Did Sundance 2023 Produce Any Oscar Contenders?

Jan 27, 2023
Dimitris Passas

NOTE: This article is a republication- Source: Vanity Fair (R. Lawson, R. Ford, D. Canfield).

While this year’s Oscar race is still mired in questions and maybe some controversy, it may seem silly to look ahead a whole year and wonder what could be in store for the Academy Awards in 2024. But, we like to be silly, and we have a fresh batch of films from Sundance to analyze as potential contenders. Here’s a breakdown of what we saw in Park City over the last week—or, at least, the films that seemed to have a particular awards-y glow about them.

A Beautiful Breakout

The most lauded film at the festival this year was Celine Song’s exquisite Past Lives, a poignant and delicate drama about the bond between two childhood friends as it ebbs and flows over two decades. Leads Greta Lee and Teo Yoo are terrific, as are all the film’s lush yet understated technicals. Song’s writing is sharp and specific, her directorial hand remarkably steady for a first-timer. (Or for a tenth-timer, really.) The film will be released by A24, which had a massive nominations haul this year, for movies small (Causeway) and less small (Everything Everywhere All at Once). Despite all those assets, might Past Lives still be too intimate, too softly-spoken to register with an Academy that tends to like a little flash? Given the right campaign, I don’t think so. If Aftersun managed to get a nomination this year, Past Lives could certainly find traction in 2024. Whatever its Oscar future, Past Lives is a must-see, an insightful and funny film whose warmth was greatly appreciated amid all that Utah snow. —Richard Lawson

As aspiring bodybuilder Killian Maddox in Magazine Dreams, Jonathan Majors delivers the kind of performance that gets stuck in your head for days afterward. Yes, there’s the physicality of the role, with Majors completely believable in the part thanks to his bulked-up physique (he says he ate 6,100 calories and worked out three times a day). But it’s the commanding and dedicated portrayal of a man obsessed with legacy but simmering with rage that makes this performance one of the most talked about of the festival. The dark character study from writer-director Elijah Bynum is unsettling and will need the right distributor to navigate a tricky awards season run, but Majors’s performance so clearly deserves to be a part of the lead-actor Oscar conversation that we hope it can make that journey. It’s a performance that feels once-in-a-lifetime, but with Majors, we’re sure there’s much more to come. —Rebecca Ford

Lucha Lustre

That Roger Ross Williams’s sweet, assured biopic Cassandro, about the groundbreaking gay Mexican wrestler Saúl Armendáriz, takes on a relatively familiar shape should work in its favor come awards time. The director’s narrative-feature debut offers a clean structure for lead Gael García Bernal to pull off the kind of poignant character arc that voters often respond to, and in this case, the actor finds a ton of nuance within that template to take it the extra mile. The Y tu mamá también breakout has perhaps never had such a rich big-screen showcase as an adult, and makes good on it with something very special—an impassioned portrayal of a man defiantly finding himself, subverting literal stereotypes within the most macho of worlds. Amazon Studios brought this title into Sundance and, based on the wide acclaim coming out of the premiere, hopefully has its eyes on a push for the film’s star. —David Canfield

The Big Buy

After Chloe Domont’s debut feature, Fair Play, premiered at Sundance, word was that upwards of seven distributors were jockeying to acquire the film. Netflix emerged the victor, paying a reported $20 million for the compelling workplace/relationship thriller starring Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich. The film is not typical Netflix awards bait—it’s a mean little movie and isn’t from an established great auteur. But the streamer’s success with All Quiet on the Western Front—a sizable film, but not one from a world-famous director—could change their campaign strategies some. Might Fair Play, such a buzzy Sundance success, merit a push in the acting and screenplay categories? Dynevor and Ehrenreich’s performances certainly pop in the film, particularly in loud argument scenes skillfully staged by Domont. Netflix already spent a ton of money on Fair Play, so why not spend a little more (or, I guess, a lot more) to get their new prize in the hunt? —R.L.

A Grand Reunion

In You Hurt My Feelings, indie stalwart Nicole Holofcener’s first feature directorial effort since 2018, we are introduced to Beth (played by Holofcener’s Enough Said star Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a writer whose novel is nearly finished when she finds out that her husband (Tobias Menzies) hasn’t been exactly truthful about his feelings on it. As she so often does, Holofcener sticks a needle right into the gut of very relatable relationship issues, this time exploring the reasons and ways we lie to our loved ones. While this funny, and sometimes heartbreaking, story deserves to be in the screenplay conversation, we could also see some buzz for 11-time Emmy winner Dreyfus, who is at her best as the self-involved but relatable Beth. —R.F.

The Reintroduction

Teyana Taylor is mostly known for singing, with some acting roles dotting her resumé in the past ten or so years. That is likely to change after A Thousand and One, debut feature-filmmaker A.V. Rockwell’s drama about a Harlem mother and son navigating years of struggle, from homelessness to the urban upheavals and police crackdowns of the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, all while haunted by a crime of passion. Taylor’s committed, finely tuned performance has earned justified raves, and the film won top jury honors at Sundance on Friday. A Thousand and One will be released by Focus later in the year, and if they can put the right campaign together, Taylor could be one of those storied Sundance acting breakouts that lasts the year-long journey to the Oscars. —R.L.

The Supporting Stunner

It’s going to be hard for any distributor to know what to make of Eileen, William Oldroyd’s stylish, divisive adaptation of the Ottessa Moshfegh novel. Its slow-burn buildup takes a jarring third-act turn that delighted some critics but turned off others, and feels destined to leave a bad CinemaScore in its wake. (A crowd-pleaser this is not.) But there’s plenty to praise about this crafty slice of New England noir, chiefly Anne Hathaway’s explosive spin on the femme fatale, playing Rebecca, the enigmatically glamorous psychologist who takes the misanthropic Eileen (a lovely Thomasin McKenzie) under her wing—to bloody ends. It’s a master class of scenery-chewing that, with the right campaign, could ride a slew of critics’ awards to an underdog Oscar nom. —D.C.

The Next Great Irish Hope

This year, the Irish are everywhere, from The Banshees of Inisherin fivesome to Paul Mescal, to The Quiet Girl. Perhaps that national momentum will continue with John Carney’s Flora and Son, another of the Once director’s wistful music-tinged romances. This one stars a dynamic Eve Hewson, taking her first lead film role and running with it. She could be a contender if Apple, which bought the film for a large sum, plays its cards right. (At this point Hewson’s a shoo-in for a Golden Globe nomination.) As could two of the original songs that feature prominently in the film. Carney has not had much awards success since Once, but Flora and Son may contain just the right mix of sweetness and bite to catch the Academy’s attention. (It helps that it’s mostly about grown-ups, unlike Sing Street.) At the very least, Hewson and her costar Joseph Gordon-Levitt could perform a lovely duet at the ceremony, guitars in hand. —R.L.

Hot Docs

Just how pivotal is Sundance when it comes to the Oscar race for best documentary? For six years running, a majority of the Academy’s selections premiered in Park City, leading long lives on the art house circuit before getting the coveted nomination a year or so later. There are always the obvious breakouts—2021’s Summer of Soul, last year’s Fire of Love—as well as many that sneak up on campaigns before making the final cut. So which among this year’s crop has the goods? Apple TV+ will likely give a push to its Michael J. Fox portrait Still, following a very warm reception, especially as it comes from an Academy favorite in director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth). An awards push is already planned via MTV Documentary Films for The Eternal Memory, the acclaimed examination of a couple living with Alzheimer’s from Oscar-nominated Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi (The Mole Agent). Great reviews have also come in for The Disappearance of Shere Hite, which could go far with the right distributor. Finally, keep an eye out for The Deepest Breath, a Netflix title that met some mixed critical reception but could find an audience (recall the streamer’s recent upset winner My Octopus Teacher), and Justice, the polemical Brett Kavanaugh documentary from Doug Liman that disappointed in terms of new revelations—the director has indicated it’ll be updated after receiving new tips, so the next cut could land stronger and make some noise. —D.C.

The Potential Sleeper

All the way back in 2005, Amy Adams burst onto the scene in Junebug, a quirky dramedy from writer Angus MacLachlan that earned the actor a special jury award at Sundance and, later, her first Oscar nomination. This year, MacLachlan headed to Park City with a more established star, David Strathairn, to debut A Little Prayer. It’s a quiet movie about a man, thoughtfully played by Strathairn, who discovers that his son is cheating on his wife (a wonderful Jane Levy). Like Junebug, A Little Prayer is a modest character drama that gives its actors space to give subtle, sensitive performances. The film was bought by Sony Pictures Classics, which knows how to run campaigns for smaller movies, so we should keep it in mind as we look toward the Spirit Awards and, yes, the Oscars. A strong case could be made for Strathairn being overdue, ditto for Celia Weston (who was also great in Junebug). Though the buzz for A Little Prayer was muted in Park City, any time the film was mentioned to me, it was only in fawning terms. That could be a sign of something. —R.L.

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