Oscar Beat: Which Sundance Films Could Be 2016 Awards Contenders?

     February 2, 2016

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The 2016 Sundance Film Festival has come to a close, but we haven’t heard the last from the various independent films that made their debuts in the snowy mountains of Park City. While some are destined for VOD consumption, others will get a splashy showcase on the big screen and, just maybe, some awards season accolades. Indeed, Sundance served as the soft launching pad for future Best Picture nominees like Little Miss Sunshine and this year’s Brooklyn, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility for one or more of this year’s movies to go on to Oscar glory. But which ones?

Having seen many of the biggest debuts at Sundance 2016, I’m prepared to take a look at a few choice titles that may go on to become Oscar contenders later this year.

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Image via Sundance

We begin, obviously, with The Birth of a Nation. The slavery drama garnered the biggest buzz of the festival, setting an acquisition record with Fox Searchlight’s $17.5 million purchase. Writer/director/star Nate Parker‘s passion project is a dramatic account of the life of Nat Turner, a slave and preacher who led a bloody rebellion that recruited and freed a number of slaves before Turner’s eventual capture and execution.


It’s hard to look at this film and not think about accolades. While I found it a bit messy and rough around the edges in terms of structure and character, it will no doubt be part of the awards conversation later this year, and it’s no coincidence that Fox Searchlight landed the distribution rights. They know how to lead an Oscar campaign, and having shepherded 12 Years a Slave to a Best Picture win, they know how to handle this kind of movie. Granted Birth of a Nation is a bit of a tougher sell as it’s a different kind of slave story, but in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite there’s no denying this movie will be on everyone’s radar.

Parker could pull a Braveheart-like run when it comes awards time, or voters could decide the film simply isn’t for them. It’s too early to predict exactly how this release will be received, but it’s not too early to say Birth of a Nation will absolutely be part of the Oscar conversation in a number of the major categories, although its lack of three-dimensional supporting roles likely limits the acting recognition to Parker’s leading turn as Nat Turner.

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Image via Sundance

The other major contender out of Sundance is Manchester by the Sea, the masterful character drama from You Can Count on Me filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan. It is a devastating, profoundly human portrait of grief that features a career-best turn from Casey Affleck, who is astounding in the lead role of a man who must return home to care for his teenaged nephew when his brother suddenly dies. Performance-wise, Michelle Williams also does wonders with limited screentime, and if there’s any justice she’ll be towards the top of every Supporting Actress list come December. Elsewhere, the film deserves recognition for Best Picture, Director, Actor and Original Screenplay. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a very long time, and is no doubt destined for universal critical acclaim.

The only issue that gives me pause is the fact that the film went to Amazon as distributor, which has no experience in running Oscar campaigns. Indeed the studio has found success on the small screen with Transparent, but Hollywood remains skeptical of the streaming world overall, so I’ll be curious to see exactly how the release and awards campaign of the film pans out. In a perfect world the quality of the film and its performances would be the only thing that matters, but when it comes to Oscar, there’s a lot riding on the campaign itself.

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Image via Sundance

Beyond Birth of a Nation and Manchester by the Sea, there are also other films and performances worth singling out. Craig Robinson won a Sundance award for his turn in the coming-of-age comedy/drama Morris from America, in which he plays a single father raising his son abroad in Germany. Robinson shows tremendous range in the role, and with the right campaign (A24 scooped up distribution rights), he could—and should—be in the Oscar conversation for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor. His delivery of a key monologue alone is Oscar-worthy, and this is the awards contender I’m most eager to see pan out from this year’s festival.


There’s also former Focus Features CEO James Schamus’ directorial debut Indignation, which is an early contender for Best Adapted Screenplay for Schamus’ adaptation of the Philip Roth novel of the same name. I’d also throw Logan Lerman into the Best Actor conversation for his dynamic turn as a precocious college freshman in 1951, and Tracy Letts makes a strong case for a Best Supporting Actor nod as the school’s contentious yet charismatic dean.

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Image via Sundance

The crowd-pleasing musical Sing Street should have a serious shot at running rampant over the Best Original Song category, Tika Sumpter is devine as Michelle Obama in Southside with You, and Molly Shannon turns in a terrific performance as a mother dying of cancer in the autobiographical dramedy Other People. And if I had a vote, I’d put my weight behind Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert for Best Director consideration for the divisive Swiss Army Man. But a film so reliant on fart jokes is unlikely to make a blip on the Academy’s radar.

Sundance is also always home to at least one or two of the eventual Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees, and I doubt this year will be any different. The Anthony Weiner doc Weiner took home the festival’s top award, so that’s one to keep on your radar, but I’ll be shocked if I see a better documentary than the utterly devastating Newtown. The film chronicles the Sandy Hook tragedy from the point of view of the families involved and the community as a whole, making it all the more effective. It is, without doubt, essential viewing, and given the right push could land on plenty of year-end Top 10 lists. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, the gun control doc Under the Gun, the cult documentary Holy Hell, and the sexual assault documentary Audrie & Daisy are notable as well. As always the documentary category was an embarrassment of riches, so we’ll have to see which of these docs make the long haul to the end of the year.

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Image via Sundance

So as you can see, this year’s Sundance was not lacking in quality. The question then becomes a matter of release strategy, campaign strength, and pure luck in terms of which films and performances manage to stand out at the end of the year. Fruitvale Station had tons of momentum coming out of Sundance, but got lost in the shuffle thanks to an August release date, so quality doesn’t necessarily guarantee awards success. That said, I’d be shocked if Birth of a Nation and Manchester by the Sea don’t make a bit of a splash.


But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ve got to finish this year’s Oscars first. Look for final countdown coverage from yours truly in more Oscar Beat columns over the next couple of weeks.

To catch up on all of our Sundance 2016 coverage, including reviews and interviews, click here.

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Image via Sundance

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