By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 5, 2012 at 12:18PM
At this year's Telluride Film Festival, the only real grousing came from the awards season pundits.
The 39th edition of the mountainside Colorado festival, which concluded on Monday, has been valued in recent years for providing the first public look at a number of fall season releases being positioned for accolades from the Oscars and Golden Globes. Over the last two years, those titles have included "The Descendants" and "Black Swan," both released by Fox Searchlight, a typical awards-friendly distributor that had no movies in the latest lineup.
Audiences didn't seem to mind a festival that eschewed the marketplace pressures of fall season prestige in favor of handpicked quality from the festival circuit -- meaning the whole festival circuit, including both favorites from earlier this year at Cannes as well as a number of movies soon to have their official premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival. While Telluride may not have offered a sneak peek at several major awards contenders, it certainly offered a sneak peek at a lot of other new movies. The festival opened by announcing its 40th anniversary next year; the typically dense three-day event will add a fourth day, which is likely to excite the casual moviegoing Midwesterners as much as the professionals. They have reason to hope for better luck next year.
Even still, those hungry for Oscar bait certainly got their fix with the sneak peek screening of Ben Affleck's "Argo," which first showed at the beginning of the festival on Friday afternoon. A definite crowdpleaser about the little-known attempt by a CIA agent (played by Affleck himself) to smuggle a group of American operatives out of Iran in 1979 by disguising them as a film crew, "Argo" got the buzz machine going early.
The movie arrived courtesy of distributor Warner Bros., whose gamble to sneak the film to Telluride ahead of its official TIFF premiere paid off: Affleck, who honed his directing skills through the tried-and-true process of genre filmmaking ahead of this effort, delivered a classic form of political entertainment that audiences tend to embrace at this time of the year. While no groundbreaking masterpiece, as one prominent distributor emphatically described the movie several times, "it's old school."
Beyond its Oscar prospects, "Argo" also fit into a trend at the festival this year as it was one of several movies set in the Middle East (a connection that led to a panel on the topic hosted by scholar Annette Insdorf and featuring Affleck). Arriving at Telluride shortly after its Venice premiere, "Wadjda" generated plenty of hype for the story behind its production. The first Saudi Arabian feature directed by a woman, the movie was made for a reasonable budget within the country's borders -- no easy feat for any filmmaker -- and focuses on the plight of a young woman coping with typical adolescent problems. Many viewers spoke energetically about director Haifaa Mansour's ability to present the familiar story in a context they had never seen before. That's probably enough to help it land a midsize distributor in the near future. In the meantime, it arrives at TIFF soon enough.
In a less upbeat vein, Ziad Doueiri's Lebanese film "The Attack" (another entry in the TIFF program) garnered attention for exploring the impact of terrorism on an individual life. The story finds an Arab doctor coping with the death of his wife at the hands of a suicide bomber and gradually figuring out that she may have been the one who detonated the bomb. Audiences found the movie upsetting but many came away praising its tense scenario.
Rounding out the Middle Eastern offerings, "The Gatekeepers" stunned festivalgoers with a shockingly candid look at the motives driving Shin Bet, Israel's clandestine security service. Director Dror Moreh's study of the organization's belligerent tactics and the downward spiral of destruction that came out of them benefits greatly from access: Exclusively drawing from the candid testimonies of former Shin Bet heads, "The Gatekeepers" assembles a history of Israeli combat through the voice of its own people.
Next page: How Sony Pictures Classics dominated the festival. Plus: What was for sale?