Glenn Whipp: What the Telluride Film Festival means for Oscar predictions — and the future of movies

By Glenn Whipp

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Here's a question: When you think about the future, what do you imagine?

It's a query that a radio journalist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, asks his young interview subjects repeatedly in Mike Mills' bittersweet "C'mon C'mon," a movie that had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. A few thousand people — filmmakers, movie lovers, journalists, movie industry workers, women longing to wear cowboy hats in public — just gathered in the Colorado mountain town in close proximity to celebrate cinema and, yes, consider the future, specifically the prospects of moviegoing at a time when the art form's viability seems, at best, to be in a state of transition.

"Are we going to look back in a month and just see this time as a crazy oddity where we could all be together?" muses Benedict Cumberbatch, star of two movies playing at Telluride and the recipient of a festival tribute. We're seated in a corner booth at a restaurant off the town's main street. We've both been COVID tested within the past 24 hours. Everyone attending Telluride had to offer proof of vaccination as well as a negative COVID test. And we're looking out the window at what Cumberbatch calls a "high street of American dreams," pondering the future but also thinking about the surrounding Rocky Mountains and, as Cumberbatch mentions, Telluride's annual mushroom festival, which we just missed but would gladly return for someday to experience a different kind of rocky mountain high.

Those are the kinds of digressions that waft through your altitude-addled mind at Telluride, perhaps the most precious (in every sense of the word) rite of passage of the movie year. The festival returned this year — in its traditional Labor Day weekend slot — after the pandemic canceled it in 2020. "It's a miracle we're here," festival Executive Director Julie Huntsinger said on opening day, and few would argue the point. "Every minute from now on is gravy."

At Telluride, movies are cinema, theaters are cathedrals and you can't go five minutes without someone — probably wearing a fleece pullover from Patagonia or Columbia and a wool cowboy hat — asking if you've been drinking enough water. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Because of the elevation. There are also repeated warnings not to drink alcohol within 24 hours of arriving, curious chidings for a town boasting four dispensaries within a quarter-mile radius, places that, I can assure you, were frequented by younger festivalgoers and pretty much anyone who dropped by the A24 Films party celebrating "C'mon C'mon" and Sean Baker's "Red Rocket" Saturday night.

Telluride is one of four fall film festivals — Venice, ongoing now, and the upcoming Toronto and New York events — that spotlight, in ways both grandiose and subtle, the films and performances that will be scrutinized for the next several months leading up to the Oscars. This year's Telluride lineup featured movies ranging from the exceptional (Jane Campion's Western "The Power of the Dog," starring Cumberbatch) to the disappointing (the fussy Wes Anderson New Yorker tribute "The French Dispatch"), but no film planted the flag of an immediate Oscar front-runner.

Whatever movie wins best picture in March, we likely haven't seen it yet, particularly with intriguing titles from Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo del Toro, Steven Spielberg, Adam McKay and Ridley Scott waiting in the wings. (But it wouldn't be surprising if Campion wins her second Oscar for her grand, unsettling film.)

The lead acting races may not be settled either, but a couple of popular choices emerged from Telluride in movies that couldn't be more different. Will Smith's turn as Richard Williams, the demanding tennis dad to budding superstars Venus and Serena Williams in "King Richard," drew raves in the film's Telluride premiere. It's a crowd-pleaser grounded in the love of a family bonded by aspiration. Smith belongs to a dying breed — the movie star — and the outsize role of Williams provides a nice fit for his own larger-than-life persona. Two decades after "Ali," Smith might have found the part to finally earn him an Oscar.

"Spencer," Pablo Larrain's speculative "fable from a true tragedy" look at Princess Diana's decision to break the shackles of her royal-family imprisonment (with the help of the ghost of Anne Boleyn), arrived at Telluride from Venice on Saturday, fresh off rapturous reviews and a burning curiosity about Kristen Stewart's casting in the lead role. More than 100 people were turned away from the film's first screening, the scramble for seats inside the Galaxy Theater testing even those who had properly hydrated beforehand.

Stewart has never received an Oscar nomination, mostly because not enough academy members bothered to watch the two movies she made with French director Olivier Assayas, "Personal Shopper" and "Clouds of Sils Maria." But she's guaranteed one for "Spencer" because (a) she's playing a royal, (b) not just any royal, but Princess Diana, and (c) she gives a gutsy performance, an alienated rebel spiraling through self-harm and overexposure to corgis. And her scenes with the young actors playing Diana's sons are pure magic.

The festival's patron pass holders are an older, affluent bunch, flush with enough cash to spend $4,900 for a few days of movies and access to a tony brunch whose menu is supervised by farm-to-table prophet Alice Waters. They like movies (sorry, cinema) but their tastes aren't always adventurous. So while most everyone agreed afterward that Stewart made for a fine, tragic Diana (if you're inclined to shed tears for anyone in the royal family), "Spencer" itself was greeted with less enthusiasm. Same for the rollicking "Red Rocket," which stars Simon Rex as a smooth-talking, washed-up porn star returning home to Gulf Coast Texas and bringing trouble with him. A Rex best actor Oscar campaign would make the awards season infinitely more entertaining.

The movie that landed with this group was Kenneth Branagh's nostalgic memory piece "Belfast," the sweetest movie about the Troubles ever made. It's the kind of film that used to be irresistible to the old academy — and still might be.

No movie screened more often at Telluride than "Belfast," with Branagh and star Jamie Dornan making the rounds, expressing gratitude about the ability to show the movie in theaters packed to capacity. "It's restorative," Branagh told me Sunday, expressing the hope that Telluride's success indicates we're "inching toward a new normal." Other filmmakers repeated the sentiment, Campion reveling in the festival's "low-stress, high-appreciation" atmosphere and Mills "tripping out" over seeing so many people.

"My wife put out a film last year and didn't get to have this experience," Mills said at the A24 party, referring to Miranda July's 2020 movie "Kajillionaire." "Being here is like water at the end of the desert. It makes you cry. It's what you're desperate for. Films rely on an audience."

But looking at the future, will that audience be there for these movies once they leave the cathedrals of Telluride?

"I hope so, but I don't know," said Sony Picture Classics co-President Michael Barker at the patrons brunch. "You look around this setting and you're tempted to say, 'Nothing beats this.' But you know what would? A multiplex full of people."

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