Here’s what we’ve learned after one day at the Telluride Film Festival, which draws folks from all over the world to indulge in a Labor Day Weekend ritual of film gorging. Before boarding the Delta charter plane from LAX to Montrose, Colorado, the new Academy president, cinematographer John Bailey, admitted he hasn’t seen Telluride co-director Tom Luddy, or director Paul Schrader, since Schrader’s 1985 film “Mishima.” Schrader’s rigorously elegant “First Reformed,” starring Ethan Hawke in his update of Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest,” is looking for a buyer, and distributors are eager to check it out here.
At the high-altitude opening day patron’s brunch, Rebecca Miller cheered on her “Maggie’s Plan” star Greta Gerwig, who is making her directorial debut with “Lady Bird.” Miller is at Telluride with a documentary about her father, playwright Arthur Miller.
After the brunch, so many people went down the hill to see Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotten Club Encore,” his longer version of his 1984 Harlem musical starring Gregory Hines and Richard Gere, that they were turned away. Others will check out another hot title, “Hostiles” from director Scott Cooper and starring Telluride tributee Christian Bale.
1. As predicted, Gary Oldman is superb as war-torn Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Working Title’s latest Oscar contender, “Darkest Hour,” and is the one to beat for Best Actor. It’s his time, after only one nomination (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), along with Supporting Actors Ben Mendelsohn as his King and Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife. This is a Best Picture contender and will score with the crafts as well.
Director Joe Wright has never been nominated — even though “Atonement” earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and won Best Score for Dario Marinelli, who also will be nominated for this one. So will Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”). All of Wright’s skills with exquisite tracking shots and visual atmosphere are on display as he builds tension.
2. Annette Bening is moving and sexy as aging actress Gloria Grahame in Paul McGuigan’s uneven “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (Sony Pictures Classics) which starts out strong with the attraction between young actor Peter Turner and the fading Hollywood star, but weakens as their romance deteriorates. James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli has been pushing this story into existence with 1981 memoir writer Turner for over 20 years.
3. “Downsizing” played better in Venice than in Telluride. Some people love this urbane, sophisticated global dramedy which has much on its mind. Others, not so much. Matt Damon plays sad-sack occupational therapist Paul Safranak (in a role originally intended for Paul Giamatti), who convinces his wife (Kristen Wiig) to get 5 inches tall and move to Leisureland, where they can live large and save the planet at the same time.
Payne is threading a tricky needle — weaving together a romantic comedy with heart with an earnest eco-message — and works hard to find a satisfactory resolution. “Downsizing” is reaching for the high bar set by Oscar-nominated “Election,” “The Descendants,” “Sideways,” and “Nebraska.”
Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor (who dreamed up this “getting small” idea with his brother Doug) are Oscar perennials. They were nominated for writing “Election” and producing Best Picture nominee “The Descendants” (with Jim Burke); Payne has won twice, for writing “Sideways” with Taylor and “The Descendants” with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Payne was also nominated for directing “The Descendants” and “Nebraska.”
All of these movies were accessible, relatable, hilarious hits that struck a nerve with the public. Post-Houston, “Downsizing” may also hit audience concerns about global warming and eco-sustainability. Nebraska-born Payne has often crossed over between the arthouse and the mainstream, and in today’s challenged marketplace, Paramount will need to figure out how to do that when the film opens at the holiday box office December 22.
So what’s my best Oscar guess? Screenplay — Payne’s sweet spot — and maybe some attention for Hong Chau, who plays Gong Jiang, a remarkable 5-inch dissident woman who befriends Paul, carries the movie’s emotion, and could be a Supporting Actress contender.
Yes it’s true: I saw Amazon’s Ted Hope talking to Netflix’s Ted Sarandos at the “Darkest Hour” screening.