Which Sundance Movies Could Follow ‘CODA’ to the Oscars?

Jonathan Majors in “Magazine Dreams” and Teyana Taylor in “A Thousand and One,” among others, could make the journey from Park City to the Dolby Theater.

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By Kyle Buchanan

Over the past few decades, the Sundance Film Festival has premiered Oscar winners like “Manchester by the Sea,” “Call Me by Your Name” and “Minari,” but it wasn’t until last March — when the crowd-pleasing “CODA” won best picture — that a Sundance movie went the distance and claimed the top Academy Award.

It may be a little while before Sundance pulls off that feat again, as the Oscar nominations announced last week featured no movies from the festival in the best-picture race; indeed, the only 2022 Sundance film to make a dent in the top six Oscar categories was the British drama “Living,” which earned a best-actor nod for Bill Nighy. But could the movies that just premiered at the 2023 edition of the festival, which concluded on Sunday, help recover some of Sundance’s award-season mojo?

The program certainly offered a fair amount of best-actor contenders who could follow in Nighy’s footsteps. Foremost among them is Jonathan Majors. The up-and-coming actor already has a crowded 2023: He’ll soon be seen facing off against Michael B. Jordan in “Creed III” and playing the supervillain Kang in Marvel properties like “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Loki.” And that slate just got even stronger with the Sundance premiere of “Magazine Dreams,” a troubled-loner drama in which Majors plays an amateur bodybuilder on the brink of snapping. Had the film been released a few months ago, Majors would have made this year’s thin best-actor lineup for sure, but the right studio buyer could take advantage of his newfound Marvel momentum to muscle this formidable performance into the next race.

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Other best-actor candidates that could come from the current Sundance crop include Gael Garcia Bernal, who could earn his first nomination for playing a gay luchador in the appealing “Cassandro,” and David Strathairn, who toplines the modest, humane “A Little Prayer,” about a father deciding whether to meddle in his son’s extramarital affair. One point in Strathairn’s favor is that his film will be released by Sony Pictures Classics, which has managed to land a well-liked veteran in the best-actor lineup three of the last four years (Nighy for “Living,” Anthony Hopkins for “The Father” and Antonio Banderas for “Pain and Glory”).

The top Sundance jury prize went to A.V. Rockwell’s “A Thousand and One,” which could earn best-actress attention for Teyana Taylor, who plays a defiant ex-con resorting to desperate measures to keep custody of her son. (Still, the film’s planned March release from Focus Features will require some end-of-year reminders for forgetful voters.) Also buzzed about was Greta Lee, who could be in contention for A24’s “Past Lives,” about a Korean American woman reunited with her former lover; the film was so rapturously received that a best-picture push could be in the cards.

Will any of the year’s biggest-selling films crash the Oscars race? Netflix spent $20 million to acquire the well-reviewed “Fair Play,” which pits the “Bridgerton” star Phoebe Dynevor against the “Solo: A Star Wars Story” actor Alden Ehrenreich as co-workers whose affair curdles once she gets promoted. It’s not the kind of starry auteur project that usually gets a big end-of-the-year campaign from Netflix, but if this battle of the sexes becomes a zeitgeisty hit, the streamer may give it a shot. Apple TV+ paid $20 million for the musical comedy “Flora and Son,” from the “Once” director John Carney, while Searchlight shelled out more than $7 million for the Ben Platt vehicle “Theater Camp.” At the very least, these two comedies feature delightful original-song contenders.

Sundance films could make the biggest splash is in the best-documentary race: All but one of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries first debuted at the January festival, and even if you stripped Sundance of its star-driven narrative films, the strength of its docs would still preserve its status as a top-tier world festival.

This year, the most-talked-about docs were the award winners “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” about a storied Black poet; the Alzheimer’s drama “The Eternal Memory”; “Beyond Utopia,” which features compelling hidden-camera footage of North Koreans trying to defect; and “20 Days in Mariupol,” about the Russian siege of a Ukrainian port city.

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