Maybe it’s the altitude, but the movies just seem better in Telluride, Colo., where the 44th annual Telluride Film Festival wrapped a lineup Monday that included Greta Gerwig’s splendid, semi-autobiographical “Lady Bird”; the best of the recent Churchill biopics, Gary Oldman starrer “Darkest Hour”; and two very different movies about genocide: Angelina Jolie’s Cambodia-set “First They Killed My Father” and Scott Cooper’s expensive, expansive western “Hostiles.”
Still, elevation doesn’t do much to explain why, of the three festivals that kick off the fall season — Venice, Telluride and Toronto — it’s the one with the best track record. Not only has Telluride either world- or U.S.-premiered eight of the past nine Oscar best picture winners (including both “Moonlight” and “La La Land” last year, though technically, only one of those counts), but the ratio of genuine discoveries to cinematic disappointments is impossibly high — an appropriate enough designation for a mountain town where the air is thin and one can saunter in off the street and buy legalized recreational marijuana.
It helps that the lineup consists of a tight three dozen new features, rounded out by another 10 or so classics and restorations (this year including “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola’s salvage job on “The Cotton Club,” no mere redux, but a return to the version he’d originally intended, before financiers insisted he cut much of the African-American storyline). The closely curated program sits in stark contrast to the 175 new movies set to debut in Toronto over the coming two weeks — more than that, if you include titles featured in Venice and/or Telluride.
By the way, if you could only see half a dozen movies between now and the end of the year, you could hardly improve on the six narrative features that played both Venice and Telluride: Alexander Payne’s big-idea satire “Downsizing,” which kicked off both festivals; Guillermo del Toro’s terrific revisionist monster romance “The Shape of Water”; “Weekend” and “45 Years” director Andrew Haigh’s spare nouveau western “Lean on Pete”; Lebanon’s “The Insult” and Israel’s “Foxtrot”; and “Taxi Driver” writer Paul Schrader’s best movie in at least two decades, “First Reformed.”
Telluride’s position as an awards season starting gun, meanwhile, has snowballed considerably in the decade since “Slumdog Millionaire” came to town as a mercifully acquired near-orphan and walked out a bona fide frontrunner in the Oscar race. This year’s biggest kudos circuit breakout at the fest might be Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” with Oldman leaping to the front of the best actor line, presumably on track to win his first Academy Award for a ferocious (and unrecognizable) turn as Winston Churchill. In the wake of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” Wright’s film takes on a whole other glow as the external stakes of England’s retreat from the European mainland during World War II deepen amid situation-room barking and politicking. It will be a formidable best picture force.
Fox Searchlight, meanwhile, has often toe-dipped the Telluride waters with prospective players. “Juno,” “Black Swan,” “127 Hours,” “The Descendants,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman” all screened at the fest. This year the company brought del Toro’s “Shape” as well as Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes.” With them comes a pair of lead actress contenders: Sally Hawkins and reigning champ Emma Stone, respectively. They were part of a bumper crop of best actress hopefuls at the fest this year, which also included Annette Bening in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” trans actress Daniela Vega in “A Fantastic Woman” and Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (perhaps the overall highlight of the fest and a scrappy contender for distributor A24 in the wake of “Moonlight’s” success).
The biggest Telluride question mark in terms of the Oscar season is Cooper’s “Hostiles,” which now heads to Toronto looking for a distributor willing to turn it around on a dime and launch it into the race. It’s not unheard of, and the positive response to this brutal western certainly gives selling agents some added ammunition. Should it find a home in time, look for at least Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike to leap into their respective conversations.
In the last act of “Downsizing” — which divided audiences in Telluride after delighting them in Venice — Matt Damon’s shrunken-man protagonist finds himself trying to decide between spending the rest of his days with a micro-community of enlightened, save-the-world shrunken men and going back to the real world. That’s when Udo Kier’s character suggests that what looks like a utopian ideal may in fact be a cult of similarly loony people.
Something similar can happen in Telluride, where attendees celebrate their shared good taste and finally get to have the kind of conversations about movies — and other subjects, which this year included Natalie Portman-produced meat-is-murder doc “Eating Animals” and global-warming call-to-action “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” introduced by Al Gore himself — they can’t have back home. Hollywood may be home to the film industry, but amid all the shop talk, it’s tough to find anyone there who’ll open up about how a movie actually made them feel.
Though the industry presence in Telluride seems to grow every year, the core group of attendees remain affluent, cultured liberals who shell out $800 or more to discover what amount to the year’s best movies. It’s a bubble in which Academy members, filmmakers and pundits trade reactions with relatively sophisticated amateurs — a word intended in the literal French sense: lovers of cinema. And it can be hard to come down from that rarefied atmosphere to rejoin the real world, especially when the next stop on many schedules is the Toronto fest, whose 20-percent-leaner lineup is still seven times that of Telluride.