Did the 2016 Oscar race start at the Sundance Film Festival this month?

If it's the beginning of February we're not just talking about who is going to win the Oscars in a few weeks, but who is going to be nominated next year. That's right, another edition of the Sundance Film Festival has come to an end and with it a slew of potential awards season players.  

Sure, we know what you're thinking: “Really? Sundance? Doesn't awards season really start in earnest at Cannes?” Actually, no, no it doesn't. Since it appears this fact escapes anyone who covers the movie industry — let alone Oscar — let's go over it one more time shall we?  

Some quick facts:

A film that debuted at Sundance has been nominated for Best Picture six out of the last nine years. There were three years, including 2015, where two films were nominated (the other was 2010 when “An Education” and “Precious” and 2011 when “Winter's Bone” and “The Kids Are All Right” earned nods).*

– While a Best Actor nomination is bizarrely rare (“Half Nelson's” Ryan Gosling is the last nominee* and “Shine's” Geoffrey Rush is the only winner), Best Actress is certainly not. Quvenzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), Michelle Williams (“Blue Valentine”), Annette Bening (“The Kids Are All Right”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter's Bone”) Carey Mulligan (“An Education”), Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”), Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”), Laura Linney (“The Savages”), Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”) and Sissy Spacek (“In the Bedroom”) all started their nomination journeys in Park City. And, yes, there were two nominees each in 2010 and 2011.

– Best Supporting Actress is hot and cold with Helen Hunt (“The Sessions”), Jacki Weaver (“Animal Kingdom), Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Amy Adams (“Junebug”), Holly Hunter (“Thirteen”) and Patricia Clarkson (“Pieces of April”). Oh, and one of the most worthy winners of the last decade, Mo'Nique for “Precious.”

– Best Supporting Actor is also up and down, but Mark Ruffalo (“The Kids Are All Right”), John Hawkes (“Winter's Bone”), Woody Harrelson (“The Messenger”), Alec Baldwin (“The Cooler”) and two winners in Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Kevin Spacey (“The Usual Suspects”) is nothing to sneeze at.

– Best Director has been tough to crack with Lee Daniels (“Precious”) breaking an 11-year drought following Scott Hicks' nod for “Shine” in 1997. Only Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) have made the cut since.

– Best Adapted Screenplay nominees include “Before Midnight,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Winter's Bone,” “In the Loop,” “An Education,” “The Motorcycle Diaries” “American Splendor,” “In The Bedroom” and one winner, “Gods and Monsters.”

– Best Original Screenplay has found love for “Boyhood,” “Margin Call,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “The Messenger,” “In Bruges,” “Frozen River,” “The Savages,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “You Can Count On Me,”  “Shine” and two winners in “The Usual Suspects” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”

And no, we're not going to forget “It's Hard out Here for a Pimp” from “Hustle & Flow” winning Best Original Song (you wouldn't let us anyway).

Now that that is out of the way, how about we talk about what America's greatest film festival will bring to the table in the upcoming season?

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have two potential Best Picture nominees and their names are “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Brooklyn.” Boy, Fox Searchlight, who picked up both films after intense bidding wars, has quite a bounty on their hands.  

“Earl,” which won both the Grand Jury Dramatic prize and the Audience Prize, isn't a coming of age movie for kids. It's a coming of age movie for adults. I've raved about it already, but here's a Park City anecdote to consider. One noted filmmaker, whose film appeared at Sundance last year and did quite well at the box office, said that “Earl” “makes me want to be a better filmmaker.” And then he said he couldn't believe he actually said that out loud.

There was a quick backlash from the initial euphoric reaction after the world premiere (basically, media who — predictably — subconsciously went in wanting to tear down what they didn't experience for themselves in the first two public screenings), but once it won the Grand Jury prize over “The Witch” (the cause célèbre of almost every writer under 30) it all flipped. That's because “Earl” was basically anointed, intentionally or not, by jury members Edgar Wright and beloved Sundance alum (“Sin Nombre”) and “True Detective” season one helmer Cary Fukunaga. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has worked in Hollywood for quite awhile on the television side, is up for early consideration in the Best Director category and Jesse Andrews will get kudos for adapting his own novel. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (“Oldboy”) cannot be discounted, regardless of the fact that no Sundance premiere film has ever earned a nod in this category (ouch). Lead Thomas Mann is great, but his performance is likely to earn a nod in a very weak field. Olivia Cooke (aka “the Dying Girl”), on the other hand, may have a much better shot in Best Supporting Actress. And Brian Eno (yes, that Brian Eno) shouldn't be discounted in the original score race either.

“Brooklyn,” however, may become Searchlight's trump card. Adapted by Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “Wild”), this is another tearjerker that is just as much a story of female empowerment as a classic romance. Saoirise Ronan has to be considered for Best Actress (it may be her best work to date), Emory Cohen for Best Supporting Actor and even the scene-stealing Julie Walters for Best Supporting Actress. John Crowley will earn Best Director consideration for pulling off a very tough proposition (an earnest tale that plays it “real” when it needs to). Yves Bélanger (“Wild,” “Dallas Buyers Club”) may actually pull off the first Sundance cinematography nod (although if he couldn't for his last two…), and Michael Brook (“Into the Wild,” “The Fighter”) offers a score that's hard to forget. Frankly, one reason “Brooklyn” will become such a player is that, essentially, it's not a typical Sundance film. Half of it takes place in Ireland (the other in period Brooklyn), it's based on a popular novel and it has a classic old Hollywood feel you rarely see in Park City.  It is absolutely an independent production, but usually “Brooklyn” is the sort of movie that would premiere at Telluride or Toronto. In fact, we're going to assume that if it's held for release until Fall, Searchlight is going to try and convince Telluride to break their long tradition of not re-screening Sundance films (outside of tribute-oriented screenings like “An Education'), because “Brooklyn” would kill with that crowd.

But wait, there's more!

Jason Segel is already getting buzz for his first real serious role as author David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour.” We'll guess it's a co-lead with Jesse Eisenberg, but A24 might be able to convince people it's supporting if they so choose. Segel is very good in my opinion (not amazing), but many critics adored his performance, which is where it all starts.

It's hard to imagine “The Witch” becoming a Best Picture player, but director Robert Eggers certainly has a shot and is probably an Indie Spirit lock. We've already noted how incredibly tough it is for Sundance films to break the cinematography field, but if there is any justice Jarin Blaschke will at least be a part of the conversation. Katie Dickie (“Game of Thrones,” “Prometheus”) could sneak into Best Supporting Actress, but the movie would really need to break out in a big way for A24 (interesting, them again) to even consider a campaign.

In a perfect world Bel Powley would be considered for Best Actress, but as much as we love “The Dairy of a Teenage Girl” (and we really love it), Sony Classics may be facing an uphill battle for that one considering the subject matter.

Oscar winner Nicole Kidman is quite superb in “Strangerland,” but we're not sure the film will play well enough with art house audiences, let alone SAG or the Academy to allow, for any traction.  It may just be another performance along the lines of “Birth,” “The Paperboy” and “Margot at the Wedding” that just gets added to Kidman's increasingly remarkable resume.

Outside of the narrative categories, Best Documentary Feature has been Sundance's bread and butter for over two decades. 2015 resulted in just one nomination (seriously, that's pitiful for Sundance), but the upcoming season could see “The Wolfpack,” “The Hunting Ground,” “The Russian Woodpecker,” “Meru,” “Cartel Land,” “Best of Enemies,” “Going Clear” and “Western” find themselves in the mix.

And yes, the next awards season doesn't begin in earnest until August, but bookmark this and come back to it before all the fun begins again, won't you?

*Updated thanks to the smart eyes of our loyal readers.