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'Whiplash' wins big at Sundance Film Festival

Steven Zeitchik and Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times • Dec 15, 2015 at 2:15 PM

PARK CITY, Utah (MCT) – "Whiplash," Damien Chazelle's debut feature about a fraught relationship between a teacher and student at a New York music school, was the big winner at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday night, taking the top audience and grand jury awards in the U.S. dramatic competition.

Sony Pictures Classics acquired "Whiplash" _ which stars J.K. Simmons as an abusive instructor and Miles Teller as his prize drummer pupil _ at the festival and aims to release it this year. This is the second year in a row that a single film scored the top two U.S. dramatic prizes; last year, "Fruitvale Station" took those two honors.

On the U.S. documentary side, the grand jury gave its top award to Tracy Droz Tragos' and Andrew Droz Palermo's "Rich Hill," about a family in small-town Missouri facing intense financial hardship," while Michael Rossato-Bennett's Alzheimer's documentary "Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory" won the audience prize.

Chazelle, 29, turned around his film from an award-winning short at the festival just last year. In accepting the prize Saturday, Chazelle said "Whiplash" was "not an easy movie to make, not an easy movie to convince people to make."

"Alive Inside," meanwhile, explores the effect of music on treating patients with dementia.

"I just made this film because it moved me, and I didn't realize how big a topic it was," Rossato-Bennett said in accepting the award.

The directing award in U.S. dramatic went to Cutter Hodierne, whose "Fishing Without Nets" was the latest drama about a Somali hijacking to come out of the film world. The prize was also notable because the film comes from Vice Media, the upstart Brooklyn, N.Y., company making forays into scripted feature films.

The world cinema dramatic grand jury prize went to Alejandro Fernandez Almendras' "To Kill a Man." The Chilean film explores a middle-class family standing up to bullies, both local and bureaucratic.

And the world cinema documentary grand jury prize went to Talal Derki's "Return to Homs," a story about an activist and a soccer star in the Syrian revolution.

Accepting the prize, producer Orwa Nyrabia took a political tack, saying that the win "gives us some hope a president could be ousted and some president in another place could change his mind and do something finally."

Elsewhere in U.S. narrative categories, Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman took the prestigious Waldo Salt screenwriting prize for "The Skeleton Twins," a story about a pair of reuniting siblings. The film, which stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, was very warmly received at the festival. It has been acquired by Lionsgate/Roadside and will be released in late summer or early fall, according to its filmmaker.

Hodierne took to the stage with some of his actors and noted that "we went to the opposite side of the world" casting actors from Kenya in key parts. "If they could speak English, we'd really be talking right now," he said as they stood behind him. One of the performers then took the microphone and said, "English small.... I love you, everybody. I love you, everybody."

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