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Sundance: The Oscar Connection

Sundance sometimes has delectable Oscar offerings... but not always. What's happening in Park City this year?


The Kids Are All Right

The Sundance Film Festival has, like all venerable institutions, done some evolving over the years. It began life in 1978 as a low profile independent cinema event in Salt Lake City. Its first ten years saw name, management and venue changes, until it eventually morphed into the major Hollywood-in-Park-City attraction it's become. The sea change was arguably ushered in with the breakout success of sex, lies and, videotape (1989), which launched the career of Steven Soderbergh. A few short years later, lightning struck again with Quentin Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Today, after years of introducing both box office hits (The Blair Witch Project and Napoleon Dynamite) and Oscar contenders (In the Bedroom and Little Miss Sunshine), we expect the Hollywood shockwaves. The festival may have other ideas. This year's theme is "Rebel." Robert Redford, "The Sundance Kid" himself, wants the focus back on the films, stating, "Suddenly, you end up with parties and celebrities and Paris Hilton... and that's not us. Sundance has nothing to do with any of that." The festival hopes to recapture its raw indie spirit after years of snowy glamour. They're even humorously mocking their past successes in a festival commercial that sends up the clichés of the American indie film, now synonymous with Sundance itself.

So perhaps it's foolish to search for future Oscar contenders while leaping over slush puddles and navigating snow banks between screenings, but I can't help myself. Sundance has spoiled us in the past. Just last January, for example, the festival launched two films that most pundits believe are locked up for Best Picture and acting nominations next Tuesday: An Education and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.

Whether you're riding on the free Park City bus or queued up for your next screening at the Eccles, you'll hear everyone talking about his or her favorites. Documentaries seem to be generating the most heat.




Catfish, which examines the online friendship of a New York photographer and an 8-year-old painter and her family in rural Michigan, certainly has people talking—only they aren't saying much. Several people demanded I see it before I grabbed a ticket, but they refused to reveal anything about the plot. They were right to keep quiet. It's a provocative look at the way we communicate: how do we self-identify and build relationships in the age of YouTube, Facebook, and text messaging, and what are we expecting from these virtual friendships?

A late arrival to the festival, Exit Through The Gift Shop, from street artist Bansky, also caused a stir. Bansky's graffiti starting popping up in Park City just before the festival began, whipping up expectations and interest. As it turns out, Bansky is not the subject of the film so much as its impish guiding force, describing this history of street art as "a simple everyday tale of life, longing and mindless vandalism."

One of the earliest films I caught proved to be one of the best. Lixin Fan's Last Train Home is a gripping look at the largest annual human migration in the world. Each year for the Chinese New Year, 130 million migrant workers leave their jobs in the cities to visit their families in rural China. For many of them, including the family this dramatic intimate doc follows, it's the only time they see their children all year.

Despite all of the non-fiction excitement, festival buzz for documentaries doesn't often crossover to Oscar buzz. Eligibility issues come into play (regular theatrical release is required and it must precede television airings), and the Academy's documentary branch is notoriously unpredictable, even if a film is embraced by both critics and audiences. In the past, they've often shunned high profile hits in this category.

Blue Valentine

Sundance narrative feature hits don't always turn into major Oscar players either. But even when they don't, they've been known to yield a well-regarded acting nomination, such as Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow, Melissa Leo in Frozen River, and Amy Adams in Junebug. The performances that keep coming up in conversation this year are Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in the depressive romantic drama Blue Valentine and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Hesher. While none of these roles feel likely as future Oscar nominees, they're further proof of the versatility of these fine rising actors. They'll all be in the Oscar race in the not-so-distant future… even if it's not in 2010.

Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart are also getting plenty of press for their risqué star turns as teen rock stars Cherie "ch-ch-ch-ch-Cherry Bomb" Currie and Joan Jett in the rock film The Runaways. But while Oscar voters do sometimes resemble groupies when it comes to the music biopic, it's difficult to imagine them screaming for an encore for this dirty, sweaty, jailbait version. Dakota Fanning may be almost sixteen, but her antics aren't exactly sweet. The Runaways is likely to win more finger-wagging than kudos with touchier audience members in the Academy and elsewhere. Michael Shannon, an Oscar nominee for Revolutionary Road last season, might actually be the film's best bet for awards, should the film become a hit. He steals whole scenes as the outrageously inappropriate manager of the first all-girl rock band.

So where's that future across-the-board Oscar contender?

It could well be Lisa Cholodenko's dramedy The Kids Are All Right. This writer/director's debut film High Art, a steamy drama about lesbians in the art world, won the screenwriting award at Sundance and plentiful praise for its actresses (Ally Sheedy, Patricia Clarkson, and Radha Mitchell). Her next film Laurel Canyon, about a tangled web of fluid sexual relationships in the music world, cemented her reputation as a filmmaker with a distinct voice. She went on to direct an adaptation of a Dorothy Allison novel (Cave Dweller) and directed one episode of The L Word. Up until now her work has had the kind of independent edge and Sapphic erotic sensibility that hasn't translated well to mainstream awards attention. This new film is about two teenagers raised by lesbian mothers (Oscar regulars Julianne Moore and Annette Bening), and what happens when the kids decide that they want to meet their biological father (Mark Ruffalo). By all accounts the premiere was extremely well-received and buyers pounced (Focus Features won the distribution rights). The abundant laughter during the film and the raves that followed the premiere suggests that it plays strong enough to win Cholodenko the larger audience she's long deserved. If Kids does become a modest hit with mainstream audiences, awards attention may follow.

But even if none of this year's debuts win eventual Oscar play next winter, there are plenty of good films to see. Sundance is no longer a kid, but it's definitely all right.


More in this series:
The Oscar Combination
Oscars: The Best of... Everything?
The Peoples' Globes

Nathaniel Rogers blogs on The Film Experience. He is also a bit of an Oscar savant.


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