1. Shine (1996)
Though the Sundance Film Festival was founded in the late ’70s, it took almost two decades for it to resemble the film oasis it is today—and a few more years for the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences to take notice. When else but 1996, the so-called “Year Of The Independents,” could a Sundance movie finally make its way into the Best Picture Oscar race? Four out of that year’s five nominees—all except Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire—were financed outside of the studio system. Among them was Shine, an Australian biopic about the life and career of pianist David Helfgott. The film was one of several titles to inspire a feverish bidding war at the fest that January; in a rare defeat, Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein became convinced that he had successfully secured its distribution rights, only to discover that director Scott Hicks had deliberately snubbed him by selling them to Fine Line instead. (A good call, perhaps, as Weinstein threw all his weight behind the eventual winner, The English Patient.) Shine had no chance against its more high-profile competitors (including Fargo, which should have won), but its single Oscar victory did launch a career—that of Best Actor recipient Geoffrey Rush, now an awards-season darling.
2. In The Bedroom (2001)
Harvey Weinstein may have blown his chance to put his name on the very first Sundance-to-Oscars Cinderella story (see above), but perhaps only someone with his clout and influence could have convinced the Academy to make space for an epic downer like In The Bedroom. Based on a short story by Andre Dubus, the directorial debut of Todd Field is a grim crime drama about middle-aged parents whose peaceful domestic life is shattered by an unspeakable tragedy. The Weinsteins often specialize in light arthouse comfort food, but they knew better than to let this hot commodity—maybe the most talked-about title at Sundance 2001—slip through their fingers. The investment (and typically relentless campaigning) paid off: In The Bedroom didn’t just show up on the final Best Picture Oscar ballot, earning additional nominations for its screenplay as well as the performances of Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, and Marisa Tomei. It also proved enormously successful at the box office, which is the real proof of Harvey’s magic sway. What’s harder than getting AMPAS members to watch one of the year’s bleakest movies? Getting audiences to watch it.
3. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
2006 was one of the tightest Best Picture races in recent history, at least according to pundits at the time. To hear many of the prognosticators tell it, any one of the five nominees—Babel, The Departed, Letters From Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, or The Queen—could have pulled out the win. In retrospect, it seems crazy to think that anyone was predicting Little Miss Sunshine, that brightly innocuous road-trip comedy, for this particular golden statuette. But by Oscar night, the movie’s winning streak felt unstoppable: Its tidy vision of family dysfunction, drenched in pastel colors and crammed into faux-Wes Anderson compositions, had won a lot of fans at Sundance. There, Fox Searchlight cut what’s said to be the biggest deal in the festival’s history, paying $10.5 million for the domestic and foreign rights. The studio ended up making that investment back tenfold—and because money talks, a well-liked indie sitcom became a serious awards contender. Little Miss Sunshine ultimately lost Best Picture to The Departed, but its legacy lives on elsewhere—in the Oscar success of Juno, in the proliferation of likeminded Sundance yukfests, and in the overuse of yellow as a marketing strategy for frothy mini-major releases.
4. An Education (2009)
Sundance has become synonymous with American independent film, but not all of the festival’s breakout successes are of U.S. origin. The makers of British coming-of-age drama An Education flew across the pond to premiere their movie in Park City, where it won the World Cinema Audience Award. Adapted by novelist Nick Hornby from a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber, its story of a schoolgirl (Carey Mulligan) seduced by an older con man (Peter Sarsgaard) could easily belong to a homegrown indie—though an American version would probably have treated the central relationship as more of a taboo affair. Continuing on the festival circuit, with stops at Toronto and Telluride, the film garnered plenty of praise, much of it aimed at breakout starlet Mulligan. Were the Best Picture field only five films deep, there’s a good chance An Education would have been left out in the cold. But 2010 was the year the Academy expanded the lineup to allow for 10 movies, increasing the competition chances of “smaller” films—like the ones that usually premiere at Sundance. Since then, several more alums of the fest have earned nominations for Picture, though none have been perceived as more than also-rans.
5. Precious (Based On The Novel “Push” By Sapphire) (2009)
An Education wasn’t the only 2009 Sundance winner to become a 2010 Best Picture nominee. Precious (Based On The Novel “Push” by Sapphire), which premiered under the much-more-manageable title Push, also won an award at America’s most well-known film festival: the Grand Jury Prize. But unlike its milquetoast counterpart, Lee Daniels’ shrill melodrama seemed like a likely Oscar candidate from the start—the type of broad, shamelessly manipulative “issue movie” that might appeal to the same voters who gave the top prize to Crash just four years earlier. Piling a litany of sorrows onto the shoulders of his obese, abused, impoverished heroine (played by Gabourey Sidibe, the film’s greatest asset), Daniels somehow managed to turn a tale of relentless suffering into a weirdly beloved crowd-pleaser. He didn’t do it alone, though: Once Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry joined forces to promote the movie, its path to Oscar-night glory seemed preordained. Precious ended up winning two little gold men—one for its screenplay, the other for Mo’Nique’s high-volume supporting performance as the worst mother of all time. That’s not too shabby for a film with the huckster distastefulness to intercut a sweaty rape scene with close-up shots of sizzling bacon and simmering pigs’ feet.
6. Winter’s Bone (2010)
A deserved winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2010, Winter’s Bone represents one of the best cases yet for the Academy expanding its Best Picture lineup past the traditional five-film mark. With more slots to fill, voters can reach for smaller, edgier curiosities—films like Debra Granik’s flavorful Ozark noir, which basically introduced the world to the precocious talents of Jennifer Lawrence. Critical acclaim never guarantees award nominations, even when the movie in question is as universally acclaimed as Winter’s Bone. And while it’s tempting to chalk up the film’s inclusion to a need for 10 candidates—a year later, the Academy shifted to the current variable-number-of-nominees system—the additional love for Granik’s sharp screenplay, Lawrence’s star-making performance, and a deeply menacing supporting turn by John Hawkes suggest Winter’s Bone had widespread AMPAS support. Every once in a while, they do get it right.
7. The Kids Are All Right (2010)
If or when a Sundance title finally parlays its festival buzz into a bona fide Best Picture victory, the lucky winner will probably look something like The Kids Are All Right. Lisa Cholodenko’s warmly conversational hit, about a lesbian couple whose kids decide they want to meet their biological father, is progressive without being transgressive, smart but not difficult, and “independent” in a very Hollywood way. A sensation at the festival, it provoked an acquisition war, then made a solid profit for the successful bidder, Focus Features. (Oscar loves a success story.) The film also features two previously nominated movie stars as the mothers (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), and Mark Ruffalo as the donor father. Predictably, Kids slipped into the 10-deep Best Picture lineup, alongside fellow Sundance selection Winter’s Bone. Both lost to a different festival favorite: TIFF Audience Award winner The King’s Speech, a feel-good choice that didn’t require Academy members to consider (or reconsider) their stance on Prop 8.
8. Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)
You didn’t have to love, or even like, Benh Zeitlin’s magical-realist Katrina parable to be heartened by its inclusion in last year’s Best Picture nomination list. Surely one of the most inexpensive films ever to be nominated for that award, the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Beasts Of The Southern Wild rode a wave of positive buzz to an unlikely nod; like most of the films on this list, it turned great festival notices into a distribution deal, then became a relative commercial success through strong word-of-mouth. Usually, the fest films that graduate to mainstream awards consideration are those that have one foot planted in Hollywood—through the appearance of a movie star, the involvement of a famous filmmaker, or the financial investment of a studio. But Beasts is a true independent, a movie that crawled fully formed out of the primordial ooze and made its own fate. That Zeitlin, a first-time feature filmmaker, managed to edge out Hollywood heavyweights like Kathryn Bigelow to score a Best Director nom suggests that selecting Beasts was more than just an obligatory nod to cinema’s underbelly. Maybe it was also a nod to the awards’ future, when such singular indie contenders could be the rule, not the exception.