Traditionally, getting from Sundance to Oscar is a long, hard road that not many films manage to successfully navigate. There’s usually a token Sundance stand-out nominated for an Oscar, often in the screenplay categories, but it’s hard for a film to maintain the necessary momentum for an entire year and bag an Oscar nomination the next year. But this year two major contenders premiered at last year’s Sundance: Boyhood, which is most likely to take home the trifecta of Best Editing, Directing, and Picture; and Whiplash, also a Best Picture nominee which is going to bag JK Simmons his first Oscar (he’s got Supporting Actor sewn up so fill out your Oscar pools accordingly).
It’s still not an easy road, but over the last few years the Academy has dug in their heels and, despite a rule change meant to open the Best Picture race to more consumer-friendly titles from studios, they’ve doubled-down on smaller, independent fare (call it the Dark Knight backlash—they don’t appreciate being told to nominate one or two “movies like that” every year in order to boost ratings). This means the path from Sundance to Oscar has gotten a little bit smoother. Suddenly the weirdo movies of Sundance look a little Oscar baity. With Sundance beginning on Thursday, this year I picked ten movies that, on paper, look like potential Oscar contenders for 2016. We’ll meet back here in a year to see how I did. (Remember that time I predicted Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar run? NEVER FORGET.)
After premiering to widely positive reviews on the fall festival circuit, Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes ended up getting taken off the 2014 slate and will try to make its mark earlier in 2015. Hopefully when it comes back around this year, it does so with a less confusing marketing campaign.
Comedies don’t fare well at the Oscars, BUT, The Bronze is the feature film debut of commercial director Bryan Buckley, who was nominated in the Live Action – Short category in 2013. It’s also co-written by star Melissa Rauch (along with her husband), and it’s about frenemy female gymnasts. A lot of people are eyeing this to be a Bridesmaids-style breakout, and if it is, the Rauches could be contenders in the Original Screenplay category.
“People performing twisted psychological experiments” is this year’s “British people doing math”. This is the first of two movies about psychological experiments that prove humanity is doomed (the other is The Stanford Experiment, also on this list). Starring Peter Sarsgaard, Experimenter is about Stanley Milgram’s experiment in which he asked people to administer electroshocks to others. They did it, of course, because people are the worst.
The End of the Tour
James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now was a very good movie that was ultimately too young to appeal to the Academy. But The End of the Tour, his follow up, is about a journalist who interviewed David Foster Wallace, so it comes with an automatic sheen of artsy importance. With Jesse Eisenberg as the reporter and Jason Segel going for a Jonah Hill-esque career makeover as Wallace, it might be a grown-up contender for Ponsoldt.
I don’t have a lot of faith in writer/director Paul Weitz, but this is a vehicle for Lily Tomlin. She portrays a once-successful poet who embarks on a road trip with her granddaughter, in a story about grief and family. The Golden Globes reminded everyone of how much they like Tomlin, and how long it’s been since we’ve seen her in a really choice film role. The movie doesn’t even have to be good to propel Tomlin into an Oscar campaign (see also: Still Alice).
This is Michael Fassbender’s passion project about a young man crossing the American frontier to find a woman. Fassbender WILL be a factor in the 2016 Oscar race—he has four potential-laden movies up this year—it’s just a matter of which one gets him the furthest. The good news for Slow West is that it already has a distributor, A24. The bad news is, A24 has yet to be an effective Oscar campaigner. But the Academy loves Fassbender—they’re still sorry about that whole Shame thing—which ought to work in A24’s favor.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me
After a year in which the Academy’s—and the industry’s at large—diversity problems became more prominent than ever, a savvy distributor could see this as a flashy remedy. The feature film debut of writer/director Chloe Zhao, it’s about a pair of siblings on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and features a Native cast. It’s a diversity bingo.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
A movie based on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment has “potential” stamped all over it. It has a Whiplash vibe: A writer/director, Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who is popular with critics but hasn’t broken into the mainstream yet, and a cast featuring a veteran actor (Billy Crudup) opposite an on-the-cusp young actor (Ezra Miller). If it’s even halfway good, it will sell itself.
James Franco and Jonah Hill star in the bizarre true story (GET IT?!) about a murderer on the FBI’s Most Wanted list who used the identity of a disgraced journalist for years while on the lam. The movie depicts their meeting, and co-starring newly-minted Oscar nominee Felicity Jones, it comes with plenty of Academy polish already applied.
Z for Zachariah
Filmmaker Craig Zobel is capable of making viscerally uncomfortable movies (see also: Compliance), so his adaptation of Robert O’Brien’s dystopia novel ought to be a joy to sit through. With a flashy cast—Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine, and a brunette Margot Robbie, so you know she’s Being Serious—and equally flashy premise about a post-apocalyptic love triangle, this could be Zobel’s breakout hit.