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PARK CITY - It's been quite common over the past few years to receive a press release from the Sundance Film Festival congratulating the just announced Oscar nominees who debuted or screened their films at the previous edition of the festival. Impressively, the list of nominees was growing and including bigger and bigger categories almost every year. What once was just some nominations in the documentary short category had grown to best actor, best original screenplay and - gasp - best picture.
Since 2005, Sundance premieres such as "Precious," "Little Miss Sunshine," "An Education" were all nominated for the Academy's top prize. In fact, last year the festival had two best picture nominees: "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter's Bone." Sundance players such as Monique ("Precious") won a best supporting actress Oscar and Alan Arkin won ("Little Miss Sunshine") a best supporting statue. "In the Loop" landed a best adapted screenplay nod and Melissa Leo and Jennifer Hawkes were both nominated for best actress ("Frozen River," "Winter's Bone," respectively), among other nominations for festival alumni.
On the documentary side, the festival has dominated the best documentary category as four of the last six documentary Oscar winners premiered in Park City including "The Cove," "Man On A Wire," "An Inconvenient Truth" and "March of the Penguins." This year two Sundance related films received nominations. The documentaries "Hell and Back Again" and "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" both debuted at the 2011 edition of the festival. Among documentary shorts, "The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement" was nominated as was "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom" and "A Morning Stroll" which screened at this year's festival. The latter two were also grand jury prize winners in the short film categories this week.
On the narrative side, the festival had its worst showing in almost six years with only one nominee, J.C. Chandor in the original screenplay category for "Margin Call." For Chandor, who told me last month he'd asked to have "Call" in the more prestigious dramatic competition and found his drama in the premieres section instead, this is just more sweet solace for the indie hit that was overshadowed by more buzzed about selections. 2011 Grand Jury prize winner "Like Crazy," Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Take Shelter" with a stellar turn from Michael Shannon and documentary favorite "Project Nim" were all expected to make some noise during awards season. Beyond some Gotham Awards and Independent Spirit Awards nominations they largely disappeared from contention. That actually says a lot more about what Hollywood, the industry and the Academy were focused on this year than the films themselves, but if you had told me 12 months ago Shannon, Felcity Jones ("Like Crazy"), Elizabeth Olsen ("Martha") or "Nim" would all find themselves shut out from the Oscar party, I wouldn't have believed you. That being said, what will the next awards season hold for this year's Sundance selects?
Prestige powerhouse Fox Searchlight quickly snapped up the drama "The Surrogate" which features a much lauded turn by former Oscar nominee John Hawkes. The cast also includes Oscar winner Helen Hunt and former nominee William H. Macy. Hawkes is seemingly a slam dunk best actor contender even if the actual movie has its critics (but, oh, have we heard that before).
Another picture that is more of an underdog player is closing night film "The Words." An ensemble drama about a writer who has to live with his decision to steal another author's work, the morality tale has a screenplay that is consistently smarter than it needs to be, a fantastic score and impressive turns from Jeremy Irons, Zoe Saldana and - no joke - Bradley Cooper. The feature debut from co-directors and screenwriters Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, the only thing stopping "The Words" from being a great movie is Dennis Quaid's out of place narration during the first third of the picture. The lines are fine and make sense in context of the film's three time frames, but Quaid's voice simply isn't up for the picture's aesthetic. If CBS Films and the directors can figure out a way to fix it the mini-major could have something very special on its hands.
Beyond those two films, however, there isn't much to get excited about. Other members of the press have touted Richard Gere's performance in "Arbitrage" which Roadside Attractions picked up, but that's highly unlikely in this pundit's opinion. "Smashed's" Mary Elizabeth Winstead has her fans, but the film still hasn't been acquired and will need a patient distributor to find an audience. NEXT selection "Compliance" could garner attention for its screenplay, but it needs to find a real distributor. Samuel Goldwyn and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions picked up "Robot & Frank" with Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon and Peter Saarsgard, but it has just as many fans as detractors and seems like a commercial reach.
The wildcard in this discussion is of course "Beasts of the Southern Wild" which is expected to pick up the festival's dramatic competition grand jury prize tomorrow night. The film is hard to categorize, but is the one critical darling of the festival with tremendous acclaim going to first time director Benh Zeitlin (all of it richly deserved). Searchlight bought "Beasts" in a competitive bidding war, but where it ends up is anyone's guess. Could it become a critical and audience sensation? Will it play to critics nationwide and the industry? Or will it be a small little audience favorite that marks Zeitlin's arrival? At this point Searchlight doesn't even know for sure, but the mini-major loves films that generate discussion and "Beasts" could fit the bill.
So, as you can see, the Festival's Oscar prospects seem very weak for 2013. It's also a sign Sundance needs to aim for better films 12 months from now (truth hurts). Let's not make this a rut fellas.
For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.
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