'Whiplash,' 'Rich Hill' win top honors at Sundance Film Festival

Sun Jan 26, 2014 12:29am EST
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By Piya Sinha-Roy

(Reuters) - Musical drama "Whiplash" and documentary "Rich Hill," about inhabitants of a poverty-stricken rural U.S. town, took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival awards on Saturday, a key accolade for independent films to find a wider audience.

"Whiplash," the opening night film starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, enticed audiences with its heart-racing story of a jazz drummer in an obsessive pursuit of perfection in his craft. The film won both the audience and grand jury awards in the U.S. drama competition.

The awards were a big win for 28-year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle, who won the U.S. fiction short film grand jury prize last year at Sundance with a short version of "Whiplash," which he then made into a feature film for this year.

"I remember my first time here was with a short, and the whole reason we made a short was because of my experiences as a drummer," Chazelle said. "No one wanted to finance the film because no one wants to make a film about a jazz drummer, surprising," he added with a laugh.

The film has been snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics for $3 million, and could follow the path of its Sundance predecessors such as 2010's "Winter's Bone" and 2012's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which both won the grand jury dramatic prize and subsequently landed Oscar nods.

The grand jury U.S. documentary prize went to "Rich Hill," which explored the lives of three adolescent boys living in the rural Missouri town of Rich Hill, who try to overcome the struggles of poverty.

"This is a small film but it's got a big heart and we dedicate it to the families of Rich Hill, Missouri, and the families in this film; the three boys and their families who were so brave and so lovely to let us into their lives and to trust us and reveal some stuff that was so tough," co-director Tracy Droz Tragos said.

The U.S. documentary audience award went to "Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory," which explores the effect of music on elderly patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease.   Continued...

Cast member Miles Teller answers a reporter's question during the premiere of "Whiplash" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 16, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart