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Telluride Wrap: Colorado Fest Opens Gate to Kudos Season

Films such as 'Steve Jobs,' 'Suffragette' and 'Room' got a boost at the 42nd annual event.

TELLURIDE, Colo. — The Telluride Film Festival has been an awards season lucky charm in recent years. Annually held in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado as a casual jog through Labor Day weekend rather than a taxing marathon stuffed with flashbulbs and red carpets, the event has hosted six of the last seven best picture winners, including “The Artist” and “Birdman.” Four of them — “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech,” “Argo” and “12 Years a Slave” — were world premieres.

Given that track record, the inescapable question is: Did we see this year’s top Oscar winner at the just-concluded fest?

The biggest splash belonged to Universal Pictures, which not only unspooled Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” as a world premiere, but negotiated a tribute to the filmmaker as well. Boyle previously visited Telluride with “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours.” His latest — super-charged with a typically rat-tat-tat screenplay by Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) — could bring him, as well as Universal, back into Oscar’s good graces, 14 years after the studio last won with 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind.” What a capper to the company’s ongoing box office dominance that would be.

The film’s star, Michael Fassbender, couldn’t make the fest (he’s busy shooting “Assassin’s Creed” in Malta), but Kate Winslet and Seth Rogen attended in his stead. Fassbender in particular. launched to the top of the year’s best actor hopefuls, while Rogen and particularly Winslet will be in the supporting conversation. It will be interesting to see how cinematographers take to lenser Alwin H. Küchler’s use of 16mm, 35mm and digital photography to differentiate the film’s three chapters, a bold choice by Boyle that adds another layer of visual storytelling to the already robust experience.

Warner Bros. segued into Telluride, following a bow in Venice, with Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass,” starring Johnny Depp. But while everyone had their attention on the three-time Oscar nominee, Joel Edgerton went and canonballed the supporting actor pool. Although a bona fide ensemble, the film is a near-two-hander between the two, with Edgerton delivering career-best work. Both should feature prominently in their respective races, but Cooper’s deft handling of the material, keeping an even, moody keel, ought to be appreciated by the directors’ branch of the Academy.

Speaking of strong ensembles, Open Road came from Venice as well, with Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight.” The film features one of last year’s circuit staples, Michael Keaton, and as the conscience of an incendiary tale, he is sure to get his share of votes (particularly after coming out a bridesmaid in last year’s lead actor Oscar race). The film could also be Open Road’s first best picture nominee to date, and it was probably the biggest hit of the fest, a satisfying drama that left many a gondola-rider singing its praises.

The Weinstein Co. presented Todd Haynes’ “Carol” — adding value with a Rooney Mara tribute — after world premiering it at the Cannes Film Festival in May, not unlike “The Artist” in 2011. I’ll be curious to see whether voters gravitate to Mara. I appreciate her fans in this regard — it’s a subdued performance, very internal. But Cate Blanchett is playing the broader angle and that could fetch more attention. To say the least, the craft on display — photography, editing, design elements — is outstanding and sure to contend.

Sony Classics tends to come to Telluride with plenty of firepower, but seems to be saving some powder for Toronto this year (where it will bow the Dan Rather drama “Truth,” starring Robert Redford, and Hank Williams biopic “I Saw the Light”). The specialty division did bring along Cannes sensation “Son of Saul,” looking to set the Hungarian Holocaust drama’s course with a serious best picture push. I’m very curious to see whether the studio can insinuate poet-turned-actor Géza Röhrig into the lead actor race. It’s a riveting portrayal, the camera focused on him from beginning to end.

Also at the fest, A24 revealed Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” ahead of Toronto. Based on the celebrated bestseller, it could put the distributor in Oscar contention after coming up short with 2014’s “A Most Violent Year,” or it could simply be a best actress play for star Brie Larson. But her 8-year-old co-star Jacob Tremblay could absolutely be a supporting play for his wildly impressive turn as a boy who sees his whole world blown wide open.

Focus Features found a place for gender-equality pic “Suffragette” away from power player “The Danish Girl” (which premiered in Venice with Eddie Redmayne aiming for back-to-back Oscar glory). But “Suffragette,” too, could be relegated to lead actress recognition, for Carey Mulligan. It seemed to be received with a shrug by many critics, though when I finally caught up to it at the end of the fest, I found it quite moving.

The foreign film race also got a boost. Iceland just confirmed Grímur Hákonarson’s “Rams,” which screened at the fest, as the country’s Oscar submission. Guatemala’s “Ixcanul” was on the program, as was France’s “Marguerite,” which could be submitted over Palme d’Or winner “Dheepan” at the end of the day.

Elsewhere, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay were on screen in Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years,” showing why they won acting honors at the Berlin fest in February. One wonders if the film could appeal to older voters and land enough passionate support for a best picture berth.

Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” made a pit stop between Venice and Toronto with Idris Elba’s supporting actor hopes in tow, and indeed, it’s his best work to date. But while the film showcases Fukunaga’s grace with actors, this story centered on children-turned-soldiers in a West African civil war could be too violent and depressing for Academy voters (not that Netflix won’t give it a significant push).

And finally, the documentary race caught fire again after a typically fast start in Sundance. Charles Ferguson and Davis Guggenheim debuted their latest studies, on climate change (“Time to Choose”) and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai (“He Named Me Malala”), respectively. But they could nevertheless hit the skids with Oscar: The former is a dry study that is still seeking distribution, while the latter is more impressive for its subject matter than its filmmaking craft. (Both directors also recently won Academy Awards, which tends to put you at the back of the line with that lot for some reason.)

Audiences seemed to most enjoy “Black Mass,” “Spotlight” and “Suffragette,” for what it’s worth. But even on the ground, the tale may not have been told. Last year, Telluride audiences were so enraptured by “The Imitation Game,” it seemed like Oscar glory was ahead. Yet eventual best picture victor “Birdman” was right there on the slate as well.

It’s a good reminder that there are many twists and turns on the road to Oscar. We’re only now out of the starting gate.

(A note to long-time In Contention readers: The “Off the Carpet” column has been retired but the content of those pieces will continue, running on Tuesdays in tandem with their publication in the print weekly edition of Variety. Pick up a subscription!)

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