PARK CITY -- In most years, covering the Sundance Film Festival in the cold and snow when the Oscar nominations are being announced in balmy Southern California might seem like an exile of the cruelest sort. But 2011 is not most years: 2011 is the year that Sundance ruled.
It was exactly one year ago that I saw Jacki Weaver, the chilling criminal matriarch in the Australian movie "Animal Kingdom," which had its world premiere at Sundance, walking cheerfully alone and unnoticed on this city's Park Avenue. Now she is an Oscar nominee for supporting actress.
"It's great the way they nurture and bring attention to little independent films that wouldn't get a lot of attention otherwise," Weaver said Tuesday. "A lot of what's happened to me is thanks to Sundance."
"Animal Kingdom" was far from the only feature film from Sundance's 2010 edition to get Oscar recognition. In fact, if you add up the number of nominations from last year's festival -- 14 all told -- it's a more impressive total than the dozen for "The King's Speech."
The two Sundance films that did best were "The Kids Are All Right" and the festival's Grand Jury Prize winner, "Winter's Bone," each of which got four nominations.
And these were not just any four nominations either. Both Sundance films were among the 10 to receive best picture nods, both had screenplays selected and both had two acting nominations apiece: Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo were picked for director Lisa Cholodenko's "Kids," and for Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone," the nominees were John Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence. (In fact, the lead actress category is dominated by performers from Sundance films: Bening, Lawrence and Michelle Williams from "Blue Valentine.")
The category that Sundance films really dominated, however, was documentary: Four of the five films nominated -- "Exit Through the Gift Shop," "Gasland," "Restrepo" and "Waste Land" -- were in Park City a year ago.
And one could argue that just an accident of timing prevented the fifth selection, Charles Ferguson's "Inside Job," which premiered at Cannes, from being in Sundance as well. Ferguson's first doc, the Oscar-nominated "No End in Sight," had its world premiere at where else but this indie film festival in 2007.
So what is going on here? Aside from being a tribute to Sundance's programmers, the choices underline what has been the most fascinating Academy Awards trend of the last decade: the dominance of independent films during Oscar season.
Though blockbusters created through the studio system once had a lock on these awards, things have so changed that "The King's Speech," the most classically Hollywood film on the best picture list, was distributed not by a major studio but by the savvy Weinstein Co.
While the studios focus almost exclusively on dumbing down their product on an often-fruitless quest to increase revenue, five of the 10 best picture nominees were distributed by specialty divisions or small companies.
Aside from the Weinstein's "King's Speech," Roadside Attractions handled "Winter's Bone," Universal Picture's Focus Features division did "The Kids Are All Right" and Fox Searchlight put out both "Black Swan" and "127 Hours."
One might even argue that many of the Oscar-nominated movies distributed by the majors were so free of studio control (because of the power and status of their filmmakers) that they were independent films in spirit, if not in name. No one is going to tell the auteurs behind "Toy Story 3" at Pixar how to operate, no one is going to give notes to Joel and Ethan Coen on "True Grit" and no one but Christopher Nolan could have persuaded Warner Bros. to go through with as nervy a project as "Inception." More power to Sony, then, for taking a risk and giving the green light to David Fincher's "The Social Network."
Speaking of Nolan, one of the real scandals of this Oscar season is his absence from the best director list. Why that branch didn't recognize Nolan's vision and skill, not only with special effects but with actors as well, is a mystery. It's similarly disheartening to see Lesley Manville's marvelous performance in Mike Leigh's "Another Year" slighted, and to have Mark Wahlberg's non-showy but absolutely essential work as the heart of "The Fighter" sadly ignored.
And don't get me started about this year's foreign-language category, which inexplicably excluded France's marvelous "Of Gods and Men," which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and dominated the recent Cesar nominations, France's version of the Oscars. If not for the inclusion of Susanne Bier's richly humanistic "In a Better World," the likely winner, it would be an unusual group indeed. No, Bier's film didn't premiere at Sundance, but it is playing here now.
For this wintry Utah town, it's been that kind of a year.