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At Sundance, ‘Beasts’ and ‘House’ garner top awards

Director Benh Zeitlin and actress Quvenzhane Wallis accept the Sundance jury prize for best drama for “Beasts of the Southern Wild.’’JEMAL COUNTESS/GETTY IMAGES

“Beasts of the Southern Wild’’ and “The House I Live In’’ won the top awards at the Sundance Film Festival over the weekend, making them likely favorites for independent movie audiences in 2012.

Directed by Benh Zeitlin and set in impoverished Louisiana, “Beasts of the Southern Wild’’ picked up the jury prize for best drama as well as best cinematography with its poetic tale of the bond between a father and a daughter.

The documentary winner, “The House I Live In,’’ was one of many documentaries at Sundance 2012 that looked at a struggling America. It’s an examination of America’s war on drugs and critiques of US drug policies, its court system, prisons, and their impact on minorities. “The war on drugs is a terrible scar on America,’’ said director Eugene Jarecki.

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Special juries of industry professionals vote on winners, and those are considered the top prizes but audiences also vote for their favorites.

“The Surrogate,’’ which stars Helen Hunt and John Hawkes and is about a man’s quest to lose his virginity while mostly confined to an iron lung, won the Audience Award for best drama. The film, based on the life of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, fetched one of the highest selling prices at the festival - a reported $6 million - and with its mix of comedy and drama could turn out to be one of the bigger US indie hits in cinemas to come out of the festival.

The Audience Award for documentary was given to “The Invisible War,’’ about an epidemic of sexual assault in the US military, shining a light on a little known problem.

Other documentary special jury prizes went to “Love Free or Die,’’ about the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson; and “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,’’ about the Chinese artist and activist.

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‘The Grey’ opens at No. 1

Liam Neeson’s survivalist thriller “The Grey’’ topped the weekend box office with $20 million, according to studio estimates yesterday, continuing the actor’s success as an action star.

It’s an unlikely turn for the 59-year-old Neeson, previously better known for his dramatic performances, like those in “Schindler’s List’’ and “Kinsey.’’

Last week’s box-office leader, “Underworld: Awakenings,’’ came in second with $12.5 million, while the romantic comedy “One for the Money’’ with Katherine Heigl earned $11.8 million.

The unexpectedly large haul for “The Grey,’’ strong holdovers (such as the George Lucas-produced World War II action film “Red Tails,’’ which earned $10.4 million in its second week), and the bump for Oscar-contending films following last week’s nominations added up to a good weekend for Hollywood. The box office was up about 15 percent on the corresponding weekend last year. (AP)