By Matt Neglia
The Sundance Film Festival is the unofficial start of any new film year. It’s not just a celebration of independent films but it can also serve as a launching pad for new filmmakers and voices within the cinematic landscape. Sometimes, a film emerges that leaves such a lasting impression that it is able to withstand the rest of the year and make it all the way to awards season. We’ve seen “Manchester By The Sea,” “Boyhood,” “Whiplash,” and “Precious” all go on to receive Best Picture nominations in the last few years. With the Academy’s taste expanding and the profile for Sundance rising, the potential for Oscar contenders to emerge from the film festival has become greater over the last decade. What are the contenders this year? Click below to find out.
Oscar Prospects – Best Original Score
You won’t typically see films that premiered at Sundance contending for a Best Visual Effects nomination. But that doesn’t mean that the other craft categories are off the table. One such category is Best Original Score and the clear standout from this year’s festival for that honor was Ben Zeitlin’s “Wendy.” Re-teaming with composer Dan Romer, their previous collaboration on “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” led to Zeitlin receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Director, making him the youngest nominee in Academy history for that category. However, Dan Romer was nowhere to be found. Maybe that will change this year with his equally magical and sweeping score that is not only memorable but also probably the best aspect of the movie overall.
Oscar Prospects – Best Costume Design
“The Glorias” might not have been a perfect film from fearless director Julie Taymor. But what this Gloria Steinem biopic was, was colorful. 15-time Academy Award-nominated Costume Designer (and winner of 3) Sandy Powell worked on Taymor’s latest and it shows in every frame. Covering multiple decades and having to dress large crowds with a tremendous amount of variety, even when her films do not get nominated elsewhere, Sandy Powell is a name that the costume designers branch typically checks off. Regardless of the mixed reactions this film has received, the costuming itself is indeed worthy and I wouldn’t be surprised if Powell surprised everyone with an out of nowhere nomination.
Oscar Prospects – Best Costume Design
Perhaps a bit less well known than Sandy Powell is Phoenix Mellow, a costume designer who began as an assistant and worked her way up the ladder to work on “Sylvie’s Love.” A lovely romance which takes place in the 50s and a couple of decades after that, very much in the vein of the films of Douglas Sirk, it features a stunningly elegant performance from Tessa Thompson in the lead role. While Tessa is deserving of accolades for her work, I think the costumes will have an easier time standing out in a crowded year.
The Forty-Year-Old Version
Oscar Prospects – Best Original Screenplay
You know that feeling when you know you’re witnessing the birth of an exciting, talented, new artist on the scene? That was how I felt when I saw “The Forty-Year-Old-Version” and the response the crowd gave to director, producer, writer and star Radha Blank after the credits on her feature debut rolled only confirmed that what I felt, everyone else was feeling it too. A funny but revealing character piece with a commentary on the arts scene in modern-day New York City, the screenplay of “The Forty-Year-Old-Version” is well-constructed and takes its time setting up its central character, her relationships with the other characters in the film and the setting which they all inhabit. It is rare for small movies such as this with so little existing pedigree to go all the way to become an across the board contender at the Oscars. However, the perfect place for it to receive recognition is in the Original Screenplay category.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Oscar Prospects – Best Original Screenplay
Eliza Hitman is one of the most intriguing independent filmmakers working today. The way that her camera honestly conveys human emotion is astonishing and she accomplishes that yet again with her follow-up to “Beach Rats,” titled “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” Expected to open this Spring, it’s unlikely that star Sidney Flanigan will receive any Best Actress traction outside of a few Breakthrough mentions from various critics groups and organizations throughout awards season. But, if Academy members were feeling adventurous, they could take a moment to consider Hitman’s delicate and sensitive screenplay. It may not be filled with quotable dialogue or a wild concept but its relatability and moving power may be enough to sway voters.
Four Good Days
Oscar Prospects – Best Supporting Actress
I’m still feeling the effects of Glenn Close’s Oscar loss for “The Wife” as well. Just like the rest of you, I too want to see her go on to finally win an Oscar. I do not believe it will be for “Four Good Days” though (I think Close’s time will come for Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy”). However, her co-star Mila Kunis has never been even nominated for an Oscar. Coming close in 2010 with “Black Swan,” Kunis delivers one of her most memorable performances here as a drug addict trying to get sober with the help of her mother. It’s the kind of work that Academy voters have responded to in the past even if they didn’t last year with Timothee Chalamet in “Beautiful Boy.” Perhaps Kunis being overdue for a nomination will give her the momentum to get there.
Oscar Prospects – Best Actor
Hot off of his run in the MCU, Paul Bettany delivers his finest performance yet as the charismatic, alcoholic Uncle Frank to his niece Beth (“IT’s” Sophia Lillis) in Alan Ball’s “Uncle Frank.” Playing a gay man who is not publicly out to the rest of his family, Bettany taps into some deep-rooted emotion which brought about multiple tears at my screening at Sundance by the time the film reached its highly dramatic third act. Although competition will be fierce and there are other contenders who emerged from this very same festival, Bettany is due for some recognition and “Uncle Frank” might have the ability to give it to him.
One of the most clever films of the festival was the highly entertaining comedy from the minds of “The Lonely Island.” Starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti (who have terrific chemistry together), “Palm Springs” is a “Groundhog Day”-like comedy for a new generation. Although the screenplay’s premise might not be as original, since the time loop concept has been done to death before, director Max Barbakow’s film manages to find a few surprises in the film’s editing and screenplay structure to make the concept feel fresh. Lots of fun with memorable laughs and a big heart, “Palm Springs” could be a surprise comedy contender at this year’s Oscars the same way other comedy films have managed to land screenplay nominations in the past.
But if we’re going to talk about screenplay concepts, there was absolutely nothing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival quite like “Nine Days.” Definitely the most “original” movie of the festival, part of the fun of watching this existential film is figuring out what the story is exactly about as you watch it beautifully unfold on screen. Similar in terms of style and tone to another Sundance title “A Ghost Story, ” Edson Oda’s film also features a monumental performance from “Black Panther” and “Us” star Winston Duke. Reserved and soulful, until he is explosive with a memorable monologue that brought the house down, it’s unlikely he or the film will make it all the way until the end of the year due to the very art-house nature of this movie overall. But dammit, I want to at least try and I have more than nine days to do it.
After receiving his first Oscar nomination in 2014 for “The Imitation Game,” many have been wondering if beloved British star Benedict Cumberbatch would come back to the Oscar conversation and he may have just found his next ticket with the riveting cold war spy-drama “Ironbark.” Playing real-life spy Greville Wynne, the film plays out rather conventionally throughout most of its runtime until the film reaches its third act and demands Cumberbatch to go deeper and more physical with his talents than he’s ever shown us before. Merab Ninidze is excellent as well as Greville’s source and friend, Oleg Penkovsky, but voters already have a familiarity with Cumberbatch’s work which is why I think he’ll have an easier time getting in. If Academy voters really enjoy the film, they may want to give credit to Tom O’Connor’s screenplay but that might be too generous.
Remember this name. Clare Dunne. Not only does she deliver one of the best performances of the festival, as a single mother fleeing from a physically abusive ex-husband and attempting to build a house from scratch for her and her two children, but she also wrote the screenplay for “Herself” as well. Passionately directed by Phyllida Lloyd without shying away from some of the story’s more harrowing elements, Clare Dunne feels like she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and she astonished many with her emotionally affecting work. Another tear-jerker with an uplifting message that resonated with all of those who saw it, “Herself” is an empowering story that should not be overlooked.
Promising Young Woman
My favorite film of the festival overall, “Promising Young Woman” is the movie that I cannot wait for everyone to see all over the world. We received a special letter before the film’s screening urging us not to share the secrets of the film with you all and I shall not do that here. This is a movie that you need to experience in all of its style and rage as cold as humanly possible. Carey Mulligan delivers career-best work as one of the best characters written for the screen in some time. “Killing Eve” show-runner Emerald Fennell’s direction and screenplay shocked and stunned me. Even Bo Burnham’s surprising supporting performance wowed me with its naturalism and intimate chemistry with Carey Mulligan. I expected this movie to be good but not THIS good. I wish I could say more but you’ll soon see for yourself why this movie is so promising. It will surely be one of the most talked-about films of the year, for better or worse.
If you ask anyone in the streets of Park City what the best film of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival was, most of them would say it was “Minari.” Winner of the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for Best Feature, this shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. Such a unified response has allowed me to carefully analyze how far that love can extend into awards season. While I certainly have my hesitations right now after “The Farwell” failed to receive a single Oscar nomination after it premiered at last year’s Sundance from the same studio (A24), there’s something special about “Minari” that is keeping me from holding it back. Steven Yeun is also on a hot-streak after wowing critics with his work in “Burning” two years ago, so his presence will hopefully give this small film some visibility. If A24 plays their cards right, this can contend in multiple categories including Best Original Score for Emile Mosseri, who received much acclaim for his work on A24’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” Despite how it goes during awards season, like “The Farwell” before it, “Minari” will be regarded as one of the best films of the year.
Oh man…at age 82-years-old Anthony Hopkins (one of our already greatest living actors) may have just delivered his best performance yet with “The Father.” If you disagree, that’s fine. But even placing it in his top 5, considering his body of work, is saying something. Adapted from his own play, Florian Zeller utilizes editing to transport us into the mind of a protagonist not seen on this level since Christopher Nolan did it with “Memento” nearly twenty years ago. The deterioration of one’s own mind is so well drawn out here that it’s deceptive in its simplicity and execution, causing us to question what is real and what is not just as much as Anthony. Oliva Colman is also looking like she will get a follow-up nomination after her Oscar-winning work in “The Favourite” as the tormented daughter of Anthony who is only trying to help her father through his dementia. Devastating and moving, “The Father” is one of the few across the board Oscar contenders from Sundance which has the ability to last the whole year to land multiple nominations, including Best Picture.
What do you think of my predictions? Were there any other Oscar contenders you saw at Sundance? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Matt and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @NextBestPicture