On January 24, halfway through the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Sundance received its annual reconfirmation of its long-legged success: The Oscar nominations. This year it’s Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” and documentaries “Life, Animated” and “OJ: Made in America.” (Another five docs were shortlisted.)
Among its many other achievements, Sundance breaks out new talent. Agents, casting directors, producers, and filmmakers trawl screening rooms, looking for their next find. They network and party and pass buzz as they go, even when they must plow through blizzards to do it.
Here’s a look at what we might be celebrating this time next year. But remember, it’s a long long way from January to January.
“Call Me By Your Name”
The most obvious Oscar movie stood out from a sea of aspiring American indies, which is likely what Sony Pictures Classics had in mind when they scooped up the film for $6 million ahead of the festival. Adapted by Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino, James Ivory, and Walter Fasano from the book by André Aciman, “Call Me By Your Name” is Guadagnino’s follow-up to “A Bigger Splash.” Suffused with old-world charm, this elegiac summer romance conjures up Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Stealing Beauty.”
But this time, the intensely felt love affair is between the multi-lingual teenage son (“Homeland” breakout Timothée Chalamet) of an American academic (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose summer research assistant is a tall golden boy (Armie Hammer in Robert Redford mode). Audiences and critics were wowed by all three, and Academy voters should follow: Model parent Stuhlbarg delivers a stunning monologue at film’s end. Both acting and craft nominations could finally bring Guadagnino into the Academy mainstream. (Tomatometer: 100%).
“The Big Sick”
A superb screenplay by “Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon, based on their real-life cross-cultural romance, anchors Michael Showalter’s brilliant comedy drama, enabling a strong cast to shine, especially supporting players Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as the parents of Emily, who winds up in the hospital in a coma. Amazon Studios scooped up the movie for $12 million, and should be able to position the timely romance with audiences and critics as well as they did “Manchester By the Sea.” (They will likely partner with Roadside Attractions again.)(Tomatometer: 100%)
Of all the movies at Sundance, “Mudbound,” Dee Rees’s follow-up to “Pariah,” was perhaps the most shocking. That’s because while it was one of the most anticipated movies at the festival, it exceeded expectations by a mile. Sure, crowdpleasers “The Big Sick” and “Patti Cake$” sold also big, but this tale of two neighbor Mississippi families, one white and one black, in conflict after World War II, showed serious scope and ambition. Adapted by Rees and Virgil Williams from Hillary Jordan’s 2009 novel, this movie didn’t think small. Rees and cinematographer Rachel Morrison executed sweeping, gorgeous cinema with disciplined precision.
The sprawling movie follows two sons (Garrett Hedlund and “Straight Outta Compton” star Jason Mitchell) who go to war and return home again, bonding with each other as their elders admonish them to go their separate ways. The superb ensemble is led by Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, and an unrecognizable Mary J. Blige, a powerful supporting actress contender. And in the end,“Mudbound” was the festival’s biggest sale, as Netflix paid $12.5 million for all rights.
While deep-pocketed Netflix had to commit to executing an Oscar campaign to seal the deal, the streaming service is not institutionally set up to deliver on this promise. (Nor do they have the authority a studio would to work closely with Rees on a tighter edit.)
Look at the perfunctory theatrical campaign for “Beasts of No Nation.” Netflix does well marketing documentary Oscar contenders like Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” but they only require qualifying runs. Of all the potential Oscar movies thus far, “Mudbound” will need the most astute handling to land the nominations it deserves — including Rees as the first African-American woman director. (Tomatometer: 95%).
Never underestimate Sony Pictures Classics’ ability to showcase a popular actor like Melissa Leo, who steals this good-nuns-gone-bad movie, directed by Maggie Betts. (Tomatometer: 100%)
After last year’s Sundance sleeper “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” Sam Elliott returns in another Brett Haley film. This time he delivers a moving lead performance as a 70-year-old western star trying to tell the women in his life that he may be dying. His real-life wife, Katharine Ross, and Laura Prepon co-star.