On the penultimate day of the 2017 Telluride Film Festival, 650 people crowded into the Palm Theater for a surefire commercial bet: “Battle of the Sexes,” Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ crowd-pleasing throwback to the cross-gender 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, with Emma Stone and Steve Carrell in the lead roles. The movie does nothing groundbreaking, but delivers a respectable ode to a feminist hero and the media brouhaha surrounding her legacy. Before the screening even started, the real Billie Jean King waved to the audience onstage and received a standing ovation. The mood projected a near-certainty that “Battle of the Sexes” would make bank at the box office when Fox Searchlight released it in late September, and awards season momentum could follow.
That’s all well and good for “Battle of the Sexes,” and certainly not the worst kind of movie to stand a chance at gaining attention — it’s a well-acted and thoughtfully observed look at gender and sexual discrimination. But it was hardly the most adventurous movie on display at Telluride this year, and therein lies the rub.
Industry types scurried about the theater, still processing what to do about a very different sort of crowdpleaser that screened in the same room moments earlier. Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” a fascinating eco-thriller from the “Taxi Driver” screenwriter featuring a remarkable Ethan Hawke as a conflicted priest, played to an enthusiastic crowd riveted by its sophisticated insight into a crisis of faith. The movie arrived at Telluride without distribution, and more than one buyer acknowledged that this tonally complex, darkly philosophical movie was not an easy sell. “Yeah, I liked it,” said one executive as the lights dimmed on “Battle of the Sexes,” then hesitated. “But will the Landmark Ladies go?”
This was an alliterative reference to the older boomers who frequent arthouses, Landmark Cinemas chief among them. Many traditional theatrical distributors rely on them, even as their numbers dwindle. But if that’s the best hope, it points to a mounting anxiety about the capacity for first-rate movies to find an audience.
This year’s Labor Day weekend gathering may have taken place under the shadow of nuclear paranoia from headlines about North Korea, but there was an apocalyptic air about the future of the movies as well. For many in the business, Telluride is seen as an exclusive opportunity to test movies’ marketplace potential. Its older, upper-class demographic has long been seen as the core audience that sustains the speciality-film marketplace. If they like a movie, the reasoning goes, a lot of other people will, too. But this time, the idea of people going to see any movies seemed like a particularly uncertain prospect.
As Telluride kicked off, news circulated that “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” director Jeremy Saulnier would direct the next season of “True Detective,” the latest example of a film-festival breakout turning away from the theatrical arena to embrace a more reliable platform. Even veterans are joining the fray: The festival’s first day of programming included a four-and-a-half hour screening of “Wormwood,” the Netflix miniseries directed by Errol Morris, marking his first major foray into the episodic medium. By Sunday, people were talking about the “Twin Peaks” finale almost as much as Telluride highlights.
Meanwhile, a handful of studios unveiled enticing new movies that pushed beyond safe commercial expections. Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” is an occasionally brilliant satire of modern society littered with contemporary anxieties, and Matt Damon delivers a soulful performance as a conflicted loner in a near-futuristic world in which people can shrink themselves to pint-size.
The technology is presented to the world as an environmentally conscious effort to conserve waste, but that’s ultimately less relevant than the movie’s gradual metaphor for the way in which its conflicted protagonist feels marginalized by a world that has nothing to do with him. Audiences divided on Payne’s tragicomic tone applied to broad satiric terrain, but there’s no doubt that the movie serves as the most radical statement released by a studio this year. And that led to questions about whether anyone would bother to pay for a ticket to see it.
Along similar lines, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” finds Sally Hawkins in a masterful, wordless performance as a mute janitor who falls in love with the undersea humanoid she discovers at the aquatic facility where she works. Another Fox Searchlight offering, consensus deemed it a more obvious commercial bet for the studio, which could appeal to broader crowds by playing up the fairy-tale ingredients or the flashes of violence. Still, one wrong move and movie’s Telluride enthusiasm could become an anomaly rather than an indication of things to come.
That prediction greeted even Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” the seminal queer filmmaker’s remarkable multilayered adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s story, which unfolds partially as a silent film and partially in ‘70s-era New York. The movie had a soft launch at Cannes and found more appreciative crowds in Telluride, which presented a tribute to Haynes’ cinematographer, Ed Lachman, and effectively launched his awards campaign. But these accolades did nothing to reinforce the notion that moviegoers would take a gamble on the ambitious project.
As the weekend drew to a close, screenwriter and Telluride programmer Larry Gross found a through-line between the festival’s films. “They’re all trying to make pop culture serious,” he told me, before clarifying on Twitter that they’re also “attempts at audience-friendly art cinema.” But, he added, “if they don’t work, we’re screwed.” That same day, I had lunch with a name actor who expressed concern about the fate of so many films in a dense heap of VOD offerings, shrugging off the idea that the future of great movies might lie in a more rarified context. “It doesn’t have to be just Batman or opera,” he said. “It just doesn’t.”
And yet, despite the gloominess, plenty of confident parties showed that the battle was far from over. On the second day of the festival, heavy-hitters Amazon and Netflix both threw soirees up against similar gatherings hosted by A24, Sony Pictures Classics, and Searchlight. At each event, hope ran high for a range of exciting new films from one of the strongest Telluride programs in recent memory.
A24, still beaming from its success with “Moonlight,” which premiered at the festival a year earlier, kickstarted enthusiasm for Greta Gerwig’s charming coming-of-age comedy “Lady Bird” to similar effect. Its other film at Telluride, “Lean on Pete,” had a quieter launch and the company has wisely decided to hold it for next year. Sony Pictures Classics’ highlight was “A Fantastic Woman,” the moving portrait of a Chilean transgender woman (newcomer Daniela Vega) reeling from the death of her husband. In a just world, it would propel Vega to the front of the best-actress race. Whether or not she gets there, the movie speaks to a widely underserved audience in powerful ways, and stands a good chance at generating attention for just that.
“A Fantastic Woman” reflects international efforts to make cinema worth watching, however it gets out there. Produced by Chilean outfit Fabula, siblings Juan de Dios and Pablo Larrain supported the movie. Pablo made the festival rounds last year as the director of acclaimed films “Neruda” and “Jackie,” and now Lelio is about to go on a similar circuit. As “A Fantastic Woman” continues to build buzz, Lelio’s heading to the Toronto International Film Festival with that movie as well as “Disobedience.” His first English-language project, it’s produced by star Rachel Weisz and set within the confines of a British ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Much as Larrain moved into the English-language market with “Jackie” even as he kept his roots nearby with “Neruda,” Lelio is making his moves into a more commercial arena while keeping his options open.
The very best movie I saw over the weekend was Samuel Maoz’s haunting portrait of Israeli malaise, “Foxtrot,” which is both about a father mourning the death of his son and how much time the son wastes in the line of duty. The Israeli government has been openly critical of the project, which doesn’t bode well for its support in the weeks ahead. But it was clear that the film had a safety check in place: An opening credit announced that “Foxtrot” was a “German-French-Israeli-Swiss Production” and the crowd chuckled. One audience member exclaimed, “It takes a village to make a movie!” Several silhouettes nodded in the darkness. That philosophy may not provide a precise solution to moviegoing’s future, but like the festivals supporting first-rate cinema, at least it provides some semblance of hope.