Telluride Film Festival: Winners and losers

The Telluride Film Festival has long maintained its image as a film lover’s haven, tucked away in a remote Colorado Box Canyon, free from the cares of the world.

Unfortunately, this year not even the rugged San Juan Mountains that encircle the picturesque town could fully contain the existential angst that plagues Hollywood.

As excited as ever, attendees at the 49th edition of the festival lined up for a first look at some of this year’s most anticipated Oscar hopes – including Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking”, Todd Field’s “Tár” and Alejandro G. Inarritus “Bardo”. – Aware of the growing importance of Telluride as a launchpad for awards, having hosted eight of the last 10 Best Picture winners.

But longtime Telluride attendees noted that sentiment this year seemed a little more subdued than usual. Fewer A-listers were seen lounging about town in jeans and flannel casually (stars like Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh were in Venice but not Telluride, while Oscar winner Olivia Colman was zoomed into her premiere). The parties were a little less lively. “I feel like nothing really popped,” noted one publicist late in the festival, which took place over Labor Day weekend.

In part, that may have been due to the overall seriousness of this year’s programming, which ditched less flamboyant, star-driven crowd pleasers in favor of smaller, weightier films, some of which dealt with thorny issues of gender, race, power, artistic angst and abuse.

However, zooming out further, there was no way to ignore the steep challenges faced by the very kind of ambitious, adult-oriented films Telluride is celebrating as audiences continue to move away from theaters and the industry struggles to to recover from the disruptions of the pandemic.

“The movie business is f—,” director James Gray — who attended the well-received North American premiere of his coming-of-age autobiographical drama Armageddon Time — bluntly lamented during a brunch on the festival’s opening day, telling audiences that the audience was attending accustomed to a steady diet of “junk food” seemed to lose his taste for more nuanced fare.

During a Q&A following the world premiere of his new film, Empire of Light — an interracial romance set in 1980s England with Colman that also doubles as a love letter to movies — the Oscar-winner remarked Sam Mendes (“1917”) said the film was born out of his pandemic-fuelled fear that the cinema he had known and loved all his life was on its last legs.

“There was a time before vaccination when we thought, ‘It’s all gone. It’s gone. We will never get into this situation again. We’ll never be left in the dark with people again,'” Mendes said.

Despite this far from rosy mood, there were plenty of signs that the art form is still very much alive and active despite the rumors surrounding her death.

“Women Talking,” a provocative ensemble drama about a group of Mennonite peasant women who band together to stand up to their tormentors, drew a hugely enthusiastic response from the Telluride crowd, as did “Tár,” a searing character study starring Cate Blanchett stars as a brilliant but flawed orchestral conductor.

Both Polley and Blanchett received special honors and were awarded the festival’s silver medallion. And the impeccable craftsmanship, keen intelligence and good acting in each film spoke for itself. “There’s not much to say about this film,” Field said, introducing a jam-packed screening of “Tár.” “So I won’t.”

While both films are sure to resonate with award voters and critics, it remains to be seen how such austere, challenging, and uncompromising fare will combine with mainstream audiences.

Other films drew more mixed reactions. While Oscar forecasters predicted that “Empire of Light” would earn Colman her fourth acting nomination and many in the Telluride crowd gave the film a warm welcome, some critics, including The Times’ Justin Chang, were less positive about the film.

While The Wonder was lauded for Pugh’s performance as a nurse in 19th-century Ireland when he uncovered the secret of a girl who seems miraculously able to survive without food, the film itself encountered one generally muted response.

One of the most anticipated films heading into this year’s awards season – Iñárritu’s wildly ambitious if clunky title Bardo, False Chronicle of a Fistful of Truths – landed with a thud after its poorly received premiere at the start of the Venice Film Festival.

The prospect of the Oscar-winning filmmaker returning to his Mexican roots to make his most personal film raised high hopes, and Netflix wanted to follow the same script that earned Alfonso Cuáron’s Roma a Best Picture nomination would have.

But the opening screening of “Bardo” was only two-thirds full, and more than a few viewers left Iñárritu’s nearly three-hour film, which many critics saw as a smug monument to the director’s ego.

Speaking to The Times, Iñárritu – who won back-to-back directorial Oscars for ‘Birdman’ and ‘The Revenant’ – has staunchly resisted criticism of the film, a surrealist journey through the memories, dreams and existential angst of a celebrated Mexican journalist and filmmaker .

“Every artist has the right to express himself as he pleases without being accused of self-indulgence,” Iñárritu said. “I hope someone can dismiss this narrative which is very reductive and a little bit racist I have to say.”

Alternately tender and terrifying, director Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, starring Chalamet and Taylor Russell as cannibal lovers on the run, received applause from Telluride audiences. However, the film’s shocking, gory moments proved too much for some contestants, prompting a handful of viewers to head for the exits and raising questions about just how broadly devoted audiences were to an artful, often melancholic, doomsday horror film young people will be. Esser, even with a star like Chalamet on board. (A patron came up to Guadagnino during the festival and told him he fainted briefly from shock during the film, but he absolutely loved it.)

This year’s Telluride also featured a wealth of strong documentaries including Sr., a portrait of the late filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. and his relationship with his movie star son; Icarus: The Aftermath, a sequel to the Oscar-winning documentary about Russia’s doping scandal; and new work by filmmakers Werner Herzog (“Theater of Thought”), Ondi Timoner (“Last Flight Home”) and Anton Corbijn (“Squaring the Circle”).

Of course, it would be unwise to interpret too much into the mood of a single film festival – and competing festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York promise to breathe further life into this year’s awards season, with highly anticipated films such as Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Maria Schrader’s She Said, Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, and Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale.

Meanwhile, Telluride is already looking ahead to next year, when it will celebrate its 50th anniversary with an extra day and fanfare.

Speaking to The Times ahead of the weekend, festival director Julie Huntsinger expressed her unwavering confidence not only in the future of Telluride but also in the films themselves.

“I’m really trying to operate in my own little vacuum,” she said. “As long as we show what we think is the absolute best – and we talk about it and we celebrate it – we’re good.” Telluride Film Festival: Winners and losers

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