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For Your Consideration: Sundance and Next Year's Oscars

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire January 31, 2012 at 10:00AM

The Sundance Film Festival can be a significant launching pad for Oscar nominees. In the past few years, the best picture-nominated likes of "Precious," "An Education," "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter's Bone" all debuted at festival. But last year's crop significantly fell short of the norm, despite what seemed like a lot of potential in films like "Take Shelter," "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Like Crazy."
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Ben Lewin's "The Surrogate"
Fox Searchlight Ben Lewin's "The Surrogate"

The Sundance Film Festival can be a significant launching pad for Oscar nominees. In the past few years, the best picture-nominated likes of "Precious," "An Education," "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter's Bone" all debuted at festival. But last year's crop significantly fell short of the norm, despite what seemed like a lot of potential in films like "Take Shelter," "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Like Crazy."

Films from the 2011 fest received only one nomination in the major categories: "Margin Call" for best original screenplay. The norm is more like 10 or 12 nominations. So will 2012 continue this trend, or bring us back to the heydays of 2009 and 2010?

Unfortunately, it's probably the former. Despite a lot of sales, this year's Sundance slate looks like it might be even less Oscar-friendly than last year. Nothing screamed "Oscar" like "Precious," "An Education" and "The Kids Are All Right" have in years past -- except perhaps Ben Lewin's "The Surrogate," which honestly feels like the festival's only Oscar possibility.

It's obviously way too soon to know anything for certain (no one would have initially predicted "Winter's Bone" would do as well as it did two years ago), but let's run down the few possibilities:

Best Picture: Before last year, there was two years running when two of Oscar's top 10 have been Sundance alums; in both years, one of those nominees received the festival's Grand Jury Prize for best U.S. dramatic film ("Precious" in 2009, "Winter's Bone" in 2010). Does that suggest this year's winner,  "Beasts of the Southern Wild" will continue the streak? Maybe, given its major sale to Fox Searchlight and its across-the-board acclaim. But it's not a very commercial film, and the Academy is coming off an ultra-commercial year for best-picture nominees (save, of course, for "The Tree of Life," which, like "Beasts," was formally quite experimental). It could get some serious backing from critics awards, but it's likely another Fox Searchlight film has a much better shot: Ben Lewin's hilarious, touching "The Surrogate." Winner of the audience award at Sundance, the film is based on the true story of Mark O'Brien, a poet paralyzed from neck down due to polio who hired a sex surrogate to lose his virginity. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt star as O'Brien and sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene respectively and both have received huge buzz for their performances (see below). Beyond those two, though? There's really nothing to phone home about Oscar-wise.

Most Likely To Succeed: The Surrogate
Dark Horses: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Best Actor: The most likely of all potential major nominees is Sundance darling John Hawkes for his work in "The Surrogate." Acquired by Fox Searchlight, audience members saw a career-defining performance from Hawkes playing -- like it or not -- an Academy favorite: A disabled person with a sense of humor. The Academy nominated Hawkes' much more subtle work in "Winter's Bone" a few year's back, so hopefully they'll also warm to his work here. Also look out for Frank Langella in "Robot and Frank" and Richard Gere in "Arbitrage" -- both great performances in somewhat underwhelming films.

Most Likely To Succeed: John Hawkes, The Surrogate
Dark Horses: Frank Langella, Robot and Frank; Richard Gere, Arbitrage


Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry on the set of "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Jess Pinkham Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry on the set of "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Best Actress: This category is generally very kind to Sundance lately (or has Sundance just been a very welcoming place for great female performances?), with fiv of the last 15 best-actress nominees debuting their work at the Sundance Film Festival (Gabourey Sidibe, Carey Mulligan, Michelle Williams, Annette Bening and Jennifer Lawrence). Last year had quite a few hopefuls -- Elizabeth Olsen, Felicity Jones, Olivia Colman -- but none panned out. But this year could definitely give us one Oscar nominee in, yep, a performance from "The Surrogate." It's been 15 years since Helen Hunt won an Oscar for "As Good As It Gets," and she's never been nominated since. Things could change with her work opposite Hawkes -- either here, or maybe in supporting. The wild card besides her is 6-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, who is simply remarkable in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and could end up the youngest Oscar nominee ever if voters have any heart.

Most Likely To Succeed: Helen Hunt, The Surrogate
Dark Horses: Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Melanie Lynskey, Hello I Must Be Going

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 or four (this year two - "Hell and Back Again" and "If a Tree Falls" - made it, though it's usually more than that). 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 assumed breakouts like "Project Nim," "The Interrupters" and "Buck" would have ended up nominees, but that wasn't the case. And then there's the matter of the new documentary rules, so who really knows. But "How To Survive a Plague," "The Invisible War," "The House I Live In" and "Searching For Sugar Man" seem like the strongest possibilities at this point.

Most Likely To Succeed: How To Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, The House I Live In, Searching For Sugar Man
Dark Horses: The Law In These Parts, West of Memphis, The Queen of Versailles, Putin's Kiss, Me@The Zoo, The Ambassador, 5 Broken Cameras, Detropia, Love Free or Die, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry


Peter Knegt is Indiewire's Senior Editor. Follow him on Twitter and on his blog. Check out his weekly Oscar prediction chart here.