Now that it’s all over, let’s take an Oscar-specific look at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which could very well serve as a partial crystal ball into what will be happening in the awards race a year from now.
In the past few years, the best picture-nominated likes of “Precious,” “An Education,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Winter’s Bone” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” all debuted at the festival. Last year’s crop, however, was a major exception to the rule: No Sundance film got a best picture nomination or any acting nominations. The only narrative film to get a nod was “Before Midnight” for best adapted screenplay, though Sundance indeed proved mighty in the documentary feature category, with four of five (save “Act of Killing”) nominees screening in Park City.
So is this year’s lineup heading for a Oscar comeback? It’s obviously way too soon to know anything for certain, but honestly, this year’s Sundance crop seems even less Oscar-friendly than last year.
Here’s a category by category take:
Best Picture: Three of the past five years have seen the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for best U.S. dramatic film get a nomination for best picture (“Precious” in 2009, “Winter’s Bone” in 2010, and “Beasts” in 2012 — “Like Crazy” and last year’s “Fruitvale Station” did not). Does that suggest this year’s incredibly affecting winner, Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” will continue the streak? Maybe, given its major sale to Sony Pictures Classics and its across-the-board acclaim. But the film — the story a young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) who attends one of the best music schools in the country under the tutelage of the school’s fearsome maestro of jazz played by J.K. Simmons — would have to be a breakout hit to make the increasingly mainstream ranks of Oscar’s big category. Not impossible, and definitely as far as we’re concerned the most likely to succeed. Richard Linklater’s epic undertaking “Boyhood” is another possibility, though while it will likely get major critics award approval, it may be a bit too experimental for the Academy’s tastes (but hey, “The Tree of Life” wasn’t). And then there’s Ira Sachs’ love story “Love is Strange” and John Michael McDonagh’s dark comedy “Calvary.” Both highly acclaimed films that got picked up by major companies (Sony Classics and Fox Searchlight, respectively), they are definitely films to watch out for…
Most Likely To Succeed: Whiplash
Dark Horses: Boyhood; Love Is Strange; Calvary
Best Actor: There was an embarrassment of riches in lead male performances this year at Sundance, with the best of them collectively worthy of Oscar’s entire best actor lineup in itself. And this where the noted “Love Is Strange” and “Calvary” are most likely to factor. Their leads — John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in “Love” (though perhaps Molina will go supporting?) and Brendan Gleeson in “Calvary” — were among the most talked about performances of Sundance and that will likely be talked about at the end of the year too. But they are not alone… Bill Hader is incredible in a dramatic turn in “The Skeleton Twins,” as is Mark Ruffalo as a bipolar father in “Infinitely Polar Bear.” And there’s Miles Teller, who is bound be recognized sooner or later and tops his acclaimed work in “Rabbit Hole” and “The Spectacular Now” in the already discussed “Whiplash.” If any category features some Sundance alums, it’s this one.
Most Likely To Succeed: John Lithgow, Love Is Strange; Brendan Gleeson, Calvary
Dark Horses: Alfred Molina, Love Is Strange; Mark Ruffalo, Infinitely Polar Bear; Miles Teller, Whiplash; Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins; Ben Whishaw, Lilting; Paul Eenhoorn, Land Ho!; Earl Lynn Nelson, Land Ho!; Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood.
Best Actress: This category is generally very kind to Sundance lately (or maybe Sundance has just been a very welcoming place for great female performances), with six of the last 25 best-actress nominees debuting their work at the Sundance Film Festival (Quvenzhane Wallis, Gabourey Sidibe, Carey Mulligan, Michelle Williams, Annette Bening and Jennifer Lawrence). But last year was an exception to that rule (with Julie Delpy probably coming closest for “Before Midnight”) and this year looking… even less promising. Rinko Kikuchi (nominated for an Oscar for “Babel” back in 2006) got raves for “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter,” but it just seems like it’s too small and strange a film for Oscar’s tastes. Zoe Saldana (“Infinitely Polar Bear”), Ellen Dorrit Petersen (“Blind”), Keira Knightley (“Laggies”), Elle Fanning (“Low Down”) and Kristen Wiig (“The Skeleton Twins”) will all surely get kind reviews when their films find theatrical release… But Oscar nominations seem pretty unlikely (at least for now).
Most Likely To Succeed: No one, really.
Dark Horses: Rinko Kikuchi, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter; Zoe Saldana, Infinitely Polar Bear; Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Blind; Keira Knightley, Laggies; Elle Fanning, Low Down; Kristen Wiig, The Skeleton Twins
Best Supporting Actor: If I had to place a bet on one Oscar nominee to come out of Sundance, it’s J.K. Simmons. The character actor gives career best work as the fearsome maestro of jazz in “Whiplash,” and it’s totally the kind of performance that Oscar voters eat up — especially when it’s care of an actor who has long gone unnoticed. And then there’s Ethan Hawke, who might be the strongest option from Linklater’s “Boyhood” to get a major nomination (it’s unique territory given his performance comes over 12 years of shooting), while Jonathan Pryce is fantastic in “Listen Up Phillip,” even though the movie itself might be too small to get major awards recognition.
Most Likely To Succeed: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Dark Horses: Ethan Hawke, Boyhood; Jonathan Pryce, Listen Up Phillip
Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei sure has shown the naysayers who said her 1993 win for “My Cousin Vinny” was a fluke (or even an accident). She’s been nominated twice since, and stands a good shot at more recognition for her subtle, layered work in Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange.” Though not as showy a role as Lithgow’s or Molina’s, it’s arguably just as impressive. And as far as “showy” goes, Eva Green’s performance in Gregg Araki’s “White Bird In a Blizzard” sure falls under the category — with her Bette Davis-inspired work as a totally insane housewife by far the actress’s best work of her career — though it’s probably not quite in line with the Academy’s tastes. Maybe a bit more likely are Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”) and Elisabeth Moss (“Listen Up Phillip”). Both should at the very least expect to be in contention for Spirit Award nominations.
Most Likely To Succeed: Marisa Tomei, Love is Strange
Dark Horses: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood; Elisabeth Moss, Listen Up Phillip, Eva Green, White Bird In a Blizzard
Best Documentary Feature: Here’s where we have some certainty. It’s reasonable to feel assured that at least one of Sundance’s docs will end up an Oscar nominee, if not two, three, four or all five (this year, as noted, four screened at Sundance). Though while the idea of a doc from Sundance being nominated is a very good bet, knowing which doc makes it is next to impossible. Last year one would have thought films like “Blackfish” or “After Tiller” might have ended up nominees, but that wasn’t the case. This year, there’s basically a 20 film-long laundry list to choose from, though I’d give “Life Itself,” “Rich Hill,” “The Overnighters,” “The Case Against 8” and “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” the edge.
Most Likely To Succeed: Life Itself; The Overnighters; Rich Hill; The Battered Bastards of Baseball; The Case Against 8; Last Days in Vietnam; The Internet’s Own Boy
Dark Horses: Concerning Violence; Dinosaur 13; Alive Inside, Happy Valley; E-TEAM, Return To Homs; Watchers of the Sky; Ivory Tower; The Green Prince; 20,000 Days on Earth.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire’s Senior Writer and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter if you want more of the same.