The 2020 Sundance Film Festival took place between 23rd January and 2nd February 2020, showcasing the very best of Independent filmmaking in the US. I did not personally attend the festival. The purpose of this post is to have a look at the buzz around certain premieres and predict the success of some of the more notable features.
Last year’s Sundance will be defined as a year when the Oscars seemingly grew weary of their love for Sundance favourites. Since the festival’s inception in its current iteration in 1984, it’s always had some presence in the Academy’s honours. Notable examples Boyhood, Whiplash and Precious in recent years all kickstarted the campaigns of their best picture bids and eventually victorious Best supporting actors at the festival.
Yet last year, Sundance was surprisingly shut out of the Oscars, even though many of the premiering films definitely were in contention. The most notable was Lulu Wang’s excellent The Farewell, which came to be particularly prominent throughout the rest of awards season. It netted Awkwafina a Golden Globe for Best performance in a Comedy or Musical, as well as picking up Independent Spirit Awards for Best Feature and Best Supporting Actress (the impeccable Zhao Shuzhen). But the Academy didn’t nominate it in any categories, not even a Best Original Screenplay nod for Wang herself, a decision many saw as a shocking snub.
(The Farewell: Arguably the biggest breakout hit of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival)
Yet besides The Farewell, there were other films that had some traction, making the mass shut-out of Sundance films all the more surprising. Alfre Woodard’s turn in Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency gained some buzz, especially with Critics’ Circles, but a solid campaign never materialised for her. Similarly, Annette Bening’s Supporting Performance in Scott Burns’ The Report seemed to be an early frontrunner (Bening even bagged a Golden Globe nomination) but momentum slowed considerably come January 2020.
Whether it be due to the abundance of releases towards the end of the year, many of which were of an exceptionally high standard, drowning out the early Sundance hype, or the lack of campaigning prowess of Indie Favourite A24, the movies that defined the festival last year proved unable to compete where it really mattered. That makes an analysis of this year’s festival more interesting. Were there any films that could go down the same route as last year’s favourites, or do some filmmakers/performances have a better shot this time around?
The answer is a little bit of both. First, I think it’s worth acknowledging that there is one film that will almost certainly produce at least one nomination: The Father, directed by Florian Zeller. Early reviews of the film have stated that Anthony Hopkin’s star turn as a dementia stricken man is the performance of his career, and as someone who already has an Oscar, expect him to be the one to beat come next February. There’s something about the way this performance has been talked about that reminds me of the conversation surrounding Casey Affleck a few years ago for Manchester by the Sea. The moment that movie premiered, the buzz for his turn was palpable, and the same can be said for Hopkins. There could also be buzz for Olivia Colman. After her win for The Favourite, she’s officially an Academy darling, so they may not be able to resist giving her a second nomination.
(Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father)
The acting in The Father is a lock for next year, but where the conversation becomes complex is when discussing other films that have made a splash at the festival. The big winner of the Grand Jury Prize was Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. It’s critically acclaimed, both in terms of its screenplay and performances, but something about its emerging narrative reminds me of the buzz surrounding The Farewell. Everything down to the immigrant narrative, the family focus and the breakout performance being from the Grandmother draws parallels with last year’s hit. I expect this to be big with the critics’ groups, and maybe score a few Golden Globe nominations, but unfortunately I see this being a casualty of the Academy’s disillusionment with the smaller Sundance hits.
Those are possibly the two biggest contenders, but it’s worth considering some other notable entries. Josephine Decker’s Shirley and Sean Durkin’s The Nest look to be vehicles for TV stars Elisabeth Moss and Carrie Coon respectively and Dominic Cooke’s Ironbark starring British favourite Benedict Cumberbatch is the resident Oscar-bait drama that didn’t get good enough reviews to be Oscar contenders. Small movies like Eliza Hitman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Maybe have been receiving exceptional reviews from critics, but may prove to be too slow and dark in its subject matter to become mainstream contenders.
In all, this year’s Sundance Festival seems to have produced one Oscar contender, Anthony Hopkins, and a series of critical darlings, who will inevitably be ignored. It’s a shame, as the festival always produces some of the most acclaimed films of the year. Let’s hope it can go back to being the awards prognosticator it used to be in the next few years.