Sundance film festival: First stop for next year’s Oscar contenders

Though there’s still plenty of conversation to be had about this year’s Oscar race, next year’s has technically already begun. In recent years, the Sundance Film Festival, held each January, has been an early first-stop for a number of Oscar contenders. Four of the seven most recent winners of the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) prize — “Precious” (2009), “Winter’s Bone” (2010), “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012) and “Whiplash” (2014) — went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. And though last year’s champ “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” didn’t get much awards love, other Sundance titles “Brooklyn,” “Cartel Land,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” “The Hunting Ground” and “World of Tomorrow” are all making their way toward the Dolby Theater this month.

Below,  a look at some of the Sundance titles that we are likely to see pop up throughout the upcoming cycle:

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“The Birth of a Nation”
This year’s Grand Jury winner for features was Nate Parker‘s much talked about biopic of Nat Turner, the African-American slave who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. The film, which Parker wrote, directed and headlined, also won the audience award. It was acquired by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million (largest deal at the festival to date), the studio that lead “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman” to Best Picture wins. All this is to say that “The Birth of a Nation” is officially the first frontrunner in the race for the 2017 Academy Awards, where it already seems like a contender in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay, among others.

“Manchester by the Sea”
Written and directed by two-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Lonergan (“Gangs of New York”, “You Can Count on Me”) and starring Oscar nominees Casey Affleck (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) and Michelle Williams (“My Week with Marilyn,” ”Brokeback Mountain,” “Blue Valentine”) as well as Emmy winner Kyle Chandler (“Friday Night Lights”). This intense drama focuses on the aftermath of a sudden death in a family’s life. Reviews were outstanding, specifically in the acting and writing departments.

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“Certain Women”
Williams reunites with writer/director Kelly Reichard (“Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff”) for her adaptation of a Maile Meloy collection of short stories about women’s lives in rural Montana. Also featured are two-time Oscar nominee Laura Dern (“Wild,” ““Rambling Rose”) and recent awards darling Kristen Stewart (“Clouds of Sils Maria”). Much has been said about newcomer Lily Gladstone’s performance as well so keep your eye there as well.

“Other People”
One of the more divisive features to debut this comedy from writer/director Chris Kelly about a man (Jesse Plemons) who moves home to care for his ailing mother (Molly Shannon). Her health begins to rapidly decline after she decides to quit cancer treatment. Reviews have noted Shannon’s standout performance, as well as Kelly’s writing and a scene-stealing turn from young actor J.J. Totah.

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Three-time Oscar nominee James Schamus makes his directorial debut with his adaptation of Philip Roth‘s coming-of-age novel “Indignation.” Schamus contended twice for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Adapted Screenplay, Song) and as a producer of the Best Picture nominee “Brokeback Mountain.” This new film could follow a similar trajectory as Sundance title “Whiplash,” as the performances and chemistry between stars Logan Lerman and Tracy Letts are said to echo those of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.

Setting narratives aside, Sundance is a breeding ground for future Documentary Feature contenders. Indeed, at least one of the Oscar nominees has debuted at Sundance for each of the last seven years. The most buzzed about documentaries from the festival this year are Grand Jury Prize (Documentary) winner “Weiner” about disgraced New York congressman Anthony Weiner, “Newtown” about the aftermath of the mass shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut and “Jim: The James Foley Story” about the life and work of American journalist James Foley who was killed by ISIS terrorists in 2014, which took home the Audience Award (Documentary).

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