The 43rd annual Telluride Film Festival is wrapping up today, with all the movies having premiered. As I noted a few days ago, it has been a very good fest for Best Actor candidates — and not just for this year’s nascent 2016 Oscar race. In the case of Bryan Cranston and Richard Gere, you can make them early contenders for the 2017 contest. Both actors appeared to introduce their films, Cranston with co-star Jennifer Garner for acquistion title Wakefield from writer-director Robin Swicord and Gere, on a very quick 24-hour trip to the fest, for Sony Pictures Classics’ terrifically entertaining Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer from writer-director Joseph Cedar.
Both stars introduced their films by noting they are offbeat. Gere, at the Telluride Fest for the first time, called Norman “an oddball movie.” It might be that, but it also happens to contain a career-best — and completely unexpected — character turn from this fine actor, who surprisingly has yet to receive an Academy Award nomination. Playing the quirky Norman Oppenheimer, a nonstop-talking “consultant” who makes connections for people he befriends (usually on the street somewhere) but is an enigma otherwise, Gere has the role of his career. He’s funny, complicated, touching and unforgettable as a guy who finally picks “the right horse” when he does an expensive act of kindness for an Israeli politician (an excellent Lior Ashkenazi) who years later becomes the Prime Minister of Israel and doesn’t forget Norman. It has been very well received here.
SPC’s co-President Michael Barker says the distributor doesn’t plan to release Norman until the spring most likely, even though it world premiered here in Colorado and next goes to Toronto, both fests being used as a launch pad for this year’s Oscar campaigns. Last year SPC took Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead to the New York Film Festival but did not qualify it for Oscars. It opened in the spring and is eligible in this year’s race — an apparent model for Norman, which also has a great supporting cast including Steve Buscemi, Michael Sheen, Josh Charles, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Hank Azaria and others. But no one can steal this one from Gere. Cedar, a past Oscar nominee for Foreign Language film Footnote, has made a richly entertaining movie, a U.S./Israeli co-production that is one of the highlights of this year’s very good Telluride for me.
Cranston, who seemingly is incapable of giving a bad performance, has delivered a tour de force portrayal in Wakefield, equal to or even surpassing his 2015 Oscar-nominated role in Trumbo. This film is one of a handful here looking for distribution, and buyers including Fox Searchlight, A24, the Orchard, Sony Classics and Open Road to name a few here have been checking it out. Wakefield too heads to TIFF next week. The film, based on an E.L. Doctorow short story, reminded me of 1968’s daringly original and divisive The Swimmer, which starred Burt Lancaster as a man who travels from pool to pool in suburban Connecticut. Cranston’s Howard Wakefield, like the Lancaster character, is a man in the midst of a slow-burning nervous breakdown. He comes home from work one day, goes to the attic across from his main home and doesn’t leave, staying there undetected for months, observing his wife (nicely played by Jennifer Garner) and daughters from afar, lost in his own world. Like Gere’s, this is an “oddball” movie that contains a role that is nirvana for an actor. Much of it is played non-verbally by both him and Garner, with his voice-over describing his inner thoughts as he spies on his own family after dropping out of society without so much as a note left behind.
Swicord, speaking at the Q&A after the screening Sunday, explained her motive for wanting to turn this unusual story — not on the surface a cinematic one — into a movie. “I tried to get into the mind of this man,” she said. “I really was trying to understand him. Who would do such a thing? I began to discover all sorts of things. For me, I felt that this reflects something that happens in marriages when people are feeling they are carrying the burden of the marriage, and when that happens, things go sour. It was for me a kind of modern meditation on marriage.”
Cranston brought some of his own personal life into the role as he explained that, as a child, his own father abandoned him and his family. “The notion of abandoning my children, as a character, and his wife was a trigger point for me. And so there were all sorts of issues that I had to deal with before I could then embrace Howard Wakefield,” Cranston said in describing the unique challenge of this role. He was familiar with the Doctorow story and in fact says that over the years he has returned to it, unable to get it out of his head and he describes that as a good thing.
The movie was shot in only 20 days, and the considerable voice-over narration that runs throughout was laid down three times during the course of the shoot so that Cranston would be able to know how to play the many dialogue-less scenes. He is simply brilliant in this movie, which seems to have inspired divided opinions here, just as The Swimmer did with audiences nearly a half-century ago. It doesn’t seem terribly likely that a distribution deal will result in turning this around as a last-minute entrant for the 2016 race, but both Cranston and Gere need to be remembered for next year no matter when their intriguing indie movies are eventually released.
There have been other titles up for sale at this Telluride (before hitting the trail to TIFF) including Una, a film version of the play Blackbird in which a young woman returns after 15 years to confront the much older man she had sex with when she was 13. It got raves and Tony nominations on Broadway earlier this year with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, but this film version starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn comes off more creepy and unsettling when it is opened up cinematically. Despite fine actors I can’t imagine who the audience is for this thing. A distributor will definitely have their work cut out for them. The Sally Hawkins biopic, Maudie, had lots of fans among moviegoers here and also hopes to land a distributor ,at least by the time it leaves for TIFF . It got a head start here in the Rockies (I need to catch it in Canada) as did several other smaller films, including lots of documentaries on display like director John Scheinfeld’s John Coltrane story, Chasing Trane, which at least one distrib to whom I spoke is actively interested in.
Among the other big titles here in Telluride of course were two that had their World Premieres first in Venice, La La Land which both me and my colleague Nancy Tartaglione have written about extensively, and Paramount/Sony’s cerebral and beautifully made sci fi film about an Alien invasion, Arrival. Nancy interviewed director Denis Villeneuve and covered the Venice premiere of Arrival which hit both fests, as well as the upcoming TIFF, without its director in tow since he is off shooting the Blade Runner sequel right now, the same reason Ryan Gosling cannot attend the Fall Fests to appear with Emma Stone for La La.
I caught up with it yesterday along with the surrounding tribute Telluride staged for its luminous star, Amy Adams. Watching the reel of her films from Junebug to Enchanted to The Master, Doubt and American Hustle to name a few really reminded me of the versatility of this five time Oscar nominated actress. She can do anything. Her performance in Arrival is spellbinding, very internal, and almost Bergmanesque. It will definitely put her in the hunt for a sixth nomination, and the film, despite its sci-fi origins (not a genre the Academy usually warms to) could do very well with Oscar voters if it connects when it opens on November 11.
Reviews are generally great so far. Adams was charming in the 15 minute chat she did at her Sunday morning tribute (she had also done one Saturday night because Telluride makes honorees go through this thing twice), revealed she is a Castle Rock, Colorado native who never before had gotten the chance to come to the Telluride Festival. She also spoke briefly about Arrival, a film in which she plays a linguist trying to communicate with the otherworldly beings, and whose meaning is open for interpretation. “At the end of the day this is a mother’s story,” she said lest anyone think we are watching something like Aliens, where Sigourney Weaver became on the few actors ever to be nominated for a leading Oscar in the sci fi genre. Adams may add to that total, though she has to compete with herself as her other Fall entry, Nocturnal Animals also won raves out of Venice and is heading to TIFF, bypassing Telluride.
Over the weekend, per usual, there were lots of parties at this coolest of all film festivals where you will never see a red carpet. A24, Open Road, Lionsgate, The Orchard, Netflix and Sony Pictures Classics (where I got to break bread with the great Isabelle Huppert) all threw soirees of various sizes, but mostly were laid back and fun. The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences also continued their annual cocktail reception for filmmakers and members attending the fest, of which they are a longtime sponsor.
President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson made the trek and the party was packed with the likes of Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Tom Hanks , Emma Stone and many, many others. I caught up with the filmmakers of Netflix documentary The Ivory Game, which is a harrowing docu about elephant poaching and the rampant sales of tusks in markets like China and Hong Kong. They hope this film will be seen to make a big difference. It could, even if at times it is hard to watch certain scenes. Also turning heads at the Academy’s party was SPC’s docu The Eagle Huntress, complete with the Mongolian cast and filmmakers and two of the eagles, who provided some nice photo opps and didn’t bite any potential Oscar voters.
Finally the Open Road crew and their Bleed For This filmmakers and stars were out for dinner Sunday night at Telluride Bistro when tragedy almost struck, but fortunately hero Bleed For This producer Chad Verdi came to the rescue when publicist Lori Burns choked on a piece of shrimp. Publicity head Liz Biber jumped up and shouted for anyone who could do the Heimlich Maneuver. Verdi went immediately into action and popped that piece of shrimp right out of her. Open Road’s Tom Ortenberg said it was the biggest choke at a film festival since Paul Schrader had to be rescued one year at Sundance.