The First Weekend of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival Saw the Debut of a New Wave of Oscar Contenders

While “Oscars” sometimes gets treated like a dirty word that may pull focus from the hundreds of films premiering at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, the past few days on the ground in Park City, Utah have been a big reminder of the increased interconnectivity between the festival and the Academy Awards.

For example, the first night of this year’s fest saw current Best Supporting Actor frontrunner Robert Downey Jr. give his “Oppenheimer” director Christopher Nolan the inaugural Sundance Institute Trailblazer Award at the opening night gala. That same event also saw “May December” and “Past Lives” producer Christine Vachon present the Vanguard Award for Fiction to multiple Oscar contender Celine Song, the filmmaker behind the latter film, which premiered at the festival last year.

Actors like Colman Domingo and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, who have made waves this awards season with their performances in “Rustin” and “Origin,” also happen to be at Sundance with other projects, but it sure doesn’t hurt a campaign to show face at a festival that’s launched dozens of Best Picture contenders. 

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A still from Nocturnes by Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

With that in mind, and pulling the focus back on the new films at this year’s festival, here are some projects that premiered the first weekend of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival that already have the fresh smell of Oscar buzz all over them.

“A Real Pain”

The first big acquisition of the festival, the film sold to Searchlight Pictures for $10 million after its Saturday, January 20 premiere was met with a rousing standing ovation. This comedy about two Jewish cousins who go on a tour of Poland in remembrance of their grandmother showcases exactly why star Kieran Culkin just won that Emmy for “Succession.” Writer, director, and co-star Jesse Eisenberg certainly holds his own, but tees up his scene partner to re-establish himself as a magnetic presence on the big screen too. Comedies tend to have an uphill battle at the Oscars, but this film goes out of its way to tackle more difficult subject matter head-on, which voters seem likely to respect. With Searchlight backing it, “A Real Pain” might prove to be a real contender in the coming months.

“Exhibiting Forgiveness”

Director Titus Kaphar, a world-renowned painter, is actually already on the Academy’s radar, with his film “Shut Up and Paint” having appeared on the Best Documentary Short shortlist last year. But in this feature directorial debut, he dives even deeper into his own story through lead André Holland as Terrell, a successful artist who starts to spiral once his addict father makes his way back into his life. In the role of the said parent is theater veteran John Earl Jelks, who so expertly captures how even when people are doing the best they can to change, their past actions do not get absolved overnight. There’s magic in the dynamic between the pair of actors, as difficult as their conflict gets before true catharsis, but Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Andra Day (both no strangers to awards season) are the necessary final touches that make the stirring picture complete.

“The Outrun”

Saoirse Ronan, the star and producer of this addiction drama based on Amy Liptrot’s 2016 memoir of the name, has already been nominated for an acting Oscar four times at only 29 years old. Working with German director Nora Fingscheidt (“The Unforgivable”) the Irish actress has already won rave reviews for her commitment to embodying a woman headed back to Scotland’s Orkney Islands, adamant on outrunning the personal demons that have plagued her.

“Porcelain War”

If there is one Oscar category that Sundance has the most influence on, it is Best Documentary Feature. Last year, four out of five of the nominees had their world premiere at Sundance, with “Navalny,” the 2022 Audience Award recipient, being the eventual winner. There are certainly more titles to come, but this film from directors Slava Leontyev and Brendan Bellomo, about a trio of Ukrainian artists who stay and fight for their country after Russia’s invasion of Crimea, was said to be one of the hottest tickets over the weekend. Academy voters have gravitated toward both films showcasing artists, and documenting the current global issue, so the acquisition title seems primed to be one that earns their attention this year.

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