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Sundance May Not Be Big Factor in This Year’s Oscar Race

Sundance May Not Be Big Factor in This Year's Oscar Race

Even with Sony Pictures Classics behind it, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, which has earned raves for Michael Shannon, failed to lure audiences this weekend. Hopefully it will build strong word-of-mouth and critics group votes at year’s end. But even though Sundance has launched multiple Oscar nominees of late–15 in 2010 alone–will other Sundance fave raves Win Win, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Like Crazy and Another Happy Day meet that same fate?

Because such low-budget indies as Blue Valentine, An Education, The Kids Are All Right, Precious, Winter’s Bone and Frozen River broke through with the Academy actors’ branch, boosting unknowns Carey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe and Jennifer Lawrence and veterans Michelle Williams, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, John Hawkes, Mo’Nique, and Melissa Leo into Oscar contention, other distributors harbor hopes that Sundance magic can happen again. But not all indies have the right stuff.

This year, I have more confidence that Fox Searchlight can consolidate the good will surrounding Michael Fassbender’s stellar four-picture year into a nomination for sex-addiction drama Shame, small as that film will be at the box office, than I am in their ability to get audiences to see Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. While the low-key drama serves to introduce a gifted young actress, Elizabeth Olsen, that does not mean that her subtle performance as a brainwashed cult member trying to escape from the clutches of a charismatic Svengali (Hawkes) will translate into votes for best performance of the year. The critics will help turn this into a must-see for the smart house crowd, but several best actress contenders will have to fall away for Olsen to land a slot.

Even so, Olsen has a better shot as a newbie than Like Crazy‘s Felicity Jones, a brilliant young British actress who also popped in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest. Jones and Anton Yelchin play star-crossed lovers in Drake Doremus’s digital romance, which should play better to young audiences than the adult Academy crowd, which tends to prefer more production value. (Here’s the trailer and my interview with Doremus.) Best-picture nominees An Education, The Kids Are All Right, Precious and Winter’s Bone were all exquisitely crafted, well-written, directed and acted, as well as narratively compelling, riveting movies. Also Lone Scherfig, Lisa Cholodenko, Lee Daniels and Debra Granik were more established writer-directors in the industry than are Nichols, Durkin and Doremus.

Shannon still has a shot for Take Shelter–although the best actor category is hugely competitive–because he is a respected working actor from Revolutionary Road to HBO’s Emmy-winning hit Boardwalk Empire, now in its second season. Tom McCarthy’s Win Win should land an original screenplay nomination, but Searchlight will have to bring the movie back into the limelight for Academy watchers to put it at the top of the pile. If they do, they’ll see impeccable performances from Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, who deserve nominations.

Writer-director Sam Levinson won the screenwriting prize at Sundance for family comedy Another Happy Day; Oscar strategist Cynthia Swartz is pushing star Ellen Barkin in the awards season. Shockingly, while Barkin has won an Emmy (Before Women Had Wings), the veteran actress (Diner, The Big Easy, Sea of Love, Switch, Oceans Thirteen) has never been nominated for an Oscar. Many folks have not seen Another Happy Day, which co-stars Kate Bosworth and Ezra Miller; Phase 4 is releasing the film in theaters mid-November.

Finally, as always, the magic combo of release publicity, reviews, box office and year-end kudos will make the difference for these Sundance contenders. But unless the upcoming big guns turn out to be much smaller than expected, it will be tougher than ever to make the necessary noise to raise these indie profiles.

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