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Telluride Wrap: The Little Festival That Could

Telluride Wrap: The Little Festival That Could

After the luxury of last year’s five-day celebration of its 40th anniversary, the Telluride Film Festival returned to business as usual–or so thought co-director Tom Luddy, the 70ish mastermind behind the programming and guests at this small festival with some 6000 attendees in the Colorado Rockies. Instead he faced putting together the most intense festival in his experience, as the mighty Toronto International Film Festival aimed its guns at relatively puny Telluride. No world premieres at Telluride would get the full gala treatment on the coveted first Toronto weekend.

So how did the festival fare? Were there notable missing films other than Jason Reitman’s “Men Women and Children?” (The director has promised to return.) Well, the major studios that brought “Nebraska,” “Argo” and “Gravity,” Paramount and Warner Bros., took their films to Toronto. (Telluride may not have wanted them–it was a question of not being shown some of the films.) That’s because TIFF is more of a media launchpad for fall releases. Another filmmaker who had introduced her film “An Education” at Telluride, Lone Scherfig, was forced to choose Toronto for her new film “The Riot Club”–because it is the better film market for acquisitions. No comparison. And Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” would ordinarily have been a Telluride candidate as well. 

But Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight (which is playing Telluride world premiere “Wild” in Toronto on Monday night), Roadside Attractions, IFC Films and Weinstein Co. stayed faithful to Telluride. And three big films broke out as Oscar contenders: SPC’s Cannes entry “Foxcatcher,” TWC’s World War II thriller “The Imitation Game,” and Searchlight’s exhilarating show business comedy “Birdman.”

Heading toward actors’ accolades are Steve Carrel, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher”), Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley “The Imitation Game”), Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone (“Birdman”) and Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern (“Wild”). (My updated Oscar analysis here.)

While Telluride tributee Hilary Swank gives a moving performance as a self-reliant but needy spinster in Saban/Roadside’s “The Homesman,” Tommy Lee Jones’ dour feminist western needs to build momentum. Roadside’s fest hit “’71” offered an exciting young Brit director (Yann Demange) and star (“Unbroken” and “Starred Up”‘s Jack O’Connell) in a heart-pounding story of a raw British soldier left behind in war torn Belfast. 

Also needing more buzz is Marion Cotillard, who gives a brilliant makeup-free performance in the Dardennes’ “Two Days, One Night” (IFC FIlms), which was overlooked by the Cannes competition jury. After Telluride, “Boyhood” star Ethan Hawke will take his IFC/Sundance Selects doc about a piano teacher, “Seymour: An Introduction,” to Toronto, where he will unveil Andrew Niccol thriller “Good Kill.” 

Getting an oddly muted Telluride response was Mike Leigh’s gorgeously crafted “Mr. Turner,” which needs critical support to push it toward awards attention for its sublime visuals and performances, led by Timothy Spall and Marion Bailey. SPC brought an extraordinary roster to Telluride, some of which will continue to build more steam at Toronto. Likely foreign Oscar submissions include entertaining black comedy “Wild Tales” (Argentina), a Cannes hit which was the stealth breakout of Telluride, knocking “Birdman” out of the closing night slot, as well as more sober likely Russian entry “Leviathan,” a tough corruption expose. 

Three SPC documentaries started growing support, from Cannes entries “Red Army” and Wim Wenders’ moving portrait of a  photographer witness to the world’s atrocities, “Salt of the Earth,” which built audiences as the weekend progressed and looked stellar on the big screen at the Herzog, to Participant Media’s anti-corporate follow-up to “An Inconvenient Truth,” Rob Kenner’s “Merchants of Doubt.”

Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League, coming to Telluride for the first time, is pushing another Participant film, “The Look of Silence,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to Indonesia genocide doc “The Act of Killing,” which continues to earn raves. Producer Quincy Jones came into town to support inspirational jazz documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On,” a portrait of his friend, jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, and his protege Justin Kauflin, who performed Sunday night. And veteran Brit filmmaker Nick Broomfield needs to find a willing distributor for LA serial killer expose “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” which couldn’t be more timely post-Ferguson. 

Open Road picked up “Rosewater” during a bidding war in April. Written and directed by talk show host Jon Stewart and starring Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal as imprisoned Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, the film is a solid drama that should garner both strong publicity and serious arthouse patrons. Stewart and his star have acquitted themselves admirably, as has Garcia Bernal, but that does not mean it’s an automatic awards contender.

Nor is Sophie Barthes’ film adaptation of “Madame Bovary,” a straight-ahead lush-looking period drama starring Mia Wasikowska, which is seeking a buyer and will need to play better in Toronto than it did in Telluride, where it fell flat.

The festival’s special sauce –provided by Luddy and curator Gary Meyer–is a blend of classic old (reassembling the team behind 1979’s “Apocalypse Now”), accessible arthouse (“The Imitation Game,” “Wild”) and modern new (“Birdman”) along with the social rubbing together of such cinephiles as novelists Geoff Dyer (“The Color of Memory”), Rachel Kushner (“The Flame Throwers”), Vendela Vida (“The Lovers”) and Cheryl Strayed (“Wild”) and directors Ken Burns and Brad Bird, who like Werner Herzog always come whether they have a film or not. Director Bennett Miller, still mourning the loss of “Capote” star Philip Seymour Hoffman, who started the long road to his best actor Oscar win at Telluride, talked Tatum and Swank into going to see “Magician,” Chuck Workman’s biographical doc on Orson Welles, packed with rare goodies. “Citizen Kane,” it turns out, is one of Swank’s favorite movies. And Oprah Winfrey turned up at the early patron’s screening for “Wild.”

But even after the festival was over, at the closing night party Luddy was licking his wounds and worrying about the future. On the horizon is the succession question. The old Telluride co-director triumvirate has morphed into a co-directorship led by programmer Luddy and producer Julie Huntsinger, who runs the festival machine with precision and finesse. Will she eventually take over The Show? Luddy and his board want to find a brilliant young programmer to nourish Telluride’s future. That will be a challenge. Luddy will be hard to replace. For the moment, Telluride is managing to ride the waves.

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