2019 Film Festival Issue | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

January 16, 2019 News » Cover Story

2019 Film Festival Issue 

Past stories lay the foundation for new ones in Park City.

Pin It

Page 2 of 4

Sundance Oscar Alums
A look at the honored performances that emerged from festival films.
By David Riedel

It's January; the movie industry's a dead zone. Studios dump the dreck into the multiplexes, the critics have handed out their self-important awards, the Golden Globes have come and gone in all their non-glory, and we have a short respite from Oscar prognostications.

So, to paraphrase Christian Bale's Golden Globes acceptance speech, thank Satan for the Sundance Film Festival! It arrives at just the right time, providing critics and audiences thrills, spills, chills and some other word that rhymes. The Brothers McMullen notwithstanding, Sundance has showcased some damn good movies filled with wonderful performances.

For example, in the past 20 years, movies that made their debuts at Sundance have received 32 Oscar nominations in the acting categories, with five wins. That's a pretty impressive total. More impressive is that the winners are a truly fine bunch.

Little Miss Sunshine - FOX SEARCHLIGHT
  • Fox Searchlight
  • Little Miss Sunshine

Take Alan Arkin. The 2006 Sundance favorite Little Miss Sunshine is what I consider the nadir of filmmaking; its characters are loathsome (particularly Greg Kinnear's, whose natural unpleasantness makes the character even more foul), they don't resemble real people, and the best gag in the picture is lifted from National Lampoon's Vacation. But Arkin makes it all bearable. His hour of screen time before his character's demise is a godsend. His nasty grandfather is strangely lovable, so much so that when he dies of what's presumably a heroin overdose, it's actually affecting. It's also a serious bummer, because the movie's final 40 minutes doesn't have his wisecracking to offset the bullshit of seeing the family push their beater Volkswagen bus down the highway for the millionth time. Arkin's Best Supporting Actor Oscar win gives the movie cachet it doesn't deserve, but he's good enough for us to sit through the parts he's not in.

Precious - LIONSGATE
  • Lionsgate
  • Precious

Speaking of loathsome characters, Mo'Nique won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Mary in the 2009 film Precious. Mary, Precious' mother, is so monstrous it's hard to believe people like her could exist—though they do; take a look at the White House. But Mo'Nique infuses her with enough pathos (without dipping into bathos) that her final teary showdown with Mariah Carey's social worker elicits pity. That's quite a feat considering Mary subjected Precious to years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

  • IFC Productions
  • Boyhood

Another Oscar award-winning performance for an inhuman character went to J.K. Simmons for his role as Terence Fletcher, the asshole music instructor who beats his students in Whiplash, which premiered at Sundance in 2014. How can someone win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar while playing a man who's so ruthless he goes out of his way to ruin his student's lives? Maybe it's because his competition was Foxcatcher, The Judge and Birdman (and Boyhood in the form of Ethan Hawke, who gave an outstanding performance in an outstanding film).

Whiplash - BOLD FILMS
  • Bold Films
  • Whiplash

Or maybe it's because Simmons is so goddamn good you root for him even though he's the villain. I mean, who are you gonna root for instead? Bitch-ass Miles Teller? Really, Whiplash is filled with characters who are so rotten you wonder how they function in real life; my one gripe with the movie is that none of these musicians seems to care much about music.

On the other side of humanity's spectrum is Olivia Evans, the character that earned Patricia Arquette a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Boyhood. Olivia is the title boy's mother, the movie's emotional center, and Arquette gives one of those performances that's so brilliantly understated it's a miracle the Academy awarded an actor who faded into the scenery instead of chewing it to bits (see: Emma Stone in Birdman or Meryl Streep in Into the Woods, two other nominees from the same year). When Olivia dissolves into tears shortly before her son heads off to college, it's a well-deserved emotional moment for a character who, faults and all, has made sacrifice after sacrifice for her family.

Lastly among the Oscar winners, there's Casey Affleck, who was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his role as a grieving father in Manchester by the Sea. Affleck's ick factor aside (it's hard to think about him without also thinking about the sexual assault allegations made against him), his performance is a highlight in a movie overflowing with excellent performances. His character is one of the most emotionally damaged to ever hit the big screen, and Affleck is excellent in the role.

But forget about the Oscar winners for a moment. There are 27 other Sundance-movie performances that received Academy Award acting nominations, many of which are just as worthy as the winners. For my money, it's difficult to find a movie more uniformly excellent than In the Bedroom, Todd Field's 2001 heartbreaker about the way violence and resentment corrupt the soul. Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marisa Tomei were all nominated in acting categories and all failed to take home a statuette. Spacek lost to Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, and Wilkinson to Denzel Washington in Training Day. It's hard to argue with those results, but Tomei lost out to Jennifer Connelly from A Beautiful Mind, a good performance in a corny movie. Such is life.

Sundance movies also have a solid streak of introducing us to new gotta-watch performers. Laura Linney, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Abigail Breslin and Melissa Leo all made their marks via Sundance movies for, respectively, You Can Count on Me, Winter's Bone (if you haven't seen it, do), Junebug, the afore-shit-on Little Miss Sunshine and Frozen River. Lawrence and Leo went on to win Oscars for subsequent roles. Adams, Breslin and Linney are all still waiting, though I'm stunned Linney didn't pick one up for her role in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.

Finally, I'm making special mention of Quvenzhané Wallis' Best Actress nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild. She holds the distinction of being the youngest Best Actress nominee ever, at 9 years old. Plus, I got into a long-deleted minor Twitter beef with disgraced former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi about her nomination (my argument: She was nominated, who cares about her age?), so I feel like I have skin in the game. What say you?

Now that I have to wait a few weeks to see what the most honored Sundance performances for 2019 will be, I'm kind of chomping at the bit. Until then, I have tons of movies to revisit in anticipation. Happy festival-going! Save me a spot in line for Big Time Adolescence.

Pin It


More by Scott Renshaw

More by David Riedel


Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

Latest in Cover Story

  • The Road Out

    How religious organizations, nonprofits and people on the streets are adapting to historic change in Salt Lake's homeless services.
    • Sep 18, 2019
  • Election 2020: Then There Were 10

    We size up the Democrats who’ve qualified for Thursday night’s debate.
    • Sep 11, 2019
  • The Geek Issue

    City Weekly's first-ever Geek Issue is a celebration of the people and organizations that make Utah such a distinctive haven for those with a geek sensibility.
    • Sep 4, 2019
  • More »

Readers also liked…

© 2019 Salt Lake City Weekly

Website powered by Foundation