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Sundance highlights independent films

Cassie Belek | Wednesday, February 1, 2006

The streets of Park City, Utah are slightly less crowded now that the Sundance Film Festival is over. Celebrities have headed home to Hollywood with Oscar on their minds and left behind a slew of award winners and box office potential.

For the first time in its 22 years, jurors and audiences gave the same two films top honors for the documentary and dramatic competitions. “Quinceañera” (dramatic) and “God Grew Tired of Us” (documentary) made history, but not big money like “Little Miss Sunshine,” which drew in $10 million from Fox Searchlight.

When the Sundance Film Festival first began, paying a sum so large for a film was unprecedented. Robert Redford founded the Sundance Institute in 1981 to support the development of independent artists and movies. The festival soon followed to showcase the achievements of these artists and films and to promote creativity and risk taking. Since 1981, independent films have gained popularity and commercial success, with bidding wars reaching higher and higher plateaus.

While purists complain that the festival itself has become too commercial with its multiple sponsors and crazed celebrity fans, the focus remains on the films themselves. “Quinceañera” is about 14-year-old Magdelena (Emily Rios), who becomes pregnant and is kicked out of her house. She then makes a new family with her great-granduncle and gay cousin. “God Grew Tired of Us,” directed by Christoper Quinn, follows three Sudanese refugees as they travel to Pittsburg and Syracuse and adjust to their new lives in America. The film prompted a Texas woman to donate $25,000 for one of the men to build a medical clinic in his town in Sudan.

Directing awards went to James Longley for “Iraq in Fragments” and Dito Montiel for “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” “Iraq in Fragments,” tells the stories of Iraqis struggling through the war and occupation. Longley, who wasn’t allowed to begin principal photography until the collapse of Saddam Hussein, shot over 300 hours of film over the course of two years. “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” features a host of stars, including Robert Downey, Jr., Rosario Dawson, Shia LeBeouf, Chazz Palminteri and Eric Roberts. The film, based on Montiel’s youth, is about a boy who believes he has been saved by various “saints” while his friends meet unfortunate ends.

Films premiering at Sundance included “Little Miss Sunshine,” a movie starring Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear, which follows a family in a cross-country road trip as they try to get their daughter in the finals of a beauty pageant, and “Wordplay,” a documentary about crossword puzzle lovers. The New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. paid $1 million for “Wordplay,” hoping it would become the “Mad Hot Ballroom” of 2006.

Sundance is never without its mysteries and scandals, like when Harvey Weinstein made a public scene when he lost the rights to “Shine” in 1996. This year, it was “Thank you for Smoking” that had festival-goers scratching their heads. A 12-second sex scene featuring Katie Holmes was mysteriously missing from the screening. While some speculated that the culprit was a protective Tom Cruise, the real reason was due to a splicing error in Los Angeles.

Most of the films showcased at Sundance will not be released until later in the year, but potential Oscar nominees are already among them. Last year’s award winners included “Hustle & Flow,” “The Squid and the Whale” and “Junebug.” All three films have garnered Oscar nominations in acting or screenplay categories for the ceremony in March. It proves that independent films are gaining recognition and box office results, and the Sundance Film Festival is just one step in making that possible for these films.