It’s a winter ritual at the Sundance Film Festival: As organizers present this year’s crop of independent films, they’ll get to see how last year’s fared at the coinciding Academy Awards nominations.
At least four dramas that premiered at Sundance a year ago — including “Winter’s Bone,” '‘Blue Valentine” and “The Kids Are All Right” — have strong prospects at Tuesday’s Oscar nominations, which come right in the middle of the 11-day festival. And seven of the 15 films on the short-list for the documentary Oscar nominations also debuted at Sundance in 2010.
Robert Redford’s festival was started to give young filmmakers a showcase and help them connect with distributors to land their films in the real world. As the festival has grown, so has the quality and caliber of talent, and almost every year now, a few films emerge from Sundance to compete with the best of what the studios have to offer at the Oscars.
The urban drama “Precious” won the top Sundance prize in 2009 and earned six Oscar nominations last year, including best picture. It won the supporting-actress Academy Award for Mo’Nique.
The Ozark crime tale “Winter’s Bone” earned Sundance’s top honor a year ago and now is in the running for a best-picture Oscar nomination, along with a best-actress slot for Jennifer Lawrence.
“As you start to go down lists of films that came out in the last year, you look for that kind of raw creativity,” said festival director John Cooper. “That’s why something like a ‘Winter’s Bone’ rises up and surpasses other less interesting Hollywood movies that came out.”
The lesbian-family tale “The Kids Are All Right” also is a strong contender for a best-picture Oscar nomination. Annette Bening won a Golden Globe for the film and is a potential best-actress front-runner on Oscar night.
The marital drama “Blue Valentine” has lead-acting prospects at the Oscars for Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Another 2010 Sundance premiere, the Australian crime thriller “Animal Kingdom,” could earn co-star Jacki Weaver a supporting-actress nomination.
Other past Oscar contenders that came out of Sundance include “Little Miss Sunshine,” '‘In the Bedroom,” '‘You Can Count on Me,” '‘Hustle&Flow” and “Junebug.”
Among last year’s Sundance documentaries with Oscar prospects is the public school study “Waiting for ‘Superman’” from director Davis Guggenheim. His 2006 global-warming chronicle “An Inconvenient Truth” won the documentary and best-song Oscar a year after it premiered at Sundance.
Others in the awards picture after playing Sundance last year include the war-on-terror documentaries “Restrepo” and “The Tillman Story,” the graffiti-artist chronicle “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and the environmental study “Gasland.”
With the festival’s strong commitment to documentaries, Sundance almost always serves as an incubator for films that will be on the awards map down the road.
“I think it is the beginning of a film’s life in North America. At the beginning of the year, you often get a glimpse of some of the main contenders next year,” said James Marsh, whose portrait of a World Trade Center daredevil, “Man on Wire,” won the 2008 documentary Oscar a year after premiering at Sundance. “I think you will see some great documentary films this time, and I’m sure some of them will be very, very present in the next awards season.”
Marsh returns to Sundance this time with “Project Nim,” chronicling the life of a chimpanzee that was taught sign language and raised like a human child.
Also back at Sundance is Morgan Spurlock, who came to the festival in 2004 with “Super Size Me,” his fast-food expose in which he ate nothing but McDonald’s meals for a month. A year later, “Super Size Me” had an Oscar nomination for best documentary.
Spurlock’s Sundance premiere this time is “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” a documentary about product placement in films. After the yearlong buildup to awards season that began at Sundance for “Super Size Me,” Spurlock admitted he’s given some thought to next year’s Oscars for his new film.
“I don’t stand in the shower and hold up shampoo bottles giving Oscar speeches just for fun,” Spurlock said. “Once you go, you think, God, I hope I get to go again sometime.”