Ever since “In the Bedroom” in 2001, Sundance has just about always delivered a few Oscar contenders a year, especially on the documentary side. (This year’s Sundance 2017 Oscar contenders include “Get Out,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “The Big Sick,” and non-fiction nominees “Last Men in Aleppo,” “Icarus” and Strong Island.”) But just as the 2018 acquisitions market is softer than previous years, there’s also a decided rift between traditional adult arthouse fare — which distributors consider a safer bet for the expensive theatrical run that builds an Oscar contender — and movies aimed at a more diverse, younger audience. The result made the awards prospects in this year’s lineup much harder to assess.
Big Plans From New Players
However, there were plenty of schemes on display. At one dinner for rookie director Michael Pearce’s stylish UK noir romance “Beast” (starring breakouts Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn), indie mogul Micah Green, the ex-CAA agent whose opportunistic financing company 30West just bought a majority stake in active Sundance buyer Neon, said that he had years ago decided that Radius distributor Tom Quinn should launch a distribution company aimed at the younger audience that is underserved by older executives selling movies to older adults.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
With Oscar-nominee “I, Tonya” tearing up the box office, Quinn’s Neon went on a Sundance buying spree, picking up tech thriller “Assassination Nation” for $10 million, plus Reinaldo Marcus Green’s compelling New York police triptych “Monsters and Men,” Tim Wardle’s documentary-thriller “Three Identical Strangers” and AMC’s TIFF-pickup “Revenge,” Coralie Fargeat’s Midnight movie. While Neon’s Sundance titles may prove commercial, none are in the Oscar zone, unless documentary “Three Identical Strangers” passes muster in the documentary race.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Arguably, A24 also serves a younger market niche reachable via canny online marketing. They came into the festival with video maven Bo Burnham’s remarkable R-rated feature debut “Eighth Grade” (Metascore: 83) produced by Oscar perennial Scott Rudin (“Lady Bird’), which tells the up-close story of an awkward 12-year-old girl (discovery Elsie Fisher) who tries to connect with her peers in an isolating social media environment, shrugging away her doting single Dad (excellent Josh Hamilton). While the movie deserves its acting, directing and writing accolades, we shall see how A24 plays its hand; it’s not an obvious Academy movie.
Also hitting big with critics was A24’s Toni Collette thriller “Hereditary” (Metascore: 89), which terrified Sundance midnight crowds; the noisy buzz for writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature should fuel a robust theatrical run along the lines of A24’s Sundance buy “The Witch” two years ago. Aster is already fielding Hollywood calls.
This year’s slim field of potential Oscar contenders is aimed at the usual older demo. Netflix produced Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life” (Metascore: 81) starring Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as a couple struggling with a midlife infertility crisis; they turn to their beloved niece (breakout Kayli Carter) to consider donating some of her eggs to the cause, to the horror of her mother (Molly Shannon). Netflix plans a fall festival break for the movie as an awards season launch.
The popular breakout of the festival was “Twenty Feet from Stardom” Oscar winner Morgan Neville’s portrait of the late PBS children’s host Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (Tomatometer: 100%), which Focus Features scooped up last summer for June 2018 release. The audience at Sundance was in tears, slayed by a portrait of a beloved cultural figure who tried to do good. Neville told me that he hopes this movie about a well-meaning Conservative Republican Presbyterian minister will reach a wider swath than the usual liberal moviegoer.
Wash Westmoreland’s “Colette” is a conventional arthouse play, predictably picked up by Bleecker Street (partnering with 30West). The charming British-accented biopic stars Keira Knightley as a smart young French beauty plucked from the country in Burgundy to marry a sophisticated older Parisian, womanizer Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). She ghostwrites his “Willy” potboilers for him until she eventually grows into her own identity as a woman writer (“Gigi,” “Cheri”), stage performer and lover of women. Knightley and West are both superb in the well-mounted period movie, which could ignite long-term interest.
The distributor also acquired Debra Granik’s tender father-daughter drama “Leave No Trace” (Metascore: 82) about a man (Ben Foster) and a girl (New Zealand discovery Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) living off the grid in a forest on the edge of Portland, Oregon. This movie is quieter than Granik’s “Winter’s Bone,” which seven years ago had powerhouse Jennifer Lawrence to propel it into the Oscar race, though McKenzie is certainly another breakout.
Amazon Studios debuted stateside its Cannes hit from Lynne Ramsay, “You Were Never Really Here” (Metascore: 88) which earned Joaquin Phoenix Best Actor at that festival for his searing performance as a brutal, hammer-wielding hitman who tries to save a young girl from the sex trade. Phoenix also reunited with Gus van Sant as paraplegic cartoonist John Callahan in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (Metascore: 71), which Amazon will also release. Van Sant’s film received a tepid response from most critics, but Ramsay’s film continues to find a supportive audience and could break through the awards season conversation.
Also aiming for the older arthouse route are several movies whose producers are weighing offers: Nick Hornby adaptation “Juliet, Naked” is a delightful romantic comedy triangle starring Rose Byrne as a wife who is bored with her husband Chris O’Dowd, who is obsessed with a reclusive American folk rocker (Ethan Hawke), who turns up on the scene. Filmmaker Jesse Peretz (“Girls”) had to rush to the Sundance finish line; the movie definitely plays better to an older demo but its reviews are not awards level (Metascore: 56) as producers Judd Apatow & Barry Mendel (“The Big Sick”) and Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger (“Nebraska”) try to figure out the right course to take.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Steve Cosens.
Earning better reviews (Metascore: 67) was Ethan Hawke’s third feature film “Blaze,” an accomplished musical portrait of late country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, played with sensitivity by Arkansas musician-turned-actor Ben Dickey. Writer-actress Sybil Rubin helped Hawke to adapt her memoir of her romance with Foley. Alia Shawkat, Charlie Sexton and Josh Hamilton provide ace support. This could do modest business on the arthouse circuit.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut “Wildlife” (Metascore: 83) is a ’60s dysfunctional family tale preserved in amber and observed by the 14-year-old son (Australian discovery Ed Oxenbould) of unhappy, unfulfilled parents (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, the latter of whom gives an awards-worthy performance). But the bleak drama has no connection to the here and now, and distributors are leery of its commerciality at the same time that they recognize this superb trio of actors.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Bound to play for younger audiences are a batch of Sundance entries that earned modest but not over-the-moon support, including Grand Jury Prize winner “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” (Metascore: 76), starring Chloe Moretz as a girl who refuses to be placed in a conventional sexual box by authority figures (the filmmakers have yet to close a distribution deal) as well as two films about confronting the justice system, unacquired “Monster,” about a standup New York film student (Sundance breakout Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who is put on trial for assisting in a bodega murder, and Oakland police drama “Blindspotting” (Metascore: 62), which broke out “Hamilton” Tony-winner Daveed Diggs as a movie star and went to Lionsgate. None of them are obvious awards contenders, though their timely subject matters could help elevate them in the conversation.
The festival was also marked by a rash of documentary hybrids, though none of them are surefire awards contenders. Among the highlights was the narrative debut from non-fiction filmmaker Jennifer Fox with “The Tale,” an intense drama starring Laura Dern as the filmmaker as she explores her own sexual assault as a young girl. HBO will release the buzzy movie on premium cable for Emmy consideration, taking it out of the Oscar race.
Meanwhile, British director Bart Layton scored with his brilliantly re-enacted true-life heist story “American Animals,” combining actors with the matured college students who bungled a rare-book robbery that went awry. While in jail the hapless culprits gave Layton plenty of material; when they emerged, the men told their tale on camera. MoviePass Ventures, which was in acquisitions mode for the first time at the festival, picked up the movie with distributor The Orchard. It’s unlikely that the movie would qualify as a documentary by Academy standards.
In another move beyond the documentary arena, Crystal Mozelle followed up 2015 Sundance documentary breakout “The Wolfpack” with another well-observed, but fictionalized, portrait of a fascinating posse of New York kids, girl skaters “Skate Kitchen.” She’s still seeking distribution for the minor-key movie, which co-stars Jaden Smith; don’t expect it to make a lot of noise in awards season.
Sundance usually provides at least two or three documentaries for the Oscar race, but this time the only obvious contender is Neville’s tearjerker “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (Focus), followed by Neon’s “Three Identical Strangers.” So far, free-spending Netflix Documentaries has not acquired any of the Sundance selection, which tells you something.
HBO picked up another four-hankie movie, audience-prize-winning documentary “The Sentence” by rookie feature director Rudy Valdez, who documented the impact on his family of his rehabilitated sister’s incarceration with a minimum sentence of 15 years, leaving behind a husband and three daughters. But the effective home movie, while it packs an emotional punch, is not polished enough to impress the fussy Academy documentary branch.
Three other well-reviewed Sundance documentary portraits will likely remain in the HBO broadcast realm: “King in the Wilderness,” an archival-driven portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last years; Susan Lacy biodoc “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” and Marina Zenovich’s “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” (Metacritic: 73).
Well-received but unlikely to register on a big scale was Ruth Bader Ginsberg doc “RBG” (CNN/Magnolia), which was accompanied by the Supreme Court justice, as well as Sandi Tan’s investigation into her missing 1992 movie, “Shirkers” (Metacritic: 83); she’s still seeking a distribution deal.
Among the straightforward low-budget documentaries making a Sundance mark but unlikely to be Oscar contenders are Alexandria Bombach’s “On Her Shoulders,” tracking ISIS rape victim-turned-activist Nadia Murad, which took home a directing prize, as well as Laura Nix’s environmental agit-prop “Inventing Tomorrow,” which offered much-needed hope that young science brainiacs are eager to save our planet.
Never to be seen in a theater near you: one lucky audience experienced a unique event at the Egyptian in Park City as Sam Green staged his live Kronos Quartet documentary “A Thousand Thoughts” as his four subjects fervently played along live onstage. It may never qualify for the Oscars, but deserves its own award.