On the first day of the 44th Annual Telluride Film Festival both Gary Oldman as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and Annette Bening as Oscar winning 50s film star Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool firmly planted flags in this year’s Oscar race. Both films made their World Premieres here tonight, as did Greta Gerwig’s well-received directorial debut Lady Bird. 

Downsizing Matt Damon Alexander Payne
Paramount

Earlier in the day, Alexander Payne’s terrific social satire Downsizing made its North American debut winning laughs from a packed house at the Chuck Jones Theatre. Payne had just flown in from Venice where his ever-so-timely and wry film written with his Sideways  co-Oscar winner Jim Taylor opened that festival on the Lido and won mostly raves. The offbeat sci fi premise itself is sheer genius as people submit themselves to miniaturization in order to end their economic woes. While it has a powerful message warning about climate change, it is really a fun, absurdly clever ride that in some ways reminded me of Albert Brooks’ sublime Defending Your Life. Although I heard some naysayers on this one, Downsizing is yet another sly human comedy from a director who continues to turn out some of the smartest films in the genre since the heyday of Billy Wilder. Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz are perfect in this subtly funny and unpredictable delight, but the real scene stealer is Vietnamese actress Hong Chau who is sure to draw Supporting Actress nomination talk. This was Payne’s second film to play Telluride, after Nebraska, and he has become a regular nearly every year, even joining the Board of Directors of the fest.

As for Oldman’s Churchill the only word to properly describe it is “towering.” Every now and then, an actor finds a role he was born to play and that is definitely the case this time. Oldman blasts through this film with such force and dominance it is hard to imagine anyone else coming along this year that can steal the Best Actor Oscar from him, but the season has six months to go so fasten your seat belts.

Churchill is suddenly hot in the entertainment industry with John Lithgow’s Emmy nominated turn in The Crown ,  and Brian Cox in the earlier release, Churchill, but Oldman takes it to a stratospheric level. The buzz after the second show was palpable. Playing an iconic British leader has led to Oscars in recent years for Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, and Helen Mirren among others, and it appears Oldman is likely on the same trajectory. Of course it helps to have a solidly crafted movie too, and director Joe Wright has managed to make the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk by telling the story from the POV of the British leadership. Anthony McCarten’s superb script delivers the goods for Oldman and the rest of a fine cast, with a standout also being Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI. Just before introducing the film, which Focus Features releases in November, Wright told me his first experience at a Telluride festival has been unexpectedly emotional which make him wonder if the altitude has something to do with it. He told the audience he has found this festival to be “nirvana.”

Unlike Oldman, Bening couldn’t make the trip to the Rockies this year as she is the head of the jury of the Venice Film Festival, but other key creatives of Film Stars Don’t Die In

Sony Pictures Classics

Liverpool were here for the first public screening ever of their film including co-star Jamie Bell and the real life man he portrays, Peter Turner who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. After 22 years it has finally landed on the screen and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics for an Academy qualifying engagement December 8th, with a wider run in January. Director Paul McGuigan and producer Barbara Broccoli are also here supporting the story of the relationship of the virtually forgotten film actress Gloria Grahame and Turner who was 28 years her junior. Although she won the 1952 Supporting Actress Oscar for The Bad And The Beautiful, and was also nominated for Crossfire and appeared mostly in black and white noirish roles, her movie career shifted downward after the mid-50s and four marriages including one to her step-son from her third marriage to director Nicholas Ray. By 1979 when she met the young British thesp Turner, she had overcome breast cancer and was trying to revive her acting career by appearing on stage in England. Bening is luminous as usual and captures the essence of someone who had experienced the highs of the film industry only to find herself struggling to keep relevant and working. Bening could — and should — be in line for a fifth Oscar nomination but I said that last year for her equally brilliant work in 20th Century Women for which she was overlooked. Bell is every bit her equal in his best screen turn since Billy Elliot, the film that launched his career in 2000.

AMPAS

She would be one of the rare actresses to be Oscar nominated for playing an Oscar winning star. Cate Blanchett won for playing Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, and Maggie Smith took a Supporting Actress win for playing a fictional Oscar loser in California Suite. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences cooperated with the production by allowing the actual Oscar presentation to the real Grahame to be shown at the end of the movie. It was in fact on the first-ever televised Oscar show in 1953. The actress simply said “Thank You” grabbed her Oscar and walked off stage after one of the shortest speeches ever. It was appropiate as her winning role, about nine minutes of total screen time, was one of the shortest ever to win as well. One of the best lines in this movie has Bening as Grahame sharing advice her In A Lonely Place co-star Humphrey Bogart gave her. “Bogie told me, ‘stay in the shadows Gloria and let the camera find you'”.  Grahame, who died after a recurrence of her cancer in 1981 may have been in the shadows at that point in her life, but with this film the camera has found her again. As I told director McGuigan in the lobby, 36 years after her death he has probably given Grahame the best screen role of her career. A very large part of that is due to Bening who is way overdue for her own Oscar. As I left the theatre I spotted Academy CEO Dawn Hudson who was clearly emotionally overcome after viewing the film and talking to Turner who was equally speechless, wiping away tears after seeing the movie in its completed form for the first time.

A24

Speaking of Oscars, Oscar winner and former Telluride Festival staff member Barry Jenkins, writer/director of 2016 Best Picture Moonlight which debuted here last year, returned to the festival and the venue where he used to introduce a lot of the films. At the patrons brunch, he told me was going to do it again for Greta Gerwig, and he did, as her directorial debut, Lady Bird starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf also had its World Premiere. Jenkins got a rapturous reception as he took the stage but quickly turned the spotlight on Gerwig who it turns out had once generously helped him when he was unknown and a virtual stranger to her. Gerwig, who was charmingly nervous all day about the unveiling of her film, was a bit choked up by his kind words. The Telluride spirit lives on.