Off the Carpet: Telluride launches the season from 'Gravity' to '12 Years a Slave'

Posted by · 8:27 am · September 2nd, 2013

The Telluride Film Festival wraps up today and with that, the upcoming awards season has finally taken a little shape. We have a long way to go, of course, and no one should be calling the race from this far out, but we certainly know a few things.

Despite the weird and borderline envious sniping on Twitter from non-Telluride journos eager to have their own say on how the narrative was being shaped, “12 Years a Slave” is a knock-out contender full stop. Chiwetel Ejiofor has already been the recipient of some extreme “one-to-beat” coverage, and that may be a reach (we don’t know how the other performances in a hugely contentious Best Actor race will be received), but he’s outstanding in an emotional piece of work that elicits outright sobbing.

And it’s certainly not cheaply achieved emotion, either. Steve McQueen is further refining his filmmaking acumen, and even if I remain partial to the abstractions of “Hunger” and “Shame,” as more conventional work goes, “12 Years” is masterful stuff. Fox Searchlight was smart to bring the film here ahead of its Toronto premiere in order to make a nice splash before diving into that upcoming glut, and it’s really the only all-cylinders film they have to work with this season. They know what they’re doing and the film does plenty of its own work, so expect Academy members to take it seriously. And with an October release, it will have a long time to sit and marinate with voters, much like “Argo” last year.

The other big sneak preview of the festival was Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners,” which is an unexpectedly patient and measured studio thriller. Villeneuve has chops, there’s no question, but despite some breathy exclamations elsewhere, I remain a bit reserved on its awards prospects. At the end of the day, it doesn’t quite match the filmmaking prowess to which it has been compared (David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” for instance, which, by the way, wasn’t an Oscar movie). I think ultimately we’ll see this was “just” Villeneuve’s impressive leap onto the Hollywood stage, and at the end of the day, there’s no shame in that. However, critics in love with the film could end up pushing the issue and Warner Bros. thinks its a film to nurture through the circuit. Hugh Jackman will have trouble cracking the tight Best Actor field but Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t a huge stretch for supporting. Others think Melissa Leo is someone to consider but in my humble opinion she represents the weakest element of the film.

Jason Reitman has big shoes to fill on the awards circuit: his own. And the director’s latest, “Labor Day,” was the biggest official world premiere on the schedule. The film landed in somewhat more mixed waters than I was expecting, though women are really responding to it. If cynical takes on the film don’t hurt the film’s chances, it could find room to navigate the Best Actress (Kate Winslet) and Best Adapted Screenplay races, and perhaps Josh Brolin could hit in supporting. But, like a number of films actually, it could be a victim of a crowded, quality year. Paramount also has another pair of films that are hardly Best Picture slam dunks, so we’ll have to watch the reaction further as the film heads to Toronto next week.

The other big official drop (no pun intended) was “Gravity,” which saw its North American debut in Telluride. It was the festival’s hottest ticket, and it delivered. Alfonso Cuarón’s vision is impeccably realized and the emotion lands just right by film’s end. Like “Avatar” and “Life of Pi,” it will be the technical marvel of the season. As such, I would expect to see nominations across the board, particularly since it’s a better play on the circuit than WB’s “Prisoners” and, certainly, all the other hopefuls on the studio’s slate. Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects — with all the shots on goal this film has throughout the categories, 10 nominations are certainly reachable. Look for more excitement out of Toronto next week.

Films that first landed at Cannes and made the transition to North America three months later included J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost,” the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” and Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past.” And all found fertile ground to keep their awards hopes blooming.

Payne’s film, in particular, found new life after a different cut screened in Telluride than what audiences in Cannes saw. It’s a delicate piece of work that will absolutely resonate with Academy members and really, a Best Picture nomination isn’t out of the question. At the moment the best shots seem to be for Best Actor (Bruce Dern), Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb) and Best Original Screenplay.

Speaking of Dern, there’s a very strange desire to torpedo his chances by a media (particularly The Hollywood Reporter, which has gone to the well three times on this issue) obsessed with his category placement. Of course, it doesn’t help that he has been as forward about it as he’s been when asked the question, but he’s old school and will tell you how it is. That said, there’s nothing particularly embarrassing or even untrue about his actual quotes on the matter, and the fact is, the question itself is kind of pointless. But kudos on landing more traffic with sexy headlines.

I happen to think this is a lead performance so it’s easier for me to talk in these terms, but those arguing for supporting act as if it’s cut and dry. It’s not. “The film is Will Forte’s story” is facile, poorly considered reasoning, in my opinion, and I’m already on the record about the cynical logic of going supporting merely to chase a win. In any case, it doesn’t matter because a) voters will make that call themselves and b) the performance will register and, in all likelihood, be nominated in lead. Paramount would be smart, though, to put a pin in this for now before it becomes the story of the movie.

In the case of Chandor’s film, Robert Redford’s Telluride tribute gives him another boost into the season. Here is a nuanced, rich performance with a narrative already humming: that the actor wanted to see what he was capable of at 77. Interestingly, he and Dern, if both are nominated, could end up pulling votes from one another while someone like Ejiofor or Matthew McConaughey slips in for the win. We’ll save that kind of analysis for when it actually matters, though. But “All is Lost” also deserves notice in a number of other areas, not least of them the sound categories where a last minute change to the post-production crew yielded brilliant results at Skywalker Sound.

And finally, the Coens’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” As noted, I’m still turning this one over in my head. But Oscar Isaac’s performance is so incredible it pains me to realize it will probably fall out of contention in a Best Actor race full of heavy-hitters. I do hope I’m wrong and I wish CBS Films all the luck in the world as they are very excited about pushing this film through the circuit. The film also deserves plenty of below-the-line recognition, from its lush photography to its crisp sound mix. And if anything, the whole enterprise argues in favor of bringing back official Academy recognition for adapted soundtracks; T Bone Burnett is the hero of this film. CBS will continue to play the long game, wisely skipping Toronto and heading for New York at the end of the month. Drips and drabs will keep it bobbing on the circuit through to its early December release.

Beyond that, the documentary race could be spiked by Penn and Teller’s “Tim’s Vermeer,” though Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known” faced a bit of a muted reaction at Telluride, largely because no one wants to sit through Donald Rumsfeld’s lies and platitudes for so long; there aren’t epiphanies to be found here like there were in “The Fog of War.” Maybe more distance would have yielded that, but then, who knows how much longer Rumsfeld will even be with us? Finally, “Salinger” screens Monday at the fest ahead of its release next week. Maybe that will figure into the race as well. (And thankfully everyone is okay after a scary crash landing with the film’s crew and Weinstein publicists at the Telluride airport.)

Speaking of The Weinstein Company, Harvey picked up John Curran’s “Tracks,” but expect that to release next year and be part of his next wave of countless films thrown at the wall to see what will stick. “The Invisible Woman” from Ralph Fiennes didn’t quite launch him onto the Best Actor radar as Sony Classics might have hoped, while the foreign film race, from “Bethlehem” to “Gloria” to “The Past,” kept the coals stoked. Oh, and “The Wind Rises,” which showed up as a last minute TBA, kept chugging after a warm Venice reception. Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song is sure to place in a thinner animated film than we’ve seen in a while

Beyond that, there isn’t much left to say about how Telluride shaped the race this year, and that’s frankly plenty. A year ago the story coming out of Colorado was “Argo” and Warner Bros. kept that conversation alive throughout the circuit. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. Can “Gravity” keep its high going? Can “12 Years a Slave?” Time will tell. But from here, the rest of the fall festival circuit will continue to have its say.

The Contenders section has been updated in full but Telluride is still going. Check back for a festival wrap later today.

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