The Telluride Film Festival is about a lot more than Oscars. Co-directors Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger certainly set out to program the year’s likeliest Oscar contenders, including Joe Wright’s Gary Oldman vehicle “Darkest Hour,” Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” starring Saoirse Ronan, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” starring Sally Hawkins, and “Battle of the Sexes,” starring a luminous Emma Stone as real-life hero Billie Jean King.
But Telluride was also a crucible for conversations about the state of the motion picture industry throughout the weekend, as Netflix and Amazon threw parties and checked out several high-profile movies without distribution — including Francis Ford Coppola’s musically-enhanced “The Cotton Club Encore” — that banked on the festival boosting their critical and audience cred before top buyers.
Here’s what we learned over the Labor Day weekend:
1. Christian Bale is fat.
The subject of two well-deserved weekend tributes wore black all weekend to disguise his added bulk, as he is packing on the pounds (yet again) to play Dick Cheney in Annapurna’s “Backseat” for “The Big Short” director Adam McKay. Bale was in athletic movie-star mode in director Scott Cooper’s independently financed $35-million 19th-century western “Hostiles,” co-starring Rosamund Pike and Wes Studi, which played well over the weekend as it sought a buyer. I will catch the movie in Toronto, where even more distributors will see it. (When it’s on the release calendar, I will weigh in on whether or not Bale is Oscar-worthy.)
Writer-director Cooper told me he would love to see “Hostiles” open this fall, so that Bale could be in the awards mix. (The trades played along, offering gushy Oscar bonafides.)
Truth is, it’s a light year for Best Actor contenders. But top distributors like Sony Pictures Classics have their fall awards slates well under way. Mounting something at this late date can be done (Fox Searchlight bought both Oscar-contenders “The Wrestler” and “Jackie” in Toronto), but it’s a tall order.
Producer John Lesher (“Birdman”), who developed the ’80s Donald Stewart script with Virginia-born Cooper (“Black Mass,” “Crazy Heart”), financed the movie with foreign sales and brought in producer-investor Ken Kao. They will weigh the best possible home for the violent western.
One likely buyer is deep-pocketed Netflix, which doesn’t have to support an expensive theatrical campaign and has beefed up its marketing team with Oscar-savvy former Lionsgate executive Julie Fontaine. However, if Bale’s Oscar campaign is the goal, Netflix has not yet proven its ability to push non-documentary fare into Oscar contention.
2. Paul Schrader is back.
Another for sale title was “First Reformed,” a rigorous, religious, and timely ecological fable that sees Paul Schrader in top form. Raised Calvinist, the writer of “Taxi Driver” and director of “Light Sleeper” crafts an elegantly formal homage to Robert Bresson’s “The Diary of a Country Priest.” Ethan Hawke plays a grieving minister fighting despair who finds some hope in a pregnant church member (Amanda Seyfried). The movie is both beautiful and ugly, intense and moving.
Critics will point arthouse audiences to yet another brilliant Hawke performance. Again, is a distributor be willing to push this up the hill this fall? A home for 2018 is more likely.
3. Women are on top
Angelina Jolie (“First They Killed My Father”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Rebecca Miller (“Arthur Miller: Writer”), Chloé Zhao (“The Rider”), Agnes Varda (“Faces, Places,” with J.R.), and Valerie Faris (“Battle of the Sexes,” with husband Jonathan Dayton) are among the female directors earning rave reviews at Telluride.
Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” is based on Loung Ung’s Cambodian memoir about her middle-class family’s horrific experiences after they were forced out of Phnom Penh in 1975 during the four-year takeover by the Khmer Rouge. Jolie has been friends with the writer for 17 years and convinced Netflix to back the $24-million Cambodian war epic, which she whittled down to two hours and 16 minutes.
The well-mounted movie, told entirely from the point of view of a young girl (Sareum Srey Moch) and impeccably shot by Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) with a sensitive score by Marco Beltrami, made audiences weep and scored a rapturous standing ovation. It could score some Oscar nominations, as well an official slot as the Cambodian Oscar entry. That’s an Oscar it could win.
We already knew Greta Gerwig as a smashing actress and writer (“Frances Ha,” “Mistress America”). With her feature debut “Lady Bird” (A24), a semi-autobiographical story from her high school days in Sacramento starring Saoirse Ronan and the superb Laurie Metcalf as her mother, Gerwig finds herself in the Oscar race as writer and director. Ronan and Metcalf may be there, too.
Ronan’s competition may come from two Fox Searchlight stars: Emma Stone as a sexily athletic and formidable sports star living a double life, and Sally Hawkins as a mute lab worker in love with a merman in Guillermo del Toro’s exquisite ’60s Douglas Sirk romantic fantasy-thriller “The Shape of Water.”
4. The British are coming!
Joe Wright’s “The Darkest Hour” was Telluride’s surefire Oscar contender, and Gary Oldman as a wily and messy Winston Churchill is the one to beat for Best Actor (not to mention Hair and Makeup). At a Telluride dinner, Oldman told me he channeled the Prime Minister’s inner child, and also compared him to Stanley Kubrick, who expected everyone on his team to step up to his standards and work ethic.
Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn (“Bloodline”) said he couldn’t have been more shocked to be cast as King George VI— although he looks just like him. When “Theory of Everything” Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten tried to pick among possible writing gigs, a friend told him to do “Theory of Everything” producer Lisa Bruce’s “The Darkest Hour,” because “right now we need a leader.” So McCarten took it on. Wright told the opening night crowd that he only wanted to do yet another movie about Winston Churchill if Oldman played him.
At the annual Telluride closing night party at the Steinbergs, Wright told me (and admiring Amazon Studios executive Ted Hope) that he stole the idea for the film’s stunning out-the-window tracking shots from the Coens’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”
Other British films made a splash. James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli and memoirist Peter Turner spent more than 20 years developing “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” which details Turner’s affair with aging Hollywood star Gloria Grahame; it could push Annette Bening back into the Oscar race. At the Sony Pictures Classics dinner, star Jamie Bell said when doing research in Liverpool, he met several actors who had thought they might play his role over the years, from Ian Hart to David Morrissey.
5. The Academy throws a great party
I finally nabbed an invite to the Academy’s press-free annual Telluride gathering, which was packed with stars. New Academy president John Bailey made the rounds. Jolie huddled with Hawke. (They starred together in “Taking Lives” in 2004, as Hawke’s press agent Mara Buxbaum put it, “before she was Angelina Jolie.”) Gerwig, Faris, and Dayton commiserated about pre-world premiere jitters, while Bale had to get through his first Tribute.
Still on the stump for climate change with “An Inconvenient Sequel,” Al Gore looked each new person in the eye and memorized their name. (I can testify to this skill, as he greeted me with “Hi, Anne!” the next night at Participant Media’s Telluride dinner, where he regaled the table with stories of living large on his world travels as Vice President — before getting serious about the potential upside of Hurricane Harvey for climate change.)
6. The foreign-language race is getting interesting.
The Russian Oscar committee could actually choose “Leviathan” director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Cannes hit “Loveless” (Sony Pictures Classics) for its official submission, although Telluride also played its lower-profile rival, the dark family drama “Tesnota.” SPC’s other foreign possibility is Sebastián Lelio’s transgender drama, “A Fantastic Woman,” which played well with Chilean actress Daniela Vega on hand. Lebanon is expected to select Ziad Douieri’s “The Insult” (Cohen Media), which built buzz over the weekend.