For a while there, you could count on Oscar’s best-picture race to leave at least one slot open for a hit from the Sundance Film Festival. Movies like “Manchester by the Sea,” “Brooklyn,” “Call Me by Your Name,” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” began their long road to awards season at the festival in Park City, while Sundance classics “Boyhood” and “Get Out” came oh-so-close to winning the best-picture trophy outright.
Over the past two years, though, Sundance and the Oscars have been engaged in a bit of a trial separation. No narrative movie coming out of Sundance has been nominated in the six biggest Oscar categories during that time, despite a surplus of strong contenders, including “Eighth Grade,” “First Reformed” and “The Farewell.”
We won’t know until this time next year whether Oscar and Sundance will kiss and make up, but now that the festival’s 2020 edition has concluded, at least some of the hits provide hope of a rapprochement.
Some of those fit a traditional Oscar rubric, like “The Father,” Florian Zeller’s ruthless drama about a father and daughter (played by Academy Award winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman) who are navigating the older man’s dementia. Hopkins is a marvel: fleet and funny when he needs to be, and tragic when he starts to lose the thread of his life. Expect all involved to be major players this awards season.
Sara Colangelo’s “Worth” recalls a recent best-picture winner: Like “Spotlight,” it’s a fact-based Michael Keaton drama about sensitive issues, this one casting Keaton as Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney tasked with determining the size of a payout for grieving families in the wake of 9/11. Solidly mounted, it also features two key supporting performances from Amy Ryan as Keaton’s concerned colleague and especially Stanley Tucci as a widower leading the opposition to the payout. Whether the film becomes an Oscar contender may depend on which studio picks it up; as of deadline, “Worth” was still waiting for buyers to come to their own dollar figure.
The hip company A24 has had trouble getting its movies into the Oscar race since “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird,” but Sundance still provides a valuable, high-profile starting point for its buzz titles. At Sundance, the studio premiered the moving “Minari,” with Steven Yeun as a Korean dad trying to start a farm in rural Arkansas to his family’s general consternation, as well as the zippy “Zola,” a dark comedy inspired by a Twitter thread about two exotic dancers on the road trip from hell. The latter film, directed by Janicza Bravo, has a strong quartet of performances — newcomer Taylour Paige and the hilarious Riley Keough are the leads, while Colman Domingo and “Succession” scene-stealer Nicholas Braun play troublemakers — and their inclusion would make the next awards season awfully fun.
Though the Oscars continue to catch flak for snubbing female directors, two of the most talked-about movies at Sundance were made by women. “The 40-Year-Old Version,” directed by and starring Radha Blank as a playwright-turned-rapper, won her the festival’s best-director award, while the scorching comedy “Promising Young Woman,” from writer-director Emerald Fennell, stars Carey Mulligan as an avenging angel with an unconventional method for bringing down men who commit sexual assault. Mulligan hasn’t been Oscar-nominated since her star-making role 10 years ago in “An Education,” but here, she delivers on all that promise and then some.
Beyond all the narrative films, Sundance always provides a robust documentary lineup, and it’s in that category where the festival may have its best shot at catching Oscar’s attention: Already, “Crip Camp” and “Boys State” were singled out for awards at the fest’s closing night. “Crip Camp,” about a New York summer camp that becomes a formative experience for disabled activists, was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama (who also lent their muscle to this year’s best-documentary nominee “American Factory”), while “Boys State” is a galvanizing study of teenage boys engaging in a game of mock-governance that soon feels all too real.
You’ll be hearing more about them soon, and with a little luck, so will Oscar.