Sundance Awards 2012: ‘Beasts Of The Southern Wild’ And ‘The House I Live In’ Win Grand Jury Prizes, ‘The Surrogate’ Cast

Tonight’s Sundance Film Festival Awards ceremony was an emotional roller coaster. The event began characteristically late with a parade of Sundance staff taking to the stage with a tiara and an apology from Festival Director John Cooper who said that actress Parker Posey wouldn’t emcee as originally scheduled because she had taken ill. “She was going to be the Sundance Queen,” Cooper said while displaying her regalia for the evening. As a last minute stand in, Black Rock director Katie Aselton took over for Posey.

Then the light mood turned dark as a large picture of indie maverick Bingham Ray who died here earlier in the week flashed on the screen. The room went silent and Cooper read from a eulogy put together by Ray’s longtime poker buddies: Magnolia Pictures chief Eamonn Bowles, Sony Classics SVP Tom Prassis, Sawyer Studios head Arnie Sawyer, and producer Ben Barenholtz. Cooper choked back tears and had to stop briefly to regain his composure. Afterward, there was quiet applause. And the show went on.

Without Posey the onstage antics were minimal. Most winners skipped acceptance speeches after Cooper advised, “Just say thank you and go on,” and Aselton added, “Really, nobody really cares…”

But then director Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwie: Never Sorry) collected her Special Jury Prize claiming she was “too nervous to say much”. She gave some quick thanks — and then asked the audience to lift a hand and give the finger en masse. She took a photo and explained, “I’ll send this to Ai Weiwei” – a gesture in support of China’s most famous visual artist who has been in and out of house arrest.

For Love Free Or Die, the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize winner, Macky Aselton recalled getting accepted into Sundance 15 years earlier only to be rejected for his next film. ”I remember the raging tantrum. My husband can attest to that. Then the day came when we heard we got into Sundance with [Love Free Or Die] and I was a bigger mess than before.”

Presenting Sundance’s screenwriting award, actor Anthony Mackie praised that ”sometimes you see a movie without a script and it lets you know how important a screenwriter is.”

Taking the audience award for U.S. Dramatic Competition, The Surrogate director Ben Lewin brought down the house when he advised aspiring filmmakers, “Don’t sleep with the leading lady. Sleep with the producer!”

Sleepwalk With Me director Mike Birbiglia showed off his comic skills when presenting audience awards for the U.S. and Dramatic competitions. “This award is presented by Acura because everyone knows when you make an independent film, the first step is to select a luxury sedan!”

U.S. Documentary prize winner Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In) injected a sober moment when he appealed for an end to imprisonments for non-violent crimes related to drugs. ”It’s a terrible tragic little secret. We have 2.3 million people in prison in this country, more than anywhere else,” said Jarecki. “I hope that this film is a vessel to [show] something that is so tragically immoral. We need reform. Sentences for non-violent crime are longer than even murder in this country. It must end!”

Whoops and hollers accompanied the final award for Beasts Of The Southern Wild. which won the big Grand Jury Dramatic prize. Director Benh Zeitlin lifted up his very young lead actress Quvenhané Wallis who shouted, “I got nothing to say. That’s why I told you to talk to the mic.” Zeitlin profusely thanked his backers including Cinereach and his Court 13 group of artists noting he was remarkably free to make his first film despite being a relative filmmaking newcomer. “We should have a ton of people up here. We had more freedom to make this film than any other first time filmmakers have had in America. I hope this movie is a flag that goes up to producers and everyone to allow directors to explore the world creatively and go to the bottom of the earth. It’s great we could be as wild as we could be…”

Rumors were flying at the post awards party that the film has been invited to Cannes. Quite a coup for a first-time U.S. filmmaker if true.