As made evident earlier this week, the Sundance Film Festival can be a significant launching pad for Oscar nominees. This year's nominations included two for best picture - "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire" and "An Education" - that had debuted at last year's festival, while a myriad of other nominations did the same, including four from the acting categories, nearly half the screenplay nominees, and two of the best documentary contenders. While 2009 was definitely a standout year for Sundance films, it is probably not likely to replicate that record, though this year's festival - which closed out this past weekend - had at least a few 2011 Oscar hopefuls in its mix.
It's obviously way too soon to know anything (though most of us were calling Mo'Nique around this time a year ago), but here is a rundown of some possibilities from films that premiered at last month's festival anyway:
The Kids Are All Right
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Cast: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska; Josh Hutcherson
Distributor: Focus Features
Release Date: July
Perhaps Sundance 2010's Oscar MVP, Lisa Cholodenko’s "The Kids are All Right" was the biggest acquisition to come out of the fest, and one of its critical darlings. Starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple negotiating the unexpected new presence of their children's sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo), "Kids" has some considerable markings of a potential awards darling: Accessibility, timely subject matter, critical support, and two fantastic performances from two of the most tragically Oscarless actresses out there.
"The performances are across the board fantastic, and it would not be a surprise if a year from now Bening, Moore and Ruffalo all find themselves in contention for Oscar nominations," I noted at the time in a dispatch from Park City. "Though it’s actually Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg’s script that is “Kids”‘s strongest asset. Its power lies in how consistently funny and deceptively lighthearted it feels. But in the end, the affecting nature of the film creeps up on you. The film’s passionate final scenes leave you with the immediate realization that there is much more at play here than simply a sharp romantic comedy."
Oscar possibilities (in order of likelihood): Best actress (Annette Bening); Best original screenplay; Best (supporting?) actress (Julianne Moore); Best picture; Best supporting actor (Mark Ruffalo); Best director.
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Release Date: TBA
Like "Precious" and "An Education," Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" screened in competition, and is essentially the only narrative competition film with any real Oscar hope (accomplished Grand Jury Prize winner "Winter's Bone" is likely Indie Spirit bound, but that's about it). With the Weinsteins backing it, "Valentine"'s awards strengths most certainly lie in the lead performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who won over critics with their intense and accomplished work as a couple whose marriage is imploding.
"Gosling and Williams put on some of the best performances of their careers, conveying a series of complex sentiments with subtle movements and gestures," indieWIRE wrote in in its review of the film from Sundance. "These are raw performances, at times enhanced by their vulgarity: Williams, in particular, seems to unleash her understated tendencies in many scenes where her body and hesitant sexuality take center stage."
Oscar possibilities (in order of likelihood): Best actor (Ryan Gosling); Best actress (Michelle Williams); Best original screenplay; Best picture; Best original score.
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Cast: Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steele, Ann Guilbert
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Release Date: April
Nicole Holofcener's three previous films ("Friends With Money," "Lovely & Amazing," "Walking and Talking"), while all well-received, never broke through into Oscar contention territory. With "Please Give" - which went into Sundance with distribution from Sony Pictures Classics (no stranger to the Academy Awards this year with its 13 nominations) - Holofcener may have her best shot yet. Receiving a potent score from critics, the film stars Holofcener staple Catherine Keener as a mother and wife who owns a successful business selling furniture with her husband (Oliver Platt) that they obtain through estate sales. They own the apartment next door which they would like to combine with their own, but they must wait for the cranky tenant next door (scene stealer Ann Guilbert) to die. The wait becomes a bit complex as the couple develop a relationship with the old woman’s grown granddaughters (Amanda Peet and a very affecting Rebecca Hall).
"Holofcener’s smart and entertaining script deftly combines sass, issues of self-esteem, commitment, body issues and contradicting moral ambiguity, which brings dynamism and sparks to the crowd pleaser," Brian Brooks wrote in his report for indieWIRE. While major awards contention is probably a bit iffy considering its a fairly small film, Holofcener's screenplay and a few of the fantastic supporting performances could break through.
Oscar possibilities (in order of likelihood): Best original screenplay; Best supporting actress (Rebecca Hall); Best supporting actress (Ann Guilbert)
Director: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Cast: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Release Date: TBA
A considerably greater long shot - and perhaps impossibility - is the very well-recieved, mostly improvised dark comedy "Cyrus," which should be noted if only because of its breakout potential. The film follows John (John C. Reilly), a down-on-his luck film editor whose life takes a significant and strange turn when he becomes romantically involved with Molly (Marisa Tomei), a woman with an unusually close bond with her 21-year old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill).
Their antics are sure to win over audiences, and the performances - particularly Jonah Hill's - could actually find significant critical support. Critical approval, however, never ended up culminating in nominations for another batch of improvised comedies, such as the Christopher Guest films, despite what one can assume were numerous close calls for its cast members (Catherine O'Hara in "For Your Consideration," Fred Willard in "Best in Show," for example). But a possibility it remains...
Oscar possibilities (in order of likelihood): Best supporting actor (Jonah Hill), Best original screenplay (hey, "Best in Show" received a WGA nod).
Documentaries in general
Distributors: Few so far
Whether prize winners like "Restrepo" or "The Red Chapel," audience favorites like "Waiting For Superman" or "Wasteland," or very well received titles like "12th & Delaware," "GasLand," "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," or "Last Train Home," it's more than likely one or two of them will eventually make the documentary feature cut come next year. This year, both "The Cove" and "Burma VJ" received Oscar nods, with "The Cove" heavily favored to win.
"For Your Consideration" is a weekly column written by indieWIRE Associate Editor Peter Knegt. Check out the previous editions of the column:
For Your Consideration: The 10 Biggest Surprises of the Oscar Nominations
For Your Consideration: Final Oscar Predictions
For Your Consideration: Guessing The Golden Globes
For Your Consideration: Is Kathryn Bigelow a Female Director?
For Your Consideration: Re-Assessing The Major Categories
For Your Consideration: How Much Does Oscar Love a Musical?
For Your Consideration: 10 Surprises From The Spirit Award Nominations
For Your Consideration: A Guide To The Oscar Precursors
For Your Consideration: 25 Things The Academy Got Right In The 2000s
For Your Consideration: The 50 Most Despicable Oscar Snubs of the 2000s
For Your Consideration: Assessing The Major Oscar Categories
For Your Consideration: Oscar's Gay Tendencies
For Your Consideration: 11 Underdog Performances
For Your Consideration: History Repeats as Major Foreign Films Left Off Academy List
For Your Consideration: 10 Things The Fall Fests Told Us About Awards Season