Four of the five films nominated in the Documentary Feature category of the 2014 Academy Awards all premiered in competition at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. 20 Feet From Stardom, Cutie and the Boxer and Dirty Wars all were in the festival’s American Documentary competition while The Square took part in World Documentary. None of them won at Sundance, but now they each have the last laugh. Along with fifth nominee The Act of Killing—the one film that didn’t screen at Park City—they have outlasted all other contenders to earn a place at this year’s Oscars.
These films are just the latest in a long and esteemed tradition of independent films that opened at Sundance and turned up on Oscar’s radar. Literally dozens of films have made the journey from Park City to Hollywood’s biggest night. And though plenty of short films too have made the grade over the years, for our purposes, we’ll hone in on just the features.
While the Coen brothers’ first film Blood Simple won the premiere Sundance Film Festival in 1985, it wasn’t until two years later that the festival first broke through and put its stamp on Oscar. The documentary Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima did not win the festival’s documentary category—that went to Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March—but it caught Oscar’s attention and become the first Sundance veteran to walk the red carpet on Oscar night.
Edward James Olmos was already well known for his work on the hit 1980s TV show Miami Vice (for which he won an Emmy in 1985) when he starred in Stand and Deliver, the triumphant true story of a math teacher in L.A.’s barrios who taught his dropout-prone students calculus. It was the role of a lifetime for Olmos, who would earn his first—and to date only, Oscar nomination—for Best Actor. It was the first narrative feature to premiere in Park City to make it to the Oscars.
The festival’s breakthrough year featured the festival’s first breakthrough film: Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape. The movie that put the festival on the map and kick-started Soderbergh’s Hollywood career also earned the writer-director his first Oscar nomination for the movie’s screenplay.
Another in-competition documentary, Berkeley in the Sixties, went on to make the final five on Oscar night, 14 months later.
The Sundance jury and the Academy finally got in synch. Barbara Kopple and Arthur Cohn’s documentary American Dream won the top prize at Sundance (tying with Paris Is Burning), and two months later, it won the Oscar for Documentary Feature. This would be the first time, but not the last, that a Sundance victory led to Oscar gold. Just a year later, in fact, another film that premiered at this festival took home some Academy hardware. In the Shadow of the Stars was likewise honored. Another Sundance vet, Restless Conscience: Resistance to Hitler Within Germany 1933-45, was also nominated for an Oscar in 1992.
The trend of Sundance documentaries getting Academy attention continued with the nomination of festival winner Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family.
For the second year in a row, the documentary that took top honors at Sundance, Freedom on My Mind, was likewise recognized with an Oscar nomination.
Not one, but three documentaries from this festival earned Oscar nominations, one just two months post-festival while the others came through the following year. Interestingly, the 1996 festival winner, The American Experience, Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, was like American Dream in that it was the rare film to earn an Oscar nod in the same year it premiered in Park City. While it did not triumph at the Oscars, one of the other post-Sundance docs did win. The Muhammad Ali-George Foreman documentary When We Were Kings earned a tremendous following in the year after its Sundance bow and was awarded the Oscar over the third Sundance vet, The American Experience: The Battle Over Citizen Kane.
After a year without any Sundance vets making it to the Academy’s big night, The Farm: Angola began a new streak that continues to this day. In every single year since 1998, at least one movie has crossed over from Sundance to the Oscars.
Not only did another pair of Sundance docs get themselves Oscar nods—namely, On the Ropes and Speaking in Strings—but the festival also started representing on the narrative feature side once again as Janet McTeer earned her first Best Actress nomination for her work in Tumbleweeds.
Here’s one of the most prolific years Sundance has ever had at the Oscars as four of the five documentary nominees came from Park City. Aside from festival winner Long Night’s Journey Into Day, there was also Sound and Fury, Scottsboro: An American Tragedy and Legacy, all of which lost the Oscar to the one nominee that didn’t premiere at Sundance, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. More importantly, the narrative feature train continued rolling, as You Can Count on Me not only tied for the festival’s top prize (with Girlfight), it also became the first Sundance feature to earn more than one Oscar nomination. Not only did Laura Linney earn her first nod for Best Actress, but also writer-director Kenneth Lonergan got his first for the film’s wonderful screenplay.
Another big year for the festival as Sundance introduced to the world a pair of topnotch filmmaking talents. Aside from documentary nominees Children Underground and LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, neither of which won the top prize at the festival, were Memento and In the Bedroom. While neither of those movies won the Sundance Dramatic competition, Christopher Nolan nabbed an Oscar nom for writing the former and Todd Field scored a pair of noms for co-writing and producing the latter. Field’s film—which he also directed, even though he didn’t get an Oscar nod for it—pulled off two Sundance milestones: It was the first Sundance film to get a Best Picture nod, and, with five nominations, it nabbed more noms than any Sundance vet until Precious, eight years later.
Daughter from Danang won the top prize at the festival, but at the Oscars, it was shut out by Bowling for Columbine. This was also the last year until 2007 that a dramatic feature didn’t also make it to Oscar night.
Sundance winner, Capturing the Friedmans, became a sensation upon its release, and sure enough, it snagged an Oscar nod along with fellow Sundance flick The Weather Underground. Both films lost to the Errol Morris film, The Fog of War, but the dramatic side also had a trio of representatives. Alec Baldwin’s performance in The Cooler and Patricia Clarkson’s in Pieces of April each earned them Supporting nods, as did Holly Hunter’s performance in Thirteen, a movie that won helmer Catherine Hardwicke the Director prize at the fest.
It’s always interesting when a festival fails to recognize a film that both the public and the Oscars subsequently honor. Take Super Size Me and Born into Brothels. The former was a huge success, launched the career of Morgan Spurlock, and actually changed the way society looks at fast food while also earning an Oscar nomination. The latter showcased the lives of prostitutes in Calcutta to American audiences and went on to win the Best Documentary Oscar. Neither film won the jury prize, although Spurlock won a Directing prize and Brothels snagged an Audience Award. Another film that won praise from the audience was Maria Full of Grace, whose star, Catalina Sandino Moreno earned her first and, to date, only Oscar nomination, for Best Actress.
For the first time, the majority of Sundance movies to earn Oscar nominations were narrative features. The cult hit Murderball was the sole documentary representative, but three different dramatic features were also recognized. Noah Baumbach’s screenplay for The Squid and The Whale was joined by Terence Howard’s Best Actor nod for Hustle & Flow while a young actress named Amy Adams was introduced to the world in Junebug. Adams won a special jury prize for her performance and earned her first Oscar nomination.
Five years earlier, The Believer showcased the astonishing acting talents of Ryan Gosling. With this year’s festival, those talents were again on display in Half Nelson, a wrenching drama that snagged him his first Oscar nod. Meanwhile, an interesting documentary called Iraq in Fragments was also recognized but ran into An Inconvenient Truth, which won the documentary Oscar that year.
While no Sundance features were included at the Oscars, a pair of documentaries were: No End in Sight and War Dance.
A most interesting year, indeed. With Sundance now sponsoring competitions in two documentary feature categories—American and World Cinema—two different jury prize winners were likewise honored by the Academy along with a third film that played at Sundance. Trouble the Water and Man on Wire both won top festival prizes and went on to get Oscar nods (along with The Betrayal—Nerakhoon). Man on Wire went on to win. On top of that, Melissa Leo’s first leading role helped Frozen River win the festival’s jury prize while Leo herself scored her first Oscar nomination, for Best Actress, for the film.
The brilliant documentary The Cove deserved its Best Doc Feature Oscar nomination, but 2009 was all about Precious. Aside from winning the festival’s top prize, and an additional recognition for Mo’Nique’s performance, the movie also established Lee Daniels’ directing career and introduced the world to the amazing Gabourey Sidibe. Its seven total Oscar nominations remains the high water mark for any Sundance movie.
Again, the documentary category was well represented—by festival winner Restrepo along with GasLand and Waste Land—the biggest thing to come out of this festival was Jennifer Lawrence. Not only did Winter’s Bone take the top jury prize in the American Dramatic Feature category, Lawrence also scored her first Oscar nod for Best Actress, one of four nods the film received that year. Additionally, there was Blue Valentine and Animal Kingdom, which got one nomination each for, respectively, Michelle Williams and Jacki Weaver.
A relatively light year. Documentaries Hell and Back Again and If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front both scored Oscar nominations while J.C. Chandor got one for writing Margin Call.
The biggest year Sundance has ever had at the Oscars as seven different films were represented on Oscar night. Aside from documentaries How to Survive a Plague, 5 Broken Cameras and the eventual winner, Searching for Sugar Man, there was a nomination for Best Song (from another documentary, Chasing Ice), a Foreign Film nomination for the Chilean import No, a Supporting Actress nod for The Sessions’ Helen Hunt and, oh yes, four nominations for a little movie called Beasts of the Southern Wild. Not too shabby.