The Sundance 2023 Oscar Contenders: Jonathan Majors, ‘Past Lives,’ and Lots of Docs

Sundance 2023 yielded more nonfiction Oscar contenders, but a Best Actor nomination is possible if "Magazine Dreams" finds the right buyer.
Jonathan Majors at the IndieWire Sundance Studio, Presented by Dropbox on January 20, 2023 in Park City, Utah.
Jonathan Majors at the IndieWire Sundance Studio, Presented by Dropbox
Anna Pocaro for IndieWire

Most Oscar documentary nominees launch at Sundance. There are exceptions, like winners “Citizenfour,” “Free Solo,” and “My Octopus Teacher,” but it remains the festival of choice for non-fiction films.

A Sundance award doesn’t hurt, either: The 2022 documentary Oscar winner, Questlove’s “Summer of Soul,” began its journey as a 2021 Sundance double winner with an Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. This year, the Oscar nominees include “Navalny” (U.S. Documentary audience and Festival Favorite award), “Fire of Love” (editing award), “All that Breathes,” (Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary), and “House Made of Splinters” (World Cinema Documentary Directing Award).

This year’s Sundance crop, sampled by those in Park City theaters as well as online, is just as impressive. Jury prizes didn’t always go to the buzziest titles, but Sundance award-winners get a lift toward getting seen and often acquired.

Sheila Nevins’ MTV Documentary Films grabbed Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi’s “The Eternal Memory,” a heart-tugging story about a loving wife helping her intellectual husband battle Alzheimer’s, which took home the World Cinema Documentary Jury Prize. The distributor plans a theatrical release and an awards push for the documentary from “The Mole Agent” director.

Winning the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize was Joseph Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” which uses the poet’s words to observe decades of U.S. history. Produced by Brewster and Stephenson, Taraji P. Henson serves as an executive producer and provides voiceover narration.

Harrowing Ukraine cinema verite “20 Days in Mariupol” (Frontline/PBS) won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award, while Luke Lorentzen’s pandemic hospital story “A Still Small Voice,” focused on a spiritual counselor coping with unimaginable grief, took home the directing Award for U.S. Documentary. Earning rave reviews was Madeleine Gavin’s “Beyond Utopia,” which deployed hidden cameras to tell the story of North Korean defectors and won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. It’s still seeking distribution.

Magnolia has been active, picking up Lisa Cortes’ popular musical biodoc “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (CNN/HBO Max) early in the festival, which did not pick up any awards, as well as worldwide rights to black-and-white “Kokomo City,” the directorial debut of Grammy-nominated producer, singer, and trans performer D. Smith (“Love & Hip Hop Atlanta”). The film, which tracks four Black transgender sex workers in Atlanta and New York City, won the NEXT Innovator Award. Lena Waithe is among the film’s executive producers; it next plays the Berlinale.

Also not winning prizes but sure to lure audiences was Apple TV+ release “Still: A Michael J. Fox Story,” Davis Guggenheim’s first documentary feature in seven years, which follows the “Back to the Future” icon from his start in Canada through his Hollywood career and Parkinson’s diagnosis at age 29.

A still from Past Lives by Celine Song, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jon Pack
“Past Lives”Jon Pack

Sundance 2021 delivered more feature Oscar contenders than usual, including eventual Oscar-winners “Minari,” “The Father,” and “Promising Young Woman. ” That feat did not repeat in 2022: Many of the festival’s most popular films, from Searchlight/Hulu pickup “Fresh” to Grand Jury prize-winner “Nanny,” were genre fare. The only Sundance narrative feature in the 2023 Oscar race is South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus’ tearjerker “Living,” adapted by Oscar-nominated novelist-screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro from Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic “Ikiru,” and starring Oscar-nominated master thespian Bill Nighy.

A big buy does not necessarily lead to Oscar nominations. 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 the previous year’s big Sundance buy “CODA,” which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. Raiff’s scruffy family saga did not follow the hard-to-replicate “CODA” path.

This year’s likeliest Oscar contenders are not breakout director Chloe Domont’s hugely commercial and sexy thriller “Fair Play,” which Netflix landed after a bidding war for $20 million, nor John Carney’s “Flora and Son,” a musical crowdpleaser starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt that AppleTV+ purchased for $20 million. Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon’s “Theater Camp,” which Searchlight grabbed for $8 million, is quirkily charming, but also not Oscar fare.

Sony Pictures Classics acquired writer-director Angus MacLachlan’s small-scale “A Little Prayer,” a well-reviewed family drama starring David Strathairn, which the distributor could save for a fall re-introduction if SPC thinks it’s awards-ready. While Focus Features produced Dramatic Jury Prize winner “A Thousand and One,” the feature debut of Sundance Lab alumnus A.V. Rockwell, the distributor releases the mother-son drama starring musician Teyana Taylor on March 31. That’s not considered prime time for an awards contender.

“Cassandro”Courtesy of Prime Video

More on the Oscar mark is playwright-turned-filmmaker Celine Song’s “Past Lives,” an autofiction love triangle about a Korean-American woman with a white partner who re-engages with an old lover from Korea. After a rapturous critical and audience reception at Sundance, A24 is sending the film to build more buzz at the Berlinale. An awards push is inevitable.

And Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal earned raves for his surprising, athletic, entertaining, and moving performance as a luchador exotico in documentarian Roger Ross Williams’ feature debut “Cassandro.” Amazon could push this movie forward in the Oscar race.

And finally, Jonathan Majors could prove an acting contender for his transformative, moving role as a struggling body builder in “Magazine Dreams,” which received the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Creative Vision. (It went to the creative team led by director Elijah Bynum.) Much will depend on who buys the film, which will be an intense, tough sit for many audiences. But as the muscled “Creed III” star heads into the Marvel Extended Universe, there’s no question the world is his oyster.

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