After making history in 2022 with “CODA,” its first world premiere to win Best Picture, the Sundance Film Festival had a slightly disappointing Oscar tally for 2023. The festival didn’t make the Best Picture cut, but “Living” landed an Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor (Bill Nighy) nomination. And, once again, Sundance dominated the documentary category with four nominees: “All That Breathes,” “Fire of Love,” “A House Made of Splinters” and “Navalny.” It also landed documentary short and animated short nominations with “The Martha Mitchell Effect” and “The Flying Sailor,” respectively. But now that the 2023 edition of the festival has come to an end, will Sundance make an award season comeback in 2024? Maybe.
From a narrative perspective, the film at the top of the list, and arguably the first Best Picture nominee contender of 2023, is Celine Song’s “Past Lives.” The A24 release, also in competition at the Berlin Film Festival this month, earned massive critical acclaim and was one of the biggest tearjerkers of the fest. Song should be in the mix for an Original Screenplay nomination and A24 will no doubt campaign all of the film’s impressive performances from Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro for acting nominations. And A24 also knows how to play the long game, having worked magic for another Sundance premiere, “Minari” just three years ago. That film earned six major Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor while Youn Yuh-jung made history with her Best Supporting Actress win.
Beyond “Past Lives” things get a little dicey. The premiere of Chloe Domont’s “Fair Play” led to a fierce acquisition fight with Netflix coming out on top after paying a reported $20 million for the dramatic thriller. The film has impressive performances from Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich but, baring a weak Best Actress or Best Actor field, the pair seem more like Gotham Award and Spirit Award contenders at this point. Films lsuch as Laurel Parmet’s “The Starling Girl,” Vuk Lungulov-Klotz‘s “Mutt,” Erica Tremblay’s “Fancy Dance” also appear to be movies that will eventually get rewarded by the Gothams and Film Independent in some manner.
More puzzling is A.V. Rockwell’s “A Thousand and One” which, in a slight surprise, took the U.S. Dramatic Competition jury prize and Focus Features has scheduled for release on March 31. An impressive directorial debut for Rockwell, we’re reminded of Nikyatu Jusu’s “The Nanny” which took the top prize at Sundance a year ago, had a committed awards campaign from distributor Amazon Studios, but barely made a peep on the indie awards circuit. Can “A Thousand and One” make enough of an art house splash in March to be remembered next fall? We’ll see.
Perhaps the most quizzical of contenders is “Magazine Dreams.” Jonathan Majors gives one of the most committed and searing performances of any actor this decade, but the drama still hasn’t been acquired and, to many distributors, may have limited commercial prospects. Elijah Bynum has crafted a tremendous example of of film art for his directorial debut, but one that is certainly not an easy watch for many.
Other films to keep an eye on include Raine Allen-Miller’s “Rye Lane” (screams multiple BAFTA Award nominations), William Oldroyd’s “Eileen” (pending a distributor, features an utterly fantastic Anne Hathaway performance), John Carney’s “Flora and Son” (Apple should have it in the Original Song mix, at worst), Roger Ross Williams’ fantastic “Cassandro” (a Spirit Award play for Gael Garcia Bernal, at a minimum) and we expect Sony Pictures Classics to find some love somewhere for Angus MacLachlan’s “A Little Prayer.”
The documentary prospects are much clearer. Lisa Cortés’ “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” David Guggenheim’s “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” Madeleine Gavin’s “Beyond Utopia,” Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” Maite Alberdi’s “The Eternal Memory,” Nicole Newham’s “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” Doug Liman’s “Justice” and Mstyslav Chernov’s “20 Days in Mariupol” are just a few of the films that should keep Sundance’s reputation as the greatest documentary festival in the world intact. That’s in terms of premieres, at least.
Will Sundance find more Oscar gold in 2024 with contenders from Cannes, Venice, Telluride, TIFF, and NYFF debuting in the months ahead? We’ve got just a little under a year to find out.