And in a flash, it’s over. The 41st Telluride Film Festival, which brought with it the debuts of a few widely-anticipated movies and a helpful uptick in buzz for a few others, has officially come to a close. The Labor Day weekend staple is unusual in its construct because organizers don’t unveil their ambitious three day program until the day before the festival begins, relying on its reputation as a filmmaker-friendly haven and as a place where eventual awards-winning films seek their stamp of approval. In fact, five of the last six eventual Best Picture Oscar winners either made their world premiere or played at Telluride. The 2014 festival may prove no different.
Recently, we speculated on what films may pop up at Telluride this year, and a handful of those titles appeared, just as we suspected. One of the widely expected titles to appear on the roster was The Imitation Game, a biopic of WWII codebreaker and computer science mastermind Alan Turing, which made its world premiere at the festival. Directed by Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), the film is one of The Weinstein Company’s awards favorites this year and was greeted warmly by critics. Recent Emmy-winner Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Turing, an English mathematician who cracked the German Enigma Code. Turing’s story took a dark turn when his homosexuality was revealed, an act deemed criminal in England at the time, despite his heroic efforts. Cumberbatch’s performance was widely praised, with Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter called it “brilliant.” It was of little surprise that The Weinstein Co. brought the film to Telluride, as in years past the distributor has found success in unveiling potential awards films at the Colorado festival. In recent years it took both eventual Oscar winners, The Artist (2011) and The King’s Speech (2010), to the festival. The Imitation Game will next play the Toronto and London film festivals ahead of its November 21st theatrical release date.
Another film that was widely presumed to premiere at Telluride was Wild, the Reese Witherspoon vehicle directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club). The Fox Searchlight drama kick-started the 2014 festival, quickly ushering in talk of potential awards consideration for Witherspoon’s lead performance (the actress previously won the Academy Award for her take on June Carter in the 2005 film Walk the Line). Adapted to the screen by novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) from the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Wild tells the story of a troubled woman who decides to hike more than a thousand miles through the Pacific Crest Trail. Laura Dern plays her mother in flashback scenes, in a performance that sparked awards talk of its own. The film may mark two in a row for Vallée, who last year scored with Dallas Buyers Club and will next see Wild play at the Toronto Film Festival. Fox Searchlight brought another title to Telluride, one with the sort of buzz that would drive any cinephile’s expectations-scale a bit crazy. That would be Birdman, Alejandro González Inárritu’s widely praised dark comedy starring Michael Keaton as a washed-up actor (and former movie superhero) who hopes to regain his creative juices with a stint on Broadway. The film had its official world premiere as the opening night selection of the ongoing Venice Film Festival, but crashed Telluride in similar fashion. Critics are raving, and the awards attention is building swiftly. Birdman opens in theaters on October 17th (similar to the date on which Fox Searchlight released last year’s Best Picture champion 12 Years a Slave, itself a Telluride success story), but not before the film plays the London and New York film festivals.
Another big premiere for Telluride was the Jon Stewart curiosity Rosewater. This was the film that The Daily Show host made during his hiatus last summer. It is a true life drama about Maziar Bahari, a Tehran-born journalist who was captured and tortured for 118 days in Iran after submitting footage of street riots to the BBC in June of 2009; Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Bahari. The film, adapted from Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival was a hot ticket in Telluride and earned respectable notices. Open Road Films will release the film later this fall in hopes of building awards interest. Another film that made a strong impression was Ramin Bahrani’s foreclosure drama 99 Homes, a bracing film starring Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield. The film made its world premiere at Venice, but hit the U.S.-based Telluride festival with a bit more buzz, due to its plot surrounding the 2008 American housing crisis. The film will next play in Toronto in the hopes of landing a U.S. distributor.
The rest of the Telluride slate consisted mostly of carryovers from the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Bennett Miller’s Foxcather with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo played the festival in hopes of regaining buzz for the awards season (Miller won the Best Director prize at Cannes this year). Tommy Lee Jones’ western The Homesman came with similar intentions (Telluride gave star Hilary Swank a special tribute), as did Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (which won Timothy Spall a Best Actor prize at Cannes). While other Cannes favorites like Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, the Marion Cotillard film Two Days, One Night from the Dardenne Brothers, and Andrey Zvgagintsev’s Leviathan all hoped to use Telluride as a platform to boost potential momentum. Curiously, Palme D’Or winner Winter Sleep skipped Telluride, but will show up at the Toronto Film Festival. The three-day festival packed a mighty wallop, while still having time to screen a remastered digital print of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic Apocalypse Now.
While the awards race is a big part of Telluride – which is because the festival hosts an abundance of Academy members and through the low-key Colorado scenery has become an industry haven as of late – this years’ festival involves a higher degree of politics than usual. Earlier this year, organizers at the Toronto Film Festival, afraid that Telluride was taking away some of their luster, decreed that no film that plays Telluride will be allowed to play the opening weekend at Toronto (the most media-saturated and desirable slots in the festival). It may not be completely clear just what effect that had on Telluride, but it may explain why this line-up – which had a number of high-profile and well-received films – also had so few legitimate surprises.