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This Year’s Sundance Crop Yields More Non-Fiction Oscar Contenders Than Fiction

Sundance award winners gained traction toward landing distribution or eyeballs or the kind of trajectory that leads to the Oscars.

"Navalny" doc

“Navalny”

Every January, the Sundance Film Festival launches a slew of documentary Oscar contenders, and 2022 was no different. While there are exceptions (Oscar winners “Citizenfour,” “Free Solo” and “My Octopus Teacher”), most eventual documentary Oscar nominees launch at Sundance. It’s the festival of choice for non-fiction films to be seen and discovered.

You can see why: Making the Oscar shortlist for 2022 were Sundance 2021 debuts from Nanfu Wang (HBO’s China Covid exposé “In the Same Breath”), Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen (Neon’s animated immigration saga “Flee”), self-taught Jessica Beshir (Janus’ dive into Ethiopia’s khat industry “Faya Dayi”), Camilla Nielsson (Greenwich Entertainment’s Zimbabwe expose “President”); and rookie filmmaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (Searchlight/Hulu’s 1969 concert film “Summer of Soul”).

This year’s new pandemic era Sundance crop is just as impressive.

Documentary award winners get a boost

The jury prizes didn’t go to the buzziest titles: those films nabbed the audience awards. But Sundance award-winners got a lift toward getting seen and, if needed, acquired.

Winning jury prizes were Shaunak Sen’s World Documentary “All That Breathes,” about two brothers who rescue the predator birds circling in the polluted air above New Delhi, and Ben Klein and Violet Columbus’ U.S. Documentary entry “The Exiles,” which combined 30-year-old archive footage shot by NYU professor/filmmaker Christine Choy with arresting contemporary interviews with her and three activist exiles from China, who left the country in the wake of their protests in 1989 at Tiananmen Square and never returned.

In contrast, both the Documentary Audience prize and Festival Favorite Awards went to riveting docu-thriller “Navalny” (CNN/HBO Max), Daniel Roher’s film about the charismatic Russian opposition leader who dared to survive poisoning by Vladimir Putin’s thugs and after recovering in Germany, brazenly returned to Russia amid throngs of supporters — and was clapped in jail.

Fire of Love

“Fire of Love

Courtesy Sundance Film Festival

Collecting the NEXT Audience Award was Chase Joynt’s documentary “Framing Agnes,” which looks at how trans people are portrayed in media; the film also took home the NEXT Innovator Award. The World Cinema Documentary Audience Award went to “The Territory,” about the effects of deforestation on indigenous people in Brazil, which also earned the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Documentary Craft, and was picked up by NatGeo.

NatGeo also grabbed Sara Dosa’s buzzy opening nighter “Fire of Love,” brilliantly narrated by Miranda July, which tracked through the decades two French volcanologists in love not only with each other but their work chasing erupting volcanoes around the globe. It collected the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award for U.S. Documentary.

Also winning Special Jury Awards: U.S. Documentary’s Impact for Change for “Aftershock,” a shocking look at Black maternal mortality directed and produced by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, and U.S. Documentary’s Creative Vision for “Descendant.” Margaret Brown examines the racial divide in America through the eyes of the inhabitants of Africatown, near her home of Mobile, Alabama, who are descendants of the last slaves brought to the U.S. coast by the schooner Clotilda, just before The Civil War. Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground purchased the film at the festival, and will chase awards.

Bill Nighy appears in Living by Oliver Hermanus, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Number 9 Films/Ross Ferguson.

Living

Sundance

Fiction Oscar Contenders

Sundance 2021 delivered more feature Oscar contenders than usual, including eventual Oscar-winners “Minari,” “The Father,” and “Promising Young Woman. ” But that feat is unlikely to repeat this year, as many of the festival’s most popular films, from Searchlight/Hulu pickup “Fresh” to Grand Jury prize-winner “Nanny,” are genre fare. This year, the film most likely to succeed at the Oscars did not collect prizes: South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus’ tearjerker “Living,” adapted by novelist-screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro from Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic “Ikiru,” stars master thespian Bill Nighy as a proper Englishman who wakes up and sees the people around him in a new way when he learns he has months to live. Nighy’s delicate performance could nab him his first Oscar nomination, and Sony Pictures Classics will do everything they can to make that happen.

Emma Thompson might have been a possible contender for “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” about an English widow who hires a sex worker (Daryl McCormack) in order to learn more about sex, but Searchlight is branding it a Hulu Original.

Also likely to wind up in the Oscar race is World Drama winner “Utama,” Brazil filmmaker Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s portrait of aging llama herders trying to survive a drought, which could be submitted for Best International Feature Film next year. And Finland could submit Alli Haapasalo’s coming-of-age story “Girl Picture,” which won the World Cinema Drama Audience Award.

Writer-director-actor Cooper Raiff’s Audience Award winner “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” starring Dakota Johnson, was scooped up by AppleTV+ for $15 million, $10-million less than last year’s big Sundance buy “CODA,” which is a major Oscar contender, landing key nominations from the Critics Choice Awards, SAG, PGA, and WGA. Don’t expect this scruffy and endearing family saga to follow the hard-to-replicate “CODA” path. But Raiff and Johnson (with great reviews for “Am I OK?”) came out of this festival way ahead. The world is their oyster.

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