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Though it's long been a prime scouting-ground for future documentary nominees, the Sundance Film Festival has, in recent years, hatched a growing number of Oscar contenders in the bigger-ticket categories.
"Little Miss Sunshine," "Precious," "An Education," "The Kids Are All Right," "Winter's Bone" -- all of them bowed big at the January fest, and then managed the significant feat of sustaining buzz for an entire year before securing Oscar nominations for Best Picture. Ditto such acting and screenwriting nominees as "Frozen River," "The Savages," "The Messenger" and "Animal Kingdom." The Sundance-to-Oscar stretch is one of the longest roads in the campaigning game, and those who survive it deserve a lot of credit: as a small-scale indie, it's hard enough to get attention even with a fall debut, but counting on the length of voters' memories and the strength of word of mouth is a dicey strategy.
We saw that in last year's race, as the crop of Sundance contenders suffered its weakest Oscar showing in years. After three straight years of the festival's Grand Jury Prize winners ("Frozen River," "Precious" and "Winter's Bone") hitting big with the Academy, 2011's champ, transatlantic hipster romance "Like Crazy," never caught any momentum, while acclaimed festival hopefuls "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Take Shelter" and Britpic "Tyrannosaur" didn't take hold either, despite many worthy elements.
In the end, beyond the requisite batch Sundance's class of 2011 reaped only a screenplay nod for J.C. Chandor's corporate drama "Margin Call," and a pair of documentary nominees, "Hell and Back Again" and "If a Tree Falls." None of them won. Had the world's leading indie-focused festival lost its Oscar mojo?
Happily, this morning's Oscar nominations proved otherwise. In particular, the Grand Jury Prize has regained its power, as Fox Searchlight's scrappy summer outlier "Beasts of the Southern Wild" emerged as one of the surprise packages of the field. While many pundits predicted a Best Picture nomination, most of us thought it was on the outskirts of the race -- a perception contradicted by fresh-faced debut helmer Benh Zeitlin's stunning Best Director nod, coupled with a Best Actress bid for nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis. There's clearly a lot of love in the Academy for this heart-tugger, proving once more that voters can be compelled by an underdog narrative, even in a year heavy on quality studio fare.
The other non-doc Sundance 2012 graduate to score with the Academy had slightly more compromised success: "The Sessions," another Searchlight property, nabbed a long-expected Best Supporting Actress nod for Helen Hunt, but co-star John Hawkes's widely anticipated Best Actor nomination fell (one suspects narrowly) by the wayside. The buzz had been cooling on this one for some time, as the affecting disability drama failed to connect with critics and audiences in quite the way that its strong Sundance debut had promised, but even one acting nod represents an against-the-odds result for a tiny film on a tricky subject -- again proving the validity of performance buzz out of the snows of Utah.
Finally, the festival demonstrated renewed muscle in the documentary category. Three of the five nominees -- "How to Survive a Plague," "The Invisible War" and presumed frontrunner "Searching for Sugar Man" -- debuted at Sundance a year ago, while fourth, "5 Broken Cameras," played the fest after its 2011 IDFA premiere. All in all, it's a pointed reminder that, even with six weeks to go until this year's winners are crowned, the 2013 Oscar race starts in Park City next week. We'll be on the lookout.
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