It’s as reliable as a compass: Every year, on the Thursday before Labor Day, the Telluride charter from Los Angeles to Montrose, Colo. is a core sample of hopes for the Oscar season. (The contenders on my flight included executives from Amazon, Netflix, The Orchard, Open Road, Paramount, Plan B, and Fox Searchlight, along with movie stars Rooney Mara and Isabelle Huppert.)
It’s an honor to be selected for Telluride, certainly, but everyone’s nerves are tuned for the films’ receptions. The Labor Day weekend festival has launched a number of eventual best-picture winners, including “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech,” “Spotlight,” “Argo,” and “12 Years a Slave.” The buzz that begins here (or doesn’t) determines strategies as the films move on to future festivals in Toronto and New York.
1. “La La Land” (December 2, Lionsgate) opened the Venice Film Festival and will continue to Toronto. Reviews were upbeat for Damien Chazelle’s musical follow-up to”Whiplash,” which is influenced by such French classics as “The Demoiselles de Rochefort,” but Telluride will provide more intel on how the romance starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling will play with adult audiences stateside. It screens Friday evening.
2. “Sully” (September 9, Warner Bros.) will premiere at the festival, directed by Oscar perennial Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as the pilot who landed a distressed plane in the Hudson River. Aaron Eckhart is his co-pilot. Warners successfully pushed “Argo” at Telluride, and Eastwood has attended before. Premieres Friday evening.
3. “Bleed for This” (November 23, Open Road) stars Miles Teller (“Whiplash”) as fighter Vinny Pazienza, who has Eckhart and Ciaran Hinds in his corner as he tries to come back from a devastating accident. Ben Younger (“Boiler Room”) is back in the director’s chair after a 9-year hiatus. Open Road is looking for more Telluride Oscar magic after bringing “Spotlight” last year. Premieres Friday evening.
4. “Arrival” (November 11, Paramount Pictures) is Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s look at alien visitors on earth; Telluride tributee and Oscar fave Amy Adams plays the linguist who must communicate with them. She’s been nominated for five Oscars and never won. Premieres Saturday evening, after Adams’ tribute.
5. “Manchester by the Sea” (November 18, Amazon/Roadside Attractions) is already an anointed Oscar frontrunner from Sundance; the Kenneth Lonergan tearjerker will consolidate its position with a tribute to Best Actor candidate Casey Affleck. Screens Friday evening, after Affleck’s tribute (which is moderated by our own Eric Kohn).
6. “Moonlight” (October 21, A24). Making a bid for wider awareness is Barry Jenkins’ long-awaited sophomore film after “Medicine for Melancholy.” It’s produced by Plan B’s DeDe Gardner and Brad Pitt, who also brought us “12 Years A Slave” and “The Big Short.” Is it too small for Oscar contention, or does the African-American coming-of-age saga hit the zeitgeist just right? Premieres Friday evening.
7. “L’Avenir” (Things To Come) (December 2, Sundance Selects) Mia Hansen-Love’s drama was a hit out of the Berlin Film Festival, and could be France’s Oscar submission, but the film stands to have its biggest impact in aiding star Isabelle Huppert ‘s best actress campaign for Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” (November 11, Sony Pictures Classics), which premiered in Cannes and screens next in Toronto. Considered her country’s Meryl Streep, sixtyish Huppert is operating at the height of her powers and positive attention for both films could push her into contention. Screens Friday evening.
Other likely foreign contenders are German submission and Cannes hit “Toni Erdmann,” from Maron Ade, and Chilean Pablo Larrain’s “Neruda,” starring Gael Garcia Bernal.
A number of key docs playing in Toronto are showing at Telluride, including show biz docs “Bright Lights: Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher” (HBO), and “Chasing Trane,” plus Mongolian female empowerment story “The Eagle Huntress” (Sony Pictures Classics), Berlin-winning Syrian refugee doc “Fire at Sea” (Kino Lorber), Errol Morris’s acquisition title “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman Portrait Photography,” and Netflix’s “The Ivory Game” and Werner Herzog’s latest look at the abyss, “Into the Inferno.”