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Sundance Ignites 2016 Oscar Race with ‘Brooklyn,’ ‘Grandma’ and More

“Brooklyn,” a drama about an Irish immigrant’s journey to America, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday night without much advance buzz. But when the lights at the Eccles Theatre in Park City came up two hours later to a rapturous standing ovation, it was clear that Sundance had just screened one of the best films of the year. Within 24 hours, Fox Searchlight defeated its rivals (including the Weinstein Co. and Focus Features) in a heated bidding war and landed “Brooklyn” for $9 million. That deal, the biggest at this year’s festival, also kicked off the Oscars 2016 race.

It might seem ridiculously early to be handicapping an awards show that’s still 13 months away. But the snow-covered theaters in Park City can be the first stop on the long road to awards season. In 2014 Sundance launched the campaigns for best picture nominees “Whiplash” (which opened the festival) and “Boyhood,” with Richard Linklater and the cast of his top-secret project meeting with reporters for the first time. Sundance isn’t a bad Rorschach test for the Oscars, because the audience here — mostly older film aficionados — can mirror the taste of Oscar voters.

“Brooklyn,” which plays like a cross between 2009’s “An Education” and 2002’s “In America” (both Oscar contenders), is anchored by a career-best performance from Saoirse Ronan as a young Irish woman who makes the journey to New York in 1952. Ronan, who was previously nominated for 2007’s “Atonement,” will almost certainly be back at the ceremony next year. The Academy loves a good cry, and “Brooklyn” hits the sweet spot since it checks three important boxes: It’s a tearjerker, it’s a period piece and it features lots of accents. The film will likely compete in top categories like best picture, director (John Crowley), screenplay (Nick Hornby for adapting Colm Toibin’s novel) and costume.

In addition to Ronan, Sundance gave an enthusiastic welcome to Blythe Danner in “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” This dramatic comedy from director Brett Haley earned its 71-year-old star — carrying a film for the first time in her career — unanimous cheers. “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which centers on a widow grappling with her own mortality, is a movie with themes that would speak to the Academy’s mature voters (a la “Still Alice”). And Danner, who comes from a Hollywood family, is a familiar face — long overdue for her first Oscar nomination. It’s just a matter of finding the film, which hasn’t sold yet, the right distributor for an awards season push.

Given how weak the best actress races have been in recent years, 2015 could mark a change, because Sundance featured another strong prospect for the category. That would be Lily Tomlin for “Grandma,” a road-trip comedy starring the veteran actress. The film doesn’t premiere until Friday night, but it sparked enough fireworks at a press-and-industry screening to prompt Sony Pictures Classics to scoop it up. Tomlin’s character, a seventysomething celebrity lesbian poet in mourning after losing her partner, embarks on a journey with her pregnant granddaughter. Those who have already seen the film say Tomlin carries the dialogue-heavy picture, especially during a long and emotional scene with Sam Elliott.

Sundance buyers were quick to note that this year’s films were unusually strong. As a result, don’t be surprised if “The End of the Tour” manages to mount an awards season run with a fall release. The drama, directed by James Ponsoldt, focuses on a five-day period in 1996 in which Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) interviews David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), shortly after the publication of “Infinite Jest.” The Academy loves to honor actors who play real people, and Segel manages to disappear onscreen and inhabit the celebrated author who was ambivalent about his own fame. If distributor A24 positions Eisenberg as best supporting actor (even though he shares screen time with Segel), he could potentially eke out his second Oscar nod after 2010’s “The Social Network.”

There were also several documentary prospects, including Alex Gibney’s piercing look at the Church of Scientology in “Going Clear,” Kirby Dick’s campus rape expose “The Hunting Ground” and “Best of Enemies,” a lively feature from “Twenty Feet From Stardom” director Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon about the 1968 televised debate between Gore Vidal and William Buckley.

Finally, the Sundance crowd favorite was “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl,” dubbed this year’s “The Fault in Our Stars” because of a storyline about a high school senior (Thomas Mann) who befriends a classmate with leukemia (Olivia Cook). The Academy isn’t particularly good at recognizing movies about young people, but “Me & Earl” — which was acquired by Fox Searchlight — recalls the irreverent tone of best-picture nominee “Juno.” If the movie and performances don’t make the cut, the Academy could still reward Jesse Andrews’ thoughtful and witty script (which he adapted from his own novel).

Check back in 12 months to see how these predictions hold up.

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