It used to be that Sundance acclaim meant the kiss of death for its recipients. The 2008 Oscar nominations may signal the end of that curse.
Documentaries have sometimes managed to crossover from Sundance recognition for most of the last decade, with films like Born Into Brothels and An Inconvenient Truth winning Oscars among nominees including Capturing the Friedmans, Murderball and No End In Sight. But that trend exploded this morning, with three of the five Documentary Feature nominees having launched at Sundance, and two of them — Man on Wire and Trouble the Water — having won their respective sections at the fest in 2008.
Meanwhile, the dramatic award winners coming out of Park City are usually lucky just to find distribution and modest theatrical grosses before shuffling off to video and cable. Little Miss Sunshine broke out as a Sundance premiere in 2006 en route to four nominations and two wins, but it didn't have to drag the mixed blessing of Sundance's Grand Jury Prize — usually given to challenging films with Big Social Themes — all the way to Oscar night behind its ubiquitous yellow van.
This year, though? In addition to the doc nominees, Sundance's 2008 winner Frozen River will compete for Best Actress (Melissa Leo) and Best Original Screenplay (by director Courtney Hunt). The Visitor's Richard Jenkins is a Best Actor contender. Martin McDonagh earned his own Original Screenplay nomination for In Bruges, last year's opening-night film.
On one hand we're inclined to invoke the fluke quotient here, but watch what Sony Pictures Classics — whose unqualified commercial success with Frozen River will only improve after today's news — does with this year's Sundance acquisition An Education, which is roundly recognized as one of 2009's best films to date and features awards-caliber work by lead actress Carey Mulligan, supporting actors Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina, screenwriter Nick Hornby and director Lone Scherfig. If Frozen River was SPC's Park City prototype, An Education may be its first sportscar off the line after tinkering with the awards-season machinery its co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard know so well. Wait and see.