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Screen Grabs - Keeping It Real

A new American realism carried the day at Sundance, while the a major new film from the Romanian realist movement arrived in American theaters. Plus, colleagues offer thoughtful tributes to Heath Ledger, and there's cautious optimism for an end to the writers' strike.

Keeping It Real

Despite the usual unreal media hype around the Sundance Film Festival, realism was the coin of the realm in Park City this year. Tales of struggle and adversity swept up the festival's top honors, with the Grand Jury Prize for drama going to Frozen River, a somber look inside the dark world of human smuggling, and the Grand Jury Prize for documentary going to Trouble in the Water, an examination of the human impact of Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, The Wackness, a coming-of-age dramedy set in the '90s which has garnered special attention for a scene in which Sir Ben Kingsley and Mary-Kate Olsen share a passionate kiss, won the Audience Award. The film was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, to the dismay of the bloggers who have enthusiastically endorsed it. The same studio also acquired River, as well as Baghead, a creepy low-budget comedy from the Duplass Brothers, the directing duo that scored a festival hit in 2005 with the authentically awkward The Puffy Chair.

Indeed, one prominent critic, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, even posited that the festival marked the emergence of a new American realism. For evidence, she pointed to films like Sugar, a story about a young Dominican baseball player from the directors of Half Nelson, and Ballast, which explores a family tragedy in the Mississippi Delta, and also won an award. There was also Momma's Man, which highlighted a trend both at this year's Sundance and in recent American cinema of young men being dragged unwillingly into the realities of adulthood.

While a new brand of American realism was emerging in Utah, the much-lauded realist strain of recent Romanian film was fully inundating American shores. The trend, which has been increasingly celebrated by observers and commentators of late, continued with the theatrical release of Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. One of the most heralded films in recent memory (though, as always, there have been dissenters), 4, 3, 2 had last weekend's highest per-screen box office (playing in two theaters), making its much-decried omission from Oscar consideration seem all the more egregious. The positive notices continued to pour in, with some pointing out that the film's unflinching treatment of abortion stands in marked contrast to the recent flood of American pregnancy-themed movies, offering a perspective that is perhaps more anchored in reality.

Meanwhile, as the reality of Heath Ledger's death began to sink in more fully around the world, many stepped forth to offer measured, thoughtful reactions that were a dramatic departure from last week's hasty, sometimes unfortunate early responses. Director Stacey Peralta, who wrote the script for the Ledger film Lords of Dogtown (and whose gang warfare documentary Made in America also premiered at Sundance), described the difficulty of coming to terms with the loss. Daniel Day-Lewis, who confessed to not knowing Ledger personally, nonetheless spoke from the heart about him on Oprah, and again after winning a SAG Award for There Will Be Blood, where he dedicated the prize to his late colleague. Warner Brothers also paid tribute to Ledger, who played the Joker in the studio's upcoming new Batman movie, while the film's director, Christopher Nolan, heartbreakingly described his new post-production reality in Newsweek, writing: "I see him every day in my edit suite. I study his face, his voice. And I miss him terribly."

In happier news, there's guarded optimism that the writers' strike could be resolved soon, though tensions are still running high. That would be a reality we all could celebrate.


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