Did Oscar return to the Sundance Film Festival this year?

Posted by · 1:43 pm · January 29th, 2014

Did you know that over the past seven years, six films that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival have been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars? Or, that last year “Beasts of the Southern Wild’s” Benh Zeitlin became only the third Sundance helmer after Peter Cattaneo (“The Fully Monty”) and Lee Daniels (“Precious”) to earn a Best Director nod? Were you aware of the impressive number of nominated actors whose performances first played Park City, including Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”), Mo’Nique (“Precious”), Terrence Howard (“Hustle & Flow”), Michelle Williams (“Blue Valentine”), Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) and Laura Linney (“The Savages”)?

Sure, there have been some off years, but in general, Sundance has been a major player in the awards season ever since “Little Miss Sunshine” shook the annual indie conclave in 2006. And its influence appeared to be on the upswing. Emphasis on “appeared.”

The 2013 edition of the festival was seemingly strong, but the anointed grand jury prize-winning film “Fruitvale Station” didn’t even crack the original screenplay category. And when all the nominees were announced — on the first day of the 2014 festival, no less — the only Sundance alum honored was “Before Midnight” for adapted screenplay and, as usual, a number of nominees in the documentary and short film categories. Luckily, as arguably the premiere documentary festival in the world, Sundance continues to contribute a majority of the Best Documentary Feature field. This year, four out of the five selections all debuted at the previous festival: “20 Feet from Stardom,” “Dirty Wars,” “The Square” and “Cutie and the Boxer.” In fact, six of the last nine best documentary winners premiered at Sundance. And unless “The Act of Killing” pulls out a win, it should be seven out of 10 as of Sunday, March 2.

But, let’s be honest. For a festival that has prided itself on being a bridge between independent film and mainstream success, it was not a good Oscar year. Will 2015 be any different? Well…

There were two major players at this year’s fest that have serious awards potential: Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” and John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary.” The latter was quickly picked up by Fox Searchlight and Brendan Gleeson (Best Actor), Kelly Reilly (Best Supporting Actress) and McDonagh (Best Original Screenplay) could all be nominees a year from now.

“Boyhood,” premiering out of competition, was by far the critics’ pick of the festival. Patricia Arquette should be a player for Best Supporting Actress and Linklater could earn yet another screenplay nomination (original) for this one. The question is whether there will be enough critical heat throughout the year to drive “Boyhood” to potential director and picture nods. If a half-dozen other studios or mini-majors were behind it, you’d give it a serious chance. “Boyhood,” however, is currently set for release from IFC Films. While a supporter of independent film since 2000, they have never been a serious awards season player outside of the documentary or foreign language categories. Will AMC Networks give IFC the budget to play with the big boys now that they have something as special as “Boyhood” on their hands? Or, will IFC partner with someone else to give the film a better chance at broad success? Certainly a subplot to pay attention to as the summer nears.

Another potential awards season player is the grand jury- and audience prize-winning “Whiplash.” It’s hard to see the film entering the Best Picture race, but Sony Classics, who picked up the film after it wowed on opening night, could easily campaign actors Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons (Best Supporting Actor). Craig Johnson’s “The Skeleton Twins” might be able to round up some Independent Spirit Award love for stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, but Roadside Attractions will smartly be focusing on making it a hit first (and they’ve got a shot with it).

The one big remaining question mark revolves around U.S. dramatic competition entry “Infinitely Polar Bear.” There were numerous fans of this tearjerker at the festival and it was somewhat surprising the jury didn’t award Mark Ruffalo an acting prize for his performance (shockingly they completely skipped an acting prize this year). It’s absolutely the best work of Ruffalo’s career and why the film still “appears” to be in acquisition limbo is somewhat bizarre (and co-star Zoe Saldana is pretty fantastic too). Pay attention to this one, however. If a mini-major does come on board or if someone like Paramount picks it up, Ruffalo will be a player.

That being said, there was no “Precious,” “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that rocked Park City in 2014. Hiccup or disappointing trend? Ask us next January.

Guy Lodge contributed to this report.

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