaped praise upon her the way they did Witherspoon for her performance in the 1996 Sundance-approved flick "Freeway."

"Oh, wow," grinned Weixler, who rushed back from the set of her next indie flick to accept a Special Jury Prize for Acting. "I was on a plane going somewhere else, and a stewardess came up to me and said, 'You're going to Utah next. You got an award!' And I was like, 'What?' and then I just screamed in her face!"

In general, Sundance preferred to stick with the hot-button issues of the day. The top awards of Grand Jury Prize went to "Padre Nuestro" (a drama about illegal immigrants) and "Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)," a documentary detailing corruption in Brazil. The latter, directed by newcomer Jason Kohn, also won an award for Excellence in Cinematography.

Declaring that "America deserves better," the Sundance jury awarded a Special Jury Prize to "No End in Sight," a documentary detailing the quagmire of U.S. occupation in Iraq.

"It's been an extraordinary experience," said the film's director, Charles Ferguson, of the flick. "I'd like to thank my Iraq crew and my bodyguards in Baghdad. When you're out in Baghdad, you don't just walk around with a camera at will. I paid $7,000 a day for my personal security. You could never be out on the street for more than 20 or 30 minutes at one time, you could never go back to the same place twice. When I'd conduct interviews — some of which you see in the film — when my interpreter and I had found someone willing to be interviewed, my bodyguards formed quite literally a human wall around me. They did not have a relaxing job, so I'd like to thank them."

The World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary was awarded to the Afghanistan electoral film "Enemies of Happiness," while the same for Drama went to the Israeli movie "Sweet Mud." The Audience Award: Documentary was accepted by director Irene Taylor Brodsky and her deaf parents, which she made the subject of "Hear and Now," while the World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary went to the U.K. film "In the Shadow of the Moon," which features stunning footage of the Apollo space program.

Perhaps the loudest roar from the audience emerged, however, when Jeffrey Blitz came onstage to pick up his award for "Rocket Science," a fan favorite about a stuttering recluse recruited for the high school debate team (see "Coolest New High School Flick May Be Nerdiest: Meet 'Rocket Science' ").

"I'm not nearly as articulate in situations like this as the people in my film," said Blitz, whose movie was acquired by Picturehouse and will be released on August 10. "People who stutter know that, as you speak, you figure out words you're about to stutter on and you find other words to use instead. But you can't do that with names, so I'll just thank my amazing cast and my amazing crew.

"It was about 10 years ago that I was last at Sundance — I was a film student," Blitz continued. "I didn't have anywhere to stay, and through a friend of a friend of a friend I ended up in a strange condo. I slept on the bathroom floor. That's how exciting this fest is, even without [an award]. To me, the real prize this year was that I had my own bed."

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