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

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.

"This has been an overwhelming experience for me," director Michael Rossato-Bennett said. "I just made this film because it moved me, I didn't realize how big a topic it was."

The Sundance Film Festival hands out 28 awards at a ceremony broadcast live online, this year hosted by comedian couple Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally.

The annual Sundance Film Festival, backed by actor-filmmaker Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, is the top U.S. independent film festival. This year's edition began on January 16 and will wrap on Sunday.

In the world film competition categories, Chilean-French entry "To Kill A Man" picked up the grand jury prize for drama. Syrian-German entry "Return to Homs," a story of two young men whose lives are turned upside down by the Syrian civil war, landed the grand jury documentary prize.

SPOTLIGHT ON SHORT FILM

Other notable wins at Saturday's awards included "Dear White People" filmmaker Justin Simien landing the jury prize for breakthrough talent. The film, a contender in the U.S. drama competition, is a satirical narrative based on the Twitter feed of the same name.

"I feel so grateful to be here and have a platform for this film, and these characters and these stories that have been under-served for so long in film," Simien, a former film publicist, said.

Filmmaker Cutter Hodierne, who like Chazelle won a special jury prize for his short film "Fishing Without Nets" and then returned to Sundance this year with a feature-length version, won the U.S. drama directing award.

Both Hodierne and Chazelle's success show growing attention being placed on Sundance's short film winners. Filmmakers can use the Sundance boost to gain financing to make feature-length versions of their films.

This year's short film audience prize, sponsored by video-hosting site YouTube and based on the number of online views the films garnered, went to "Chapel Perilous," described as a "metaphysical comedy" about a man who is visited by a salesman with nothing to sell.

The grand jury prize for short film, handed out earlier in the festival, went to documentary "Of God and Dogs," and the U.S. short drama jury prize was awarded to "Gregory Go Boom."

(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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