There are Sundance movies and there are Oscar movies, and if you were to create a Venn diagram of the two, there are years when the two circles have overlapped and years when they’ve maintained their distance. Richard Linklater’s decades-spanning Boyhood, for example, which debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, went on to earn six Oscar noms, including best picture, and scored a win for supporting actress Patricia Arquette. By contrast, none of the major prize winners at the 2019 festival — Clemency, Brittany Runs a Marathon, The Last Black Man in San Francisco — or critically hailed premieres like The Farewell were welcomed at last year’s Oscar ceremony.
One caveat: We’re talking here about dramatic features. Documentaries are a whole other story. Sundance has become a reliable pipeline for docs positioning themselves for Oscar glory. Three of the last five documentary feature Oscar winners — 2019’s American Factory, 2017’s Icarus and 2016’s O.J.: Made in America — first bowed at Sundance. And last year’s Sundance doc winners — Boys State, Crip Camp, Time, The Fight, Welcome to Chechnya and Dick Johnson Is Dead are all on track for serious Oscar consideration.
But back to the world of narrative films. The COVID-19 crisis wreaked havoc with 2020’s release schedule. A number of movies that were likely to have harbored awards hopes found themselves sidelined. They ranged from big-budget entries like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story to more specialized fare like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch.
Those changes, though, could well benefit several films that established a foothold by playing the 2020 Sundance fest, before the emerging pandemic put life on hold, and now have more of the limelight for themselves.
Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, the writer-director’s semiautobiographical account of a family of Korean immigrants creating a new life for themselves in Arkansas, got a major boost at Sundance. At the closing night awards ceremonies, juror Isabella Rossellini praised it as “a lasting, transcendental cinematic experience” in announcing that in addition to capturing an audience award, it garnered the grand jury prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. It’s since been popping up on multiple critics’ lists, with particular acclaim for Youn Yuh-jung, who plays the family’s blunt-speaking grandma (for more on Youn, see page 57). And with the support of A24, which successfully ushered such movies as Moonlight and Lady Bird to the Oscars, the film has now entered the top tier of contenders.
Other Sundance 2020 award winners — such as Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which took home a special jury award for neorealism, and Radha Blank, who picked up the directing award for The Forty-Year-Old Version, inspired by her own life as a rapper and playwright — could also stake a claim or two. And among last year’s Premieres category (Premieres don’t figure in the awards competition), The Father, with Anthony Hopkins as a man facing dementia, and Promising Young Woman, with Carey Mulligan as an avenger of sorts, have also been greeted as major awards players.
But it’s not just the 2020 edition of Sundance that will factor into this year’s Oscar contest. Having postponed its awards show because of the pandemic, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also extended its eligibility cutoff date from the usual year-end of Dec. 31 to Feb. 28 in hopes that, to compensate for the pandemic’s disruption, more movies might qualify over 14 months rather than the usual 12. And so films unveiled at the upcoming Sundance, which is being held online and in select art houses and drive-ins nationwide, could also potentially qualify for the current round of Academy Awards.
Warner Bros. just announced that it’s taking advantage of the situation by treating Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, with Daniel Kaluuya playing Black Panther Fred Hampton, to a Sundance launch. The film, which was already scheduled for release in theaters and on HBO Max on Feb. 12, will now first have a world premiere at Sundance on Feb. 1.
There’s even the possibility that if a hungry streamer moves quickly, it could pick up a movie that makes a splash at this year’s fest — possibly Rebecca Hall’s racial drama Passing (see page 36), starring Tessa Thompson and Oscar nominee Ruth Negga, or Sian Heder’s look at a deaf family, CODA, featuring Oscar winner Marlee Matlin — and quickly qualify it for Oscar consideration while mounting an eleventh-and-a-half-hour campaign. And if so, that would give Sundance an even bigger footprint at this year’s Oscars.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.