Each year, a coterie of film lovers gathers in the idyllic mountains of Telluride, Colo., over Labor Day weekend for the Telluride Film Festival. The fest, held in a spot nestled comfortably between Cannes and Toronto, has garnered a well-deserved reputation for serving as a starter pistol of sorts for awards season. Last year, for example, Oscar winners The Artist, The Descendants, and A Separation all made their U.S. premieres in Telluride, while previous awards darlings to premiere up in the thin air of the San Juan Mountains include The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, and Brokeback Mountain.
What really sets the festival apart, however, is the relaxed vibe.
Since the film program isn’t published until the night before it all kicks off, the fest is devoid of prying paparazzi and celebrity gossipmongers. Stars blend in seamlessly with the regulars and usually have their families in tow. You’ll see Jennifer Garner strolling down Main Street with a baby carrier attached to her chest, flanked by her husband, Ben Affleck; or Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach throwing back cocktails and shooting the breeze with fans at the New Sheridan Bar following a screening of their film, Frances Ha.
The program is a lean, mean 25 films, which isn’t too overwhelming, and since private donors—many of whom have been contributing to the Telluride Film Festival for years—largely fund the fest, it has managed to avoid the gaudy corporate takeover that’s plagued Sundance.
And the setting is sublime. A rustic-chic silver-mining town of about 2,500 people, Telluride is surrounded on all sides by red-faced mountains. A gondola takes you up and down these mountains to the Chuck Jones Cinema, honoring the late Looney Tunes cartoonist (and Telluride regular). The views are extraordinary.
“There are tons of film festivals around the world, all of them different, and I’ve been going to them since I was a kid in Mexico,” actor Gael García Bernal told The Daily Beast. “I like being an audience member more than presenting a movie, and this is that kind of festival. It’s just a great place to see movies.”
The 39th annual Telluride Film Festival, which ran Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, offered fans plenty of Oscar bait.
Nobody seemed to have a single bad thing to say about Argo, an ambitious, “based on a declassified true story” CIA thriller from director-star Ben Affleck, which looks like an early lock for a Best Picture Oscar nod. The movie, about a CIA exfiltration expert (Affleck) who’s tasked with extracting six U.S. foreign-service officials/hostages from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis by having the gang pose as a film crew, is a deft mix of thriller, Hollywood satire, and historical drama. Alan Arkin also provides an award-worthy turn as Lester Siegel, a sardonic, over-the-hill movie mogul who helps in the mission.
“I thought, ‘This is so crazy. If it weren’t true, you just couldn’t make this movie because it would be too ridiculous,’” Affleck told The Daily Beast. “That it was rooted in hard facts made it compelling, and Chris Terrio wrote a really smart screenplay that gave me the chance to weave together three different themes and three different worlds: the CIA, the Hollywood satire, and the Iran tensions.”
If there’s any justice in the world, actress Marion Cotillard will receive her second Oscar nomination—both in the French language, a true rarity—for her poignant turn as a killer-whale trainer who loses her legs in a horrific accident, and then falls for a moody, emotionally detached pugilist, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, in the drama Rust and Bone. The film is helmed by acclaimed French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, who was robbed of a Best Foreign Film Oscar for the 2009 crime saga A Prophet. Perhaps the Academy will redeem itself at this year’s ceremony and honor this masterpiece.
In the Best Actor category, Bill Murray looks like a lock for an Oscar nod for his charming performance as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the picturesque costume drama Hyde Park on Hudson. The film, which splits time between FDR’s affair with his fifth cousin, played by Laura Linney, and a much-ballyhooed visit to the commander-in-chief’s country estate by Great Britain’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on the eve of World War II, probably is a bit too Masterpiece Theatre for other major awards consideration, but the costumes and sets are divine.
“[FDR] had incredible will power,” said Murray. “It’s very challenging to play someone who’s an American icon. He’s a big guy.” He paused. “He’s on the dime!”
In addition to the aforementioned Rust and Bone, another gripping French drama about an infirm woman is Amour, by Oscar-nominated Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon). Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film follows an elderly couple in their eighties. When Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) suffers a stroke, her loving husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), cares for her during her final days. Few films have ever approached old age and mortality with such heartbreaking honesty, and Amour should get some Oscar attention—perhaps even in the Best Picture and Best Actress categories. It is brilliant and utterly devastating.
Many critics have drawn comparisons between Noah Baumbach’s coming-of-age dramedy Frances Ha, co-written by and starring indie “it” girl Greta Gerwig, and the HBO series Girls, since both focus on a Brooklyn hipster chick (Gerwig in Ha) struggling in life and love (and both feature actor Adam Driver). But Baumbach’s film, shot in gorgeous black-and-white—borrowing a page from Woody Allen’s Manhattan—is a cut above, offering a complex character study about a young woman in flux and a career-defining performance by Gerwig, who, with the right distributor behind her (the film currently lacks a distributor), could find herself in the Best Actress discussion.
While the Best Foreign Film Oscar category is notoriously unpredictable (translation: awful), Pablo Larrain’s gripping Chilean drama No, about an ad executive (Gael García Bernal) who is summoned to develop a campaign to defeat cruel dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile’s 1988 referendum, should earn an Oscar nod. It’s a masterful work.
“Mark my words: it will be required viewing in Latin American studies classes,” Alexander Payne, director of Sideways and The Descendants, told The Daily Beast.
Other notable festival entries included Ken Burns’s captivating documentary The Central Park Five, which examines the 1989 case of five black and Latino teens who were wrongfully accused of raping a jogger in Central Park. The film should earn a Best Documentary Oscar nod. The Iceman, about the notorious Mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski, who killed over 100 people, boasts a fantastic cast, including Michael Shannon as the titular killer, along with Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, and James Franco in a silly cameo. Sadly, the film amounts to far less than the sum of its parts and, despite a typically awesome, unhinged performance by Shannon, is rife with mob-movie clichés. Another Best Documentary Oscar contender is The Gatekeepers, an Israeli-intelligence drama about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. One film I’m sorry to have missed is Sarah Polley’s personal documentary, Stories We Tell, about her family’s secrets. I heard nothing but great things about it.
Next year, the Telluride Film Festival will expand from four days to five in honor of its 40th anniversary. For this writer, it can’t come soon enough.