With the 45th Telluride Film Festival now history after wrapping last night, it’s a good time to see who came out of it with Oscar prospects still intact. Though this festival is a far reaching one with something for every serious cinema lover, it has in recent years also become a major Oscar harbinger (eight of the last ten Best Picture winners came here) and for some, Oscar heartbreaker (witness downsizing’s awards season collapse after hitting Telluride last year).
Remarkably there were no glaring losers as most of these films head into TIFF with a head of steam (not perhaps a full head of steam in some cases) thanks to Telluride, however critics seem to be embracing a certain black and white Spanish language film, starring no one you have ever heard of, from a certain streaming service you definitely have heard of, looking to crack the Oscar code big time this year. That looms to be a scenario we will be watching closely as the Academy itself meets this week to not only pick honorees for their Governors Awards (tonight), but also how to deal with their announced intention to establish a controversial “popular movie” category (Wednesday morning) in order to hopefully help juice falling ratings.
So just to keep score here are the major players who came in with dreams of Academy Awards and how they fared before hitting Toronto later this week.
Always a heavy presence here in Telluride since Slumdog Millionaire started its run to Best Picture ten years ago, Searchlight brought a whopping three movies this time, most of any key distributor.
Robert Redford has announced The Old Man and the Gun will be his last acting job, and he charmed Telluride audiences with a role he made seem effortless as only a great actor can do. Whether it is enough to gain him what would be – incredibly – just a second career acting nomination (The Sting in 1973 was his only other one in another light- hearted turn), remains to be seen. Sissy Spacek was also a delight, but those two slots are probably the film’s most likely shots.
The period costume drama, The Favourite, came in with praise from Venice, and was generally well-received in the Rockies too although there were some detractors. I found that those who loved it, really loved it, and the sheer majesty of director Yorgas Lanthimos’s sumptuous production should go far with the Academy, particularly for Cinematography, Production Design, Costumes, Music, and possibly script and direction on its way to a Best Picture nod if Searchlight can keep it in the conversation. Emma Stone is in contention for Lead Actress but if the studio also campaigns the equally fine Rachel Weisz there (instead of supporting) then it could be trouble. Olivia Colman, a hoot as the Queen, is a sure bet in support although the studio still hasn’t ruled out pushing her into lead, a shakier prospect considering the competition, both seen and unseen, building in that category.
The real surprise of the Searchlight lineup is director Marielle Heller’s wonderfully entertaining Can You Ever Forgive Me?, perhaps my “favourite” of the fest, with sure shots for a transformative Melissa McCarthy lead actress nomination, as well as Richard E. Grant in supporting actor, plus a nod for Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s adaptation of the Lee Israel memoir. Depending on how it plays when it opens in October, this could be a Best Picture prospect as well. One to watch from Searchlight as it heads to Toronto (The Favourite is skipping Canada).
A rare visitor to Telluride, Universal arrived straight from Venice with raves for Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong Apollo 11 intimate epic, First Man and it scored the same bullseye that it did in Italy. There was consistent praise on the streets of Telluride, and even a dopey brief dust-up about the film’s placement of the American flag on the moon couldn’t stop the momentum. Multiple nominations including Picture and Director seem assured. Stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy are also likely to compete.
If mother ship Universal is an infrequent visitor, its specialty label Focus comes here often and this time chose only to bring the gay conversion drama, Boy Erased from director Joel Edgerton with stars Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe, and Nicole Kidman all in fine form. Telluride audiences reacted very positively, even bursting into applause at a certain point during the film at the screening I saw. Acting races are its best bet, but if it gains more gravitas from its debut in Colorado it could go further. Its pre-election opening on November 2nd is nicely timed, and a ringing endorsement it already has from the LGBTQ community is also a plus with a liberal Academy electorate.
Another rare major studio player at Telluride, Sony Pictures came to play with both the political drama, The Front Runner, surrounding the scandal behind Senator Gary Hart’s brief 1988 Presidential campaign, as well as the imminent September 14 release of White Boy Rick. The latter didn’t win a lot of positive critical reviews, but the audience I saw it with Monday morning seemed to be with it all the way, as I was. Matthew McConaughey is at his best since Dallas Buyers Club and could score a Supporting Actor nod despite his above -the -title lead billing, and of course if Sony can keep the picture alive for a few months, and if newcomer Richie Merritt so good in title role doesn’t completely steal his thunder. As for Front Runner, its promising Telluride debut won lots of Oscar buzz for star Hugh Jackman who could definitely be a contender depending on how the film ultimately fares upon its November opening just in time for Thanksgiving. The placement is prime time for Oscar contenders which indicates the studio’s faith here. Sony’s usual heavy hitter at Telluride, Sony Pictures Classics, brought only one film, Ralph Fiennes’ The White Crow which was well liked but won’t be released until next year.
The upstart distributor got lots of talk for Nicole Kidman’s gritty and uncompromising turn as a police detective in a downward spiral in Destroyer, and it’s just the kind of performance actors branch members have loved in the past, making her the real possibility for this Christmas Day release. The film itself had a more complicated reaction and is the kind of movie that can benefit from a second viewing to fully appreciate its unexpected turns, but Kidman could easily carry the day for it in an increasingly crowded Best Actress race.
Despite several titles at Telluride, Netflix put its muscle into launching a Best Picture push for Alfonso Cuaron’s beautifully shot black and white widescreen ode to his Mexico City childhood, and it impressed mightily if we are to go from buzz on the street and from critics. A nice launch from Venice accelerated when the film hit Telluride, and you can bet it ain’t stopping now ahead of its December release. Cuaron was everywhere and that counts, plus producing entity Participant Media also threw a dinner on its behalf (and to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Food, Inc.). Netflix is hungry for attention in key categories and should count on Foreign Language, directing, writing, cinematography as already in the bag (all four directly for Cuaron). An acting nod for its titular star, the non-pro Yalitza Aparicio is in the cards. She may be campaigned in lead but would have a much surer shot in Supporting Actress. She will be on the circuit but as of now speaks no English. That didn’t stop her from charming potential Oscar voters at Telluride’s Academy party, and many of the Academy’s new batch of international members should be able to relate. Saturday. Whether it can keep up the Best Picture momentum remains to be seen (at least one top industry player told me they don’t think so, but others disagree), but it’s rare to grab both Picture and Foreign Language attention, and if it isn’t watched in the pristine big screen experience, but instead as a streaming item on Netflix, its impact will be minimalized and could dampen chances. Netflix says they will screen the hell out of it. Critics will help this one too.
Also arriving directly from Venice was – finally – the debut of Orson Welles’ long gestating unfinished 70’s film, The Other Side Of The Wind, along with Morgan Neville’s terrific documentary detailing its long and tortured journey to the screen called You’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, and even producer Frank Marshall’s and director Ryan Suffern’s 39 minute A Final Cut For Orson which depicts the making of the making of the film. So the movie itself is Oscar-eligible even if most of its stars are dead. I suggested to Netflix’s Ted Sarandos that they ought to campaign John Huston for Best Actor, and Lili Palmer and Edmund O’Brien in support. It is time for a comeback for all of them. And why not a make-good for Orson Welles in the director slot since he got robbed by Oscar for Citizen Kane (which only won for its Screenplay) and this is the perfect bookend to that film that started his film career so spectacularly. I’m serious.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Telluride’s showcase for some of the world’s best cinema really paid off this year bringing in North American premieres for such contenders as Japan’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters getting great reaction, as did another Cannes winner, Amazon’s Cold War from Poland, as well as Sweden’s Border, Belgium’s Girl, Colombia’s Birds Of Passion, Italy’s Dogman, and of course Mexico’s Roma all winning fans and not stumbling yet in the increasingly fierce Oscar race for the Foreign Film title this year.
As always there were a slew of terrific documentaries, and possibly a few of them can make it into the Oscar Documentary Feature lineup. Highlights include show biz docs Hal which is about director Hal Ashby; What She Said, the docu bio of fearsome film critic Pauline Kael that gathered a lot of talk from cinephiles roaming up and down Colorado Ave; The Ghost Of Peter Sellers, on the making of a movie disaster from director Peter Medak; and of course the aforementioned Welles docu, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. More issue-oriented docus included the much discussed four hour Watergate: Or How We Learned To Stop An Out-Of-Control President; Thailand fishing docu Ghost Fleet; Telluride regular Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev; the much talked about and admired climbing pic Free Solo; and more that find Telluride bringing attention for an eventual Oscar run. Finally a big shout-out to Pamela Green’s wonderful story of the first female movie director, Be Natural: The Untold Story Of Alice Guy-Blache. It’s inspiring, especially now, just as it was when I saw it and sang its praises in Cannes. It needs a good distributor as it continues to hit the festival trail from New York to London in the coming weeks. It’s one Telluride entry this year that is especially worthy of checking out and being seen.