Because such low-budget indies as Blue Valentine, An Education, The Kids Are All Right, Precious, Winter's Bone and Frozen River broke through with the Academy actors' branch, boosting unknowns Carey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe and Jennifer Lawrence and veterans Michelle Williams, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, John Hawkes, Mo'Nique, and Melissa Leo into Oscar contention, other distributors harbor hopes that Sundance magic can happen again. But not all indies have the right stuff.
Even so, Olsen has a better shot as a newbie than Like Crazy's Felicity Jones, a brilliant young British actress who also popped in Julie Taymor's The Tempest. Jones and Anton Yelchin play star-crossed lovers in Drake Doremus's digital romance, which should play better to young audiences than the adult Academy crowd, which tends to prefer more production value. (Here's the trailer and my interview with Doremus.) Best-picture nominees An Education, The Kids Are All Right, Precious and Winter's Bone were all exquisitely crafted, well-written, directed and acted, as well as narratively compelling, riveting movies. Also Lone Scherfig, Lisa Cholodenko, Lee Daniels and Debra Granik were more established writer-directors in the industry than are Nichols, Durkin and Doremus.
Shannon still has a shot for Take Shelter--although the best actor category is hugely competitive--because he is a respected working actor from Revolutionary Road to HBO's Emmy-winning hit Boardwalk Empire, now in its second season. Tom McCarthy's Win Win should land an original screenplay nomination, but Searchlight will have to bring the movie back into the limelight for Academy watchers to put it at the top of the pile. If they do, they'll see impeccable performances from Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, who deserve nominations.
Writer-director Sam Levinson won the screenwriting prize at Sundance for family comedy Another Happy Day; Oscar strategist Cynthia Swartz is pushing star Ellen Barkin in the awards season. Shockingly, while Barkin has won an Emmy (Before Women Had Wings), the veteran actress (Diner, The Big Easy, Sea of Love, Switch, Oceans Thirteen) has never been nominated for an Oscar. Many folks have not seen Another Happy Day, which co-stars Kate Bosworth and Ezra Miller; Phase 4 is releasing the film in theaters mid-November.
Finally, as always, the magic combo of release publicity, reviews, box office and year-end kudos will make the difference for these Sundance contenders. But unless the upcoming big guns turn out to be much smaller than expected, it will be tougher than ever to make the necessary noise to raise these indie profiles.