In our conversation about his new film Birdman on Sunday — after its triumphant North American premiere at Telluride the night before — I told director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu that I never thought I would see the day when we would be talkingTelluride Film Festival 2014 Lineup about this creator of oh-so-heavy dramas like Amores Perros, Babel, 21 Grams  and Biutiful becoming a front runner to win a Golden Globe for comedy. “I have to laugh about that,” he said. “When I hit 50 last year I really thought I should lighten up a little bit. I have been doing some personal stuff that I thought would get me to a pete_hammond_300x100very nice place and understand a lot of things that before I didn’t.” He continued to challenge himself by filming Birdman with the illusion that it is one shot from first frame to last. It’s a device, but I must say it works perfectly for what is a madcap comedy for much of its running time. It is not only a great directorial achievement, but also a great actors’ showcase, with surefire nominations in store for star Michael Keaton, back in top form, and possible nods for the supporting cast, in particular Edward Norton and Emma Stone. It’s a cinch for a SAG Cast nomination. This is actors’ nirvana, and while it may not have played with quite the same euphoria as it reportedly did in its world premiere in Venice, it was a big hit at Telluride too this weekend.

Those who loved it really loved it. Awards attention is a given, as my Deadline colleague Nancy Tartaglione suggested in Venice. The bigger question, a2014 Telluride Film Festival - Day 2 question for most show biz-oriented movies, is whether it will be considered a little too inside-baseball for mass audiences. But Inarritu swears he was just setting out to challenge himself and make a much smaller film. “From now on I just want to defend my right to fail and in a way go on the journey to discover things and liberate myself of the control of my comfortable side. It’s liberating when you lose yourself and go after something you know terrifies you, but the experience was so good here. Beyond the results, beyond whether it’s good or not, the experience is much more alive,”  he said.

Inarritu flew directly from Venice to Telluride but will be skipping the Toronto Film Festival and going on to close the New York Film Fest, a very appropiate stop for this almost indescribable film  set on the Great White Way. He’s going to miss almost all of the awards season as he will be making what he calls a “pre-western” in a movie for New Regency again, The 2014 Telluride Film Festival - Day 2Revenant on a long shoot thru March. It was one half of a very good Telluride for Fox Searchlight looking for a second Best Picture winner in a row after last year’s collaboration — also with New Regency —  on 12 Years A Slave. Searchlight also brought along Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern drawing Oscar buzz  in Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild,  another film warmly received here in the perfect place to play it. Dern was in another Telluride choice, too, 99 Homes.

Open Road launched Jon Stewart’s writing and directing feature debut, Rosewater, and it become the only film of the Rosewaterfestival to repeatedly, and deservedly, win standing ovations. Telluride newbie Stewart has made a winning film that clearly overcame a handful of negative reviews that appeared just before the film premiered Friday night. I’m not sure what film those early critics were watching, and neither was Stewart as he told me Sunday, when he was in a very good mood after one strong screening had folllowed another.

The Imitation Game panelThe Weinstein Company had a very good Telluride too with the world premiere of The Imitation Gamestarring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. This is another surefire Oscar nominee for the company that won Best Picture Oscars  for The King’s Speech and The Artist after bringing them to Telluride and launching their release the week before Thanksgiving. It was hard to find anyone who didn’t have  nice, sometimes rapturous  things to say about this film, so consider it launched and headed to Toronto. A sneak preview of TWC’s Radius division’s Escobar: Paradise Lost, starring Benecio Del Toro and Josh Hutcherson, got a bit of traction but seemed a more commercial play than anything else. Quincy Jones introduced Radius’ Oscar-hoping musical documentary, Keep On Keepin’ On, which also played well here.

Still lacking an American distribution deal, Ramin Bahrani’s  99 Homes is sure to get one and likely will be thrust as a late contender in the Oscar race after running the 1407336696_homestrifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto (I am told Toronto is where they will make a deal). Its dazzling performances from Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, not to mention Laura Dern and Tim Guinee, are worth the price of admission.  Also looking for a deal was the charming french comedy, The Price Of Fame, loosely based on true events surrounding the theft of Charlie Chaplin’s coffin shortly after his burial in 1977. It looked like a perfect kind of Sony Pictures Classics movie to me, and turned out to be one of Telluride’s sweet spots this year.

Speaking of Sony  Pictures Classics, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard continued the large show of strength they displayed in Cannes by bringing a record seven films to Telluride, including Bennett Miller’s chilling Foxcatcheranother foxcatcher1strong Best Picture contender seen in the Rockies, just like Imitation Game and Birdman. Steve Carell told me at the beginning of the fest that he was very curious how this American horror story revolving around creepy John DuPont would play now that it finally actually got to this countryIt’s dark, but most I spoke with had praise. SPC  also brought along Mr. Turner, Argentina’s Wild Tales (wildly loved) and the terrific Russian hockey documentary, Red Army, from its Cannes slate. Plus  the Russian foreign-language hopeful, Leviathan, also from Cannes, which continues to be the one festival that feeds everyone else. Even Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux  was in Telluride this year, affirming the strong influence of that71-Yann-Demange-movie-poster festival of festivals. SPC threw its annual dinner Saturday night at La Marmott, drawing a bigger crowd than ever, including Foxcatcher  stars Carell and Channing Tatum in addition to Miller. Wim Wenders was there too with his new docu for SPC, The Salt Of The Earth. And the company also brought yet another docu, Merchants Of Doubt. Based on its presence in Cannes, Telluride and later this week in Toronto, SPC is really turning up the heat this awards season. In addition to SPC,  Searchlight, IFC and the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences also threw their annual bashes here. AMPAS’  newly re-elected president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, was among those making the trek. The AMPAS party also proved just how important Telluride has become to awards seasons. The town was teeming with Oscar voters soaking up the movies in the best possible way for them to be seen.

Roadside Attractions brought its Cannes pickup (with Saban Films), The Homesman. Stars Hilary Swank (who also got a tribute) and Tommy 75Lee Jones made the scene. Roadside (partnered with Black Label Media) also had one of the fest’s  most talked about and lauded films in ’71, set during the Catholic vs Protestant violence in Belfast and opening in late January I am told. It boasts a remarkable feature directorial debut from  Yann Demange. And Cannes winner Mommy from Xavier Dolan made its North American debut in Colorado, rather than waiting a week for native Canada, proving that TIFF’s attempt to strip Telluride of high-level titles didn’t have a 2014 Telluride Film Festival - Day 2great impact. IFC  took time away from its Boyhood campaign to import from Cannes the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night starring Marion Cottilard, as well as Seymour: An Introduction, the charming documentary from Ethan Hawke (who flew in for a couple of days) about a piano maestro and teacher that’s going out thru Sundance Selects. We certainly missed Telluride regular Jason Reitman, whose new film bypassed the fest in favor of a world premiere for Paramount’s Men, Women and Children at TIFF. The major studios in fact were AWOL at Telluride this year, save for the specialty divisions of Fox and Sony, but the quality of films and special presentations such as Francis Coppola’s 35th anniversary doings for Apocalypse Now made this a memorable late summer cinematic clambake, if not one featuring perhaps the same number of major titles as in the recent past.

Now it’s on to Toronto. No rest for the bleary (eyed).