ERIC KOHN: Is it just me, or are we looking at an above average fall movie season? A year ago, we were coming out of Telluride talking about the magical realism of “The Shape of Water” and Gary Oldman’s makeup in “Darkest Hour.” This time around, we’re enamored of the lush, mysterious, and emotionally fraught atmosphere of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” and the subversive power struggle of British royalty in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite.” Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” may look like more conventional Oscar bait, but the real star of the show isn’t Ryan Gosling — it’s the extraordinary cinematic skill that transforms an iconic scientific achievement into a terrifying and intimate ride.
All three movies are as much about their environments as the people within them: The anarchic halls of a British kingdom, the experimental chatter of NASA laboratories, and a segmented Mexico City of the early ’70s aren’t new settings, but we’ve never seen them explored from such personal angles before.
This motif percolated throughout the Telluride lineup, where festival favorites like the bonkers Swedish troll romance “Border” and the Colombian drugs saga “Birds of Passage” (foreign language Oscar submissions from Sweden and Colombia, respectively) also stood out for presenting characters and situations with no cinematic precedents. These days, viewers are jaded — plugged in, overstimulated, and usually at the mercy of whatever surfaces when they boot up Netflix — and this year’s big fall titles seem to have been made under assumption that a decent, well-acted drama just doesn’t cut it anymore.
That’s not to say I didn’t find things to appreciate about Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” his snappy look at Gary Hart’s campaign downfall, an Altmanesque look at a shifting media culture that destroyed a philandering politician. Likewise, Joel Edgerton’s overlong but earnest and well-acted “Boy Erased,” with Lucas Hedges as a conflicted teen forced by his parents into gay conversion therapy, is the kind of movie you want to support for its message despite the rocky filmmaking.
In another year, these movies may have been the toast of Telluride, but we live in different times that call for movies that bring us to the world in fresh perspectives. When TV is king and Twitter feeds can kill a Friday at a cheaper rate than movie tickets, quality stuff has to go beyond the call of duty to stand out. I think we’re finally seeing the result of that climate sinking into the kind of movies being made by studios keen on dominating the scene at this time of year.
DAVID EHRLICH: There’s no doubt about it: The highlights of this year’s Telluride program were so exciting that I left the festival convinced we’re in for the most exciting fall season since the famous pre-millennial deluge of 1999, when an art house theater could’ve been playing “Magnolia,” “Election,” “The Straight Story,” and “Being John Malkovich” at the same time. TIFF hasn’t even started yet and we’re already sorting our way through a an embarrassment of riches; if major filmmakers like of Barry Jenkins and Claire Denis deliver the goods in Canada later this week, that embarrassment will be upgraded to an utter humiliation.
Courtesy of Carlos Somonte / Netflix
To some extent, this was almost inevitable. All of the summer’s premature moaning about the lack of certain films at Cannes was always going to be answered by a ridiculously strong festival circuit in the fall. Thierry Frémaux didn’t need “Roma” to program one of the strongest Competition lineups in recent memory, but its absence — a direct consequence of that whole dumb Netflix brouhaha — meant that Alfonso Cuarón’s astonishing cine-memoir could set the bar for the year’s last stretch, and did it ever.
Before Telluride began, everyone was buzzing about how people cut together the leftover scraps from Orson Welles’ unfinished final film; after opening night, everyone was buzzing about how Alfonso Cuarón brought Federico Fellini back from the dead. Which isn’t to say that “Roma” owes its feverishly monochrome and memory-driven aesthetic (or its misleading title) to a single auteur — the movie also drips with the influence of legends such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Chantal Akerman, and Lucrecia Martel, though it belongs most of all to Cuarón himself — but it often feels like watching an epic riff on the opening five minutes of “8 1/2.”
“Roma” didn’t own the conversation so much as it set the tone for a wide array of creatively adventurous work. The reason I cite 1999 as the template for this year — and not 2007, when “There Will Be Blood” squared off against “No Country for Old Men,” or 2016, when “La La Land” and “Moonlight” were the only two movies that people were talking about at Telluride — is that it almost seems like there’s something new and exciting for everyone.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” is a savagely funny take on royal court intrigue that only he could make, and David Lowery’s “Old Man & the Gun” is a shaggy, ultra-charming story of a geriatric bank robber that’s gleefully out-of-step with contemporary modes. It’s a throwback, to be sure, but there’s something very forward-thinking about Fox Searchlight’s decision to let a major young filmmaker veer so far away from the zeitgeist.
“First Man” is another fresh take on an old form, as the “La La Land” wunderkind reinvigorates the most retrograde genre of American cinema — boring white man accomplishes great thing — as a visceral, blue-collar epic that’s less about Neil Armstrong than it is the people whose shoulders he had to stand on in order to reach the moon. Ryan Gosling’s withdrawn anti-performance might be overlooked in the months to come, but the movie wouldn’t work without it. And how about that Justin Hurwitz score? Between he and Thom Yorke alone, this fall will offer as much to hear as it does to see.
And yet, for as much variety as Telluride offered this year, the slate was held together by a shared focus on freedom. From home runs like “Free Solo,” to solid doubles (“Boy Erased,” “Meeting Gorbachev”), and even the lineup’s unavoidable pop flies (“The Front Runner,” “Trial by Fire”), almost everything I saw over the past four days hinged on the desire for liberation — from class and egotism, oppression, politics, and even from the Earth itself. Mercifully few of the movies here mentioned Trump by name — not even Charles Ferguson’s four-hour Watergate documentary invoked our current President — but so many of the films were gripped by a feeling of the walls closing in on their characters. The movies have always been seen as a means of escape, but now they seem to be embracing that responsibility like never before.