Telluride: Oscar Contenders Flock To Rockies As Festival Season Arrives

As per custom, organizers of the Telluride Film Festival held their schedule back and announced the lineup for its 40th edition this morning — just as a planeload of stars, filmmakers, journalists, executives, publicists and many Academy members were on the runway headed for the Colorado resort town. This Labor Day rocky mountain tradition is now a key part — along with Venice, Toronto and New York — of launching players into the Oscar race. Of course the Telluride festival, one of the best of all fests, sports all kinds of films and events (enough to satisfy a cinephile for an entire year). But in recent times it has joined those other key fall festivals as an early gauge of goodies for the nascent awards season.

Related: Telluride Film Festival Unveils 2013 Lineup

Because they hold back their announcement, don’t require bragging rights, and don’t call anything a “premiere” (leaving that distinction to Venice, Toronto or NY), Telluride often gets some of the cream of the crop. Among recent past Best Picture nominees and winners that had North American launches here were Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Juno, Capote, Up In The Air, and last year’s eventual winner, Warner Bros’ Argo, which came in as an unannounced “sneak preview”.

This year there will be three of those “sneaks”, with the festival mum and saying it won’t begin announcing the titles until tomorrow. One person in the know told me one of the sneaks comes from “an Oscar-winning director”. (And it’s not Martin Scorsese, whose hotly anticipated November release The Wolf Of Wall Street won’t be here even though Paramount’s other two big awards-bait films, Nebraska and Labor Day, are on the schedule, and Paramount’s Megan Colligan is among the studio’s execs attending.) One I can definitely guess is Fox Searchlight’s biggie 12 Years A Slave. Not only did a Searchlight contingent including co-president Nancy Utley arrive today, but the festival’s own official magazine listed a Saturday 4 PM conversation with the film’s director Steve McQueen and co-stars Chewitel Ejiofor (another potential Best Actor contender), Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. My guess that means the movie must be screening here Friday. As for the third “sneak”, no one’s really talking and there are several titles being bandied about — most prominently Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, which is the official opening-night film in Toronto on September 5th. Could it make a pit stop here? Hmmm. Still, using a little Sherlock Holmesian power of deduction, another good guess could be Warner Bros and Alcon’s dramatic thriller Prisoners, which stars Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and many others. It opens September 20, so getting the word out before its official Toronto debut next week makes sense. It comes from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who made a major splash in Telluride in 2010 with Incendies eventually leading to an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. That gives him cred with the festival. Plus it has been showing to select press in LA this week after being delivered to the studio over the weekend, so it’s ready.

At any rate if either Fifth Estate (from Disney/DreamWorks) or Prisoners were to show up, Telluride would be sporting a much larger than usual major studio presence including two from Paramount and two from Warners. Usually this festival is a much bigger playground for the independent labels who like to do a soft launch of their Oscar contenders here. It seems odd that The Weinstein Company, perhaps the biggest Oscar player of all, has nothing in the lineup except for Errol Morris’ Donald Rumsfeld documentary from TWC-Radius. Could Harvey have one of those sneaks?

As for the announced lineup, Warner Bros is figuring lightning can strike twice after its Argo success and again has caught the Telluride bug. The studio is bringing Alfonso Cuaron and his intimate space epic Gravity directly here for a Saturday debut fresh from its smash Venice debut earlier today. Warners clearly has an Argo-like Oscar-season blueprint in mind for the film, which has received rapturous reviews (including for star Sandra Bullock) out of its opening-night slot on the Lido. It will launch the pic stateside on October 4th — the exact week Argo debuted last year.

A true Telluride first will be Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s bestseller Labor Day starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. It stops here with its first screening tomorrow afternoon before heading to its “official” premiere next week in Toronto. I am told by someone who already saw it to expect no “dry eyes” in the house. Reitman is a Telluride regular who also debuted Juno and Up In The Air here. Both brought him Directing Oscar nods. Ralph Fiennes is here too, starring and directing in The Invisible Woman, another Telluride debut that will grab Oscar-watcher attention this weekend.

Among the other anticipated Oscar contenders are several first seen at Cannes in May and getting their first shot in North America here. They include Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, for which Telluride-junkie Payne and star Bruce Dern are making the trek (Dern was on the plane this morning). Robert Redford, an early Best Actor front-runner after Cannes, will be here for a special career tribute and screenings of his tour-de-force performance in All Is Lost from director-writer J.C.Chandor. That pic releases October 18. The Coen Brothers along with their musical muse T Bone Burnett also get a tribute and first-ever U.S. screenings of their Cannes Grand Prize winner Inside Llewyn Davis, which CBS Films releases in DecemberIt’s a little surprising and unusual to see Nebraska, Llewyn Davis and All Is Lost doing Telluride but skipping Toronto in favor of NY later in September.  It is absolutely no surprise however that the film that beat Llewyn Davis for the Palme d’Or, Blue Is The Warmest Color, will be making its North American debut here. Director Abdellatif Kechiche and its extraordinary stars Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux will be attending with the film, a three-hour French sensation about a lesbian romance. As I have previously noted, it is ineligible for the Foreign Language Oscar due to a technicality, but Sundance Selects will be releasing October 25th to qualify in most other categories. It was recently rated NC-17 for its highly explicit love scenes and should cause waves here.

Related: Sundance Selects To Release ‘Blue Is The Warmest Color’ With NC-17 Rating

Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who was first in Telluride two years ago debuting his eventual Best Foreign Film winner A Separation, will also be back with another Cannes refugee The Past starring Cannes Best Actress winner Berenice Bejo. She isn’t currently scheduled to join Farhadi here, but several actors with Oscar potential will be hitting Telluride this weekend. That list includes Redford; Dern; Llewyn Davis’ terrific lead Oscar Issac; Exarchopoulos and Seydoux; Tracks star Mia Wasikowska, who is also excellent in The Double debuting in Toronto; and Berlin Best Actress winner Paulina Garcia, who has won raves for her work in Chile’s near-certain Oscar entry Gloria.

That’s only a partial list of the films with Oscar potential on display here. Festgoers will get a mini-preview of some top foreign-language race contenders: In addition to Gloria and The Past, France’s Before The Winter Chill starring Kristin Scott Thomas (way overdue for an Oscar nom), India’s The Lunchbox (which distributor Sony Pictures Classics is uber-high on), Poland’s Ida, and Israel’s likely entry Bethlehem will be screened.

It ought to be a very interesting weekend.

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