Editor’s note: The updated version of our For Your Consideration column looks at films and events related to awards season that we find exciting and different. For detailed analysis of every Oscar category, check out our Oscar pages.
The Sundance Film Festival may not play a role in the awards season conversation the way that the fall festivals do, but nearly every edition of the Park City gathering offers a few Oscar hopefuls with some potential for making the cut. The 2015 lineup was no exception. The current list of Oscar nominees includes films from Sundance’s premieres section ("Brooklyn") and documentary competition ("Cartel Land," "What Happened, Miss Simone?"), and now that the 2016 program has finished up, a number of buzzworthy titles seem well-positioned to creep into the next round of awards hype in the months to come.
Here’s a rundown of a few strong possibilities.
"The Birth of a Nation"
No other new title came out of Sundance with more heat than Nate Parker’s directorial debut, "The Birth of a Nation." By any metric, Parker’s fact-based take on the life of slave-turned-preached-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner dominated the festival, with a purchase by Fox Searchlight that marked it as the biggest buy to ever come out of Sundance (and, as it’s been noted, making it potentially the biggest buy of any finished film at any film festival ever) and awards night wins from both the jury and the audience. The Grand Jury Prize-winning crowd-rouser will be released into theaters later this year, and you better count on Fox Searchlight to expend plenty of time and energy to make sure it stays very firmly in the awards conversation, no matter how many months off that may be (read: it’s plenty of months, but still). The film will likely be a part of the conversation for heavy-hitting categories like Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor, all of which would give Parker a huge boost in Hollywood. That "Birth of a Nation" premiered to rapturous pre-screening applause at its premiere — a premiere that unfolded mere days after the latest round of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy — cannot be overstated, but it remains to be seen if the Academy is ready to enact the kind of change the fans of the film are already calling for. —Kate Erbland
Kelly Reichardt has never made commercial movies. For a long time after her 1994 debut, "River of Grass," she wasn’t making movies, period. But after returning to the scene with her extraordinarily nuanced character study "Old Joy" in 2006, Reichardt has quietly emerged as one of the most observant filmmaking voices in American cinema today. Her measured approach has attracted bigger names in recent years, from regular collaborator Michelle Williams ("Wendy and Lucy," "Meek’s Cutoff") to Jesse Eisenberg ("Night Moves"). Reichardt’s latest effort is one of her most ambitious storytelling efforts to date, an adaptation of Maile Meloy’s short stories about a series of distinctive female characters in rural America. These include Williams as a home developer eager to purchase materials from an aging man, Laura Dern as a conflicted lawyer with an enraged middle-aged client and Kristen Stewart as an adult education instructor who attracts an alienated rancher. Though its glacial pace makes "Certain Women" into a tough commercial proposition, Reichardt elegantly structured screenplay and a credibly gentle turn by Stewart are both awards-worthy performances. Reichardt herself is overdue for a directing nomination, and while it might be asking a lot to hope she gets it this time, her talent for threading atmosphere and narrative together is unmistakable. —Eric Kohn
"Manchester By the Sea"
Although it played out of competition at the festival, Kenneth Lonergan’s latest drama debuted to almost instant accolades at Sundance, which were later echoed in our own Critics Poll. The time-spanning drama effectively weaves between past and present to tell the wrenching ballad of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a man whose mistakes — both major and minor — have derailed his entire life. It’s a lyrical and extremely well-made film, and it’s just the kind of thing that will likely spark Academy voters in a big way. Of all of this year’s Sundance entries, "Manchester By the Sea" seems like a strong contender for a wide variety of Oscar nominations, including potential nods for Affleck (Best Actor), along with Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges in supporting categories. Lonergan could also walk away with nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, while Jennifer Lame’s impeccable work could earn the editor her first Academy nom. And, if any Sundance film from 2016 already looks like a lock for a Best Picture nomination, it’s this one by a mile. —KE
"Weiner" contains many illuminating moments about former congressman
Anthony Weiner’s failed mayoral campaign, but nothing tops the scene in
which it all comes crashing down. Shortly after he realizes that he’s
facing more evidence of his online sexting antics, he summarizes the
situation in blunt terms: "Fuck." Co-directed by former Weiner chief of staff Josh Kriegman with Elyse
Steinberg, "Weiner" confronts all the remarkable tension implied by that word. While "Weiner" follows its titular subject around for most of the
running time, it’s his wife Huma Abedin who emerges as the chief victim of his second downfall.
Often seen at the sidelines, the woman best known as Hillary Clinton’s
closest confidante inhabits the audience’s perspective as a witness to
utter failure. But for her, it’s personal. Winner of the grand jury prize for best documentary, "Weiner" is coming out this May and will almost certainly generate a lot of heat around its salacious topic. Fortunately, the movie lives up to the hype. That should help it maintain its profile throughout the year as awards season kicks off. It’s unquestionably the first non-fiction achievement of 2016 that stands a good shot at the best documentary race, at least until the field crowds up. Even then, however, that title is bound to stick out. —EK
"Do you ever do anything because you want to?" That question, asked
by the college-aged Bedouin woman Layla (Lamis Ammar) in Israeli
director’s Elite Zexer’s quietly observant debut, speaks to the movie’s
underlying issues. The stripped-down drama, set almost entirely within
the constraints of the traditionalist village where Layla grew up, pits
her individualism against the rituals that kept her there. A resolutely
small work focused on Layla’s attempts to avoid a pre-arranged marriage,
"Sand Storm" offers a unique window into an arena of limited
possibilities. As she’s forced to confront her parents, who expect her to go along with a prearranged marriage, "Sand Storm" becomes a kind of stripped-down suspense film about familial tensions. Its feminist angle and delicate storytelling could elevate it on the arthouse circuit and keep it in the conversation for the foreign language film race. —EK
This year’s Sundance played home to a pair of dueling Christine Chubbuck features — thanks to Robert Greene’s bold documentary "Kate Plays Christine" and Antonio Campos’ more traditional take on the material with his "Christine" — that both spoke to the newscaster’s tragic tale in different. though still effective, ways. In Campos’ narrative feature, Rebecca Hall stars as the ill-fated reporter during her final days in swinging ’70s Sarasota, Florida. As Chubbuck’s life — both personal and professional — begins to spiral out of her control, Hall turns in one of her most moving and deeply felt performances yet. Although "Kate Plays Christine" star Kate Lyn Sheil should also be in the best actress conversation, her film’s official designation as a documentary might dissuade most voters. Hall’s performance, however, is singular and should appeal to more traditionally-minded voters. —KE
When he was an executive at Focus Features, James Schamus produced smart, mature dramas for serious-minded moviegoers. Shifting into director mode with his first feature, the 56-year-old Schamus makes quite an impression. Adapting Philip Roth’s fifties-era tale of a neurotic college Jew (Logan Lerman) entranced by a mysterious blond woman (Sarah Gadon), "Indignation" is a gripping coming-of-age tale with surprising moments of levity, eroticism and tragedy. Schamus brings Roth’s voice to light while giving new voice to the material. Lerman and Gadon are both early candidates for acting Oscars, but Schamus’ screenplay is an even bigger contender. After all, he’s played this game before: It’s been 10 years since Schamus managed the Oscar campaign for "Brokeback Mountain" that bagged Ang Lee his first gold statue. —EK
John Carney’s ridiculously crowd-pleasing 1985-set musical had Sundance audiences all but dancing in the actual aisles when it debuted last week. Kitted out with an instantly indelible original soundtrack (featuring songs created by Gary Clark and performed by the stars of the film), "Sing Street" will likely delight fans of musicals, ’80s jams and Carney’s previous works when it’s released later this year. Although its charming screenplay may be able to capture a Best Original Screenplay nod, its biggest chance of bringing home Oscar gold comes care of that darling soundtrack. If anything, the unbelievably catchy "Drive It Like You Stole It" is already our top pick for the category. —KE
Ira Sachs’ newest film skews for a slightly younger demographic than the beloved New York filmmaker is used to crafting films for, but the result is one of his most charming and deeply felt features yet. Starring newbies Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri alongside acting vets like Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle, the film focuses on the blossoming best friendship between the so-called Little Men, a bond that is tested by the machinations of their own parents. The script, by Sachs and frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias, is tight, smart and very sweet, and just may be able to pick up a Best Original Screenplay nod come later this year, if only someone would buy the damn thing and set a release date already. —KE