Two weeks from today the Telluride Film Festival begins. It is an exciting time of the year because this festival, more than any other, heralds the arrival of the Oscar race. In the years I’ve been attending Telluride, the Best Picture winner has screened there, either premiering or part of the schedule. The last two Best Picture winners debuted there, with their directors bringing the films along to showcase, 12 Years a Slave and Argo. The Artist was the film everyone was talking about in 2011.

In 2010, The King’s Speech, this Deadline headline says it all, “TELLURIDE FEST CLOSES: Colin Firth Feted As ‘King’s Speech’ Draws Oscar Buzz. In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker did not need Telluride to launch, as it had launched from Toronto the year before to much acclaim before being shelved for the following year. But Slumdog Millionaire premiered at Telluride in 2008. That was when it all began.

Why did the Telluride Film Festival become such a pivotal player in the Oscar race? And why has it stolen Toronto’s thunder? There are several reasons. The first big reason – Oscar changed its date, moving everything back one month. That shifted the entire awards race backwards so that to win Best Picture now you really have to be a known entity by October at the absolute latest. You have to go back to 2004, right around the time of the date change (a year after) to find a film that won being released later in the year, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby.

The date change shifted focus off of the very end of the year and put it right around the beginning of the fall season. Because everything happens so fast you want your place in line early. Either bloggers will hold your place for you because they know you’re coming (we call these “sight unseen predictions”) or you will land your place at a festival, Cannes at the earliest (No Country for Old Men, The Artist) or Telluride (Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Argo, 12 Years a Slave).

The second reason is that the audience at Telluride is smaller, more selective than that at Cannes or Toronto, both of which are open to anyone who can get credentialed. Telluride you have to pay to play – around $750 for a festival pass. That means, either your outlet finds it worthwhile to send you or you are someone like me, willing to pay your own way for a chance to maybe glimpse the Oscar favorite early.

The first Oscar blogger I can remember attending the festival was Kris Tapley from InContention. He smartly began attending Telluride because it wasn’t as big as Toronto and that made it more doable. Also sites like Collider, First Showing and Slashfilm had already been attending by then so if you were a young film blogger you might happen to Telluride on your festival circuit. But Oscar blogging is different from film blogging. You’re not just there to hype movies. You’re there to hype a specific kind of movie, a movie that industry voters might like.

After Slumdog’s ascent more Oscar bloggers began paying attention to Telluride and now, everyone goes. David Poland, Anne Thompson, Jeff Wells, Pete Hammond, Scott Feinberg – the whole thing.

Telluride is one of the more pleasurable festivals. It’s beautiful, quiet, peaceful – you can walk everywhere. Pot smoke wafts through the streets. Great coffee, great beer. If I could live there all year round I would. The volunteers are friendly. The attendees are badged marrieds, singles and seniors all there for the love of film. Riding back on the gondolas with them is always the most fun.

I can’t wait for my first morning screening up at the Chuck Jones, with a hot cup of coffee in my hands. Last year, there was a live band playing outside the Coen brothers tribute for Inside Llewyn Davis. The bottom line is that — happy attendees usually make for more kind reception of the films. In other words, even the worst movies play well at Telluride – and great movies? They get a lot of bang for their buck up there in the mountains with all of those happy people.

Finally, the biggest reason is the selection committee. I can count on one hand the bad movies I’ve seen at Telluride. They pick good ones. They have good taste. If you add all of these elements up together you can see why Telluride is one of the choice spots for launching a film headed for the Oscar race.

Of course, this isn’t their intention and many bristle at the suggestion. There is always the desire to keep Telluride a best kept secret so that it isn’t mobbed and overrun. It’s expensive to stay there and near impossible to find lodging. The chances of it becoming a mob scene are slim.

The reason Toronto falls just short of Telluride is that it’s so big a small contender can get lost in the shuffle. It used to be a movie that did really well at Toronto could be launch into the Oscar race with ease. But Toronto comes later, almost too late to impact the Oscar race, believe it or not. There are so many movies playing, so many bloggers and critics and journalists covering them, it’s hard to pool the enthusiasm in one place.

However, that doesn’t mean it still can’t launch a formidable contender. Silver Linings Playbook got its boost from Toronto.

Every year is different. 2014’s story has not yet been written. We don’t know if Telluride will once again produce a Best Picture winner. The New York Film Festival has several key films headed into the race.

What we do know is that time is of the essence where these awards are concerned. The voting and choosing starts early. The grooves are worn early. Once they are set in motion it becomes harder to derail them.

Then again, films can’t be hyped too early either. A movie like the Grand Budapest Hotel came out so early it’s hard to imagine it surviving on through the end of the year. Early films can get forgotten, even if they are hyped to no end by bloggers and critics. There are many variables. Things can shift. We might see our first late-release winner this year since 2003.

Either way, we’re just about two weeks away from having a pretty good idea where this year’s Best Picture race is going.

Twitter again erupts in praise of another likely masterpiece. Two days ago we got dazzled reaction from Venice festival-goers about Gravity. Tonight, 12 Years a Slave has stunned those in attendance in Telluride.

@AwardsDaily Another powerful collaboration for McQueen and Fassbender. They make magic together. #Telluride

@MrDanZak 12 YEARS A SLAVE = Masterful rendering of intolerable cruelty Standing O for McQ, Ejiofor, Pitt, Fass & stunning Lupita Nyong’o

@csoberanis7 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a startlingly realized period drama, maybe the best movie ever about slavery

@AskDebruge: Not 1 wrong note in #12YearsASlave ensemble; Chiwetel Ejiofor and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o are all but assured Oscar noms

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40th Telluride Film Festival is proud to present the following new feature films to play in its main program, the ‘SHOW’:

· ALL IS LOST (d. J.C. Chandor, U.S., 2013)
· BEFORE THE WINTER CHILL (d. Philippe Claudel, France, 2013)
· BETHLEHEM (d. Yuval Adler, Israel, 2013)
· BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (d. Abdellatif Kechiche, France, 2013)
· BURNING BUSH (d. Agnieszka Holland, Czech Republic, 2013)
· DEATH ROW: BLAINE MILAM + ROBERT FRATTA (d. Werner Herzog, U.S., 2013)
· FIFI HOWLS FROM HAPPINESS (d. Mitra Farahani, U.S., 2013)
· THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR: SATAN CAME TO EDEN (d. Dan Geller, Dayna Goldfine, U.S., 2013)
· GLORIA (d. Sebastián Lelio, Chile, 2013)
· GRAVITY (d. Alfonso Cuarón, U.S./U.K., 2013)
· IDA (d. Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, 2013)
· INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (d. Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S., 2013)
· THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (d. Ralph Fiennes, U.K., 2013)
· LABOR DAY (d. Jason Reitman, U.S., 2013)
· THE LUNCHBOX (d. Ritesh Batra, India, 2013)
· LA MAISON DE LA RADIO (d. Nicolas Philibert, France, 2013)
· MANUSCRIPTS DON’T BURN (d. Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran, 2013)
· THE MISSING PICTURE (d. Rithy Panh, Cambodia/France, 2013)
· NEBRASKA (d. Alexander Payne, U.S., 2013)
· PALO ALTO (d. Gia Coppola, U.S., 2013)
· THE PAST (d. Asghar Farhadi, France/Italy, 2013)
· SLOW FOOD STORY (d. Stefano Sardo, Italy, 2013)
· STARRED UP (d. David Mackenzie, U.K., 2013)
· TIM’S VERMEER (d. Teller, U.S., 2013)
· TRACKS (d. John Curran, Australia, 2013)
· UNDER THE SKIN (d. Jonathan Glazer, U.K., 2013)
· THE UNKNOWN KNOWN (d. Errol Morris, U.S., 2013)

More fest news after the cut.

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This afternoon I will drive from Los Angeles to Telluride making a few stops along the way. Telluride film festival is set to announce their lineup on Wednesday, the day before the festival begins. It is officially the start of Oscar season, a race that is then shaped and reshaped by the Venice films fest, Toronto and New York. By the time those festivals all end, Best Picture should be in sight, unless we’re looking at a unique year.

For at least the past decade, the Best Picture winner has usually been spotted much earlier than it used to be, back before the Oscar race was picked and scavenged to its bones. It used to be that a film could be released in December and still manage to win Best Picture. Now it always seems like the more ambitious projects are given over to too much speculation and the reliable stand-bys win. In reality-TV they call this “flying under the radar.”
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feature telluride last day

The sun decided to come out as the Telluride Film Fest was coming to a close. “Monday’s not a real day,” Jeff Wells told me via Twitter. But I had no choice. Monday was a real day to me because I wanted to see whatever movies I could see in the time I had left. The great thing about the last day of the film fest is that the crowds have dwindled to a more tolerable level. After three days of moving my rental car from spot to spot I was able to find a great space on the last day. The problem was that somewhere along the line I’d gotten someone’s cold. I’d planned on seeing at least three movies but I ended up only seeing two.

I dragged myself out of bed to go see Frances Ha, one of the most buzzed movies of the fest. I was grumbling that I didn’t want to go see another “precious” movie, especially that early. Noah Baumbach and the impossibly cute Greta Gerwig were there to present it but they’d decided to cancel the Q&A. I bought some tea at the snack bar to help cure my ailing cold. Every theater here has an assortment of things to purchase, all over priced but the money goes to the fest so why not pay $4 for a teabag and a cup?

After the movie, as we scrambled out of our seats and bee-lined it for the bathroom I could hear some twenty-somethings enlivened by Frances Ha — it spoke to them. It WAS them, they were saying. The conversation eventually turned to HBO’s Girls. They liked that show too. The long line to pee stretched out long past the door and into the main lobby. But it was moving quickly and thank god because one way or the other it was going to get ugly.

The only thing I hadn’t done yet was go to my favorite bookstore, Between the Covers. When I got there, Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah were signing copies of her book, The Central Park Five (which ended up selling out). As I passed them Noah Baumbach passed and shook Ken Burns’ hand. I noticed he didn’t shake Sarah’s. Someday he will. I hadn’t realized the Burns’ would be signing today at Between the Cover but it isn’t unusual to see celebrities in Telluride. They are everywhere, all of the time.

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Not much is known about the Argo mission in the late ’70s to free American hostages in Iran. And what little was known up till now gave credit to Canada for their release. In fact, it’s referred to in pop-history vernacular as the Canadian Caper. If you grew up in Canada you would have felt enormous national pride that day and if you were American, you never would have known that the CIA and Hollywood had come together to create a team of invisible heroes. You also wouldn’t know that although President Carter was in charge at the time, he could never have taken credit for any involvement. Instead, he was shamed out of office for not having released the other American hostages in Iran. Had it been revealed that a fake film crew sneaked in and freed Americans being held hostage the sensational news would have likely turned Carter’s whole image around.

Someone had to tell this story. Turns out Ben Affleck is the man for the job.

Affleck’s Argo comes at a time when we could all use an injection of American pride. Pummeled by a bad economy and torn by an extremist, partisan election, things are not looking good lately. The Republicans promise us that they can undo the bad economy because Congress will magically start working again if their guy can sit in the Oval Office. They’re the real American Americans, after all. The Democrats are trying to keep the faith, to convince us to give them one more at bat to turn things around from an economy pillaged by the Wall Street collapse, sapped by extravagant tax breaks, and ravaged by 10 years of war. But Argo takes place in the vacuum of history and Affleck says he worked hard with screenwriter Chris Terrio to make sure it wasn’t partisan. There are no long preachy speeches about the glory of US-exported democracy. There are no evil Republicans to mock as reckless incompetents. It’s simply an expertly written, flawlessly directed, brilliantly acted thriller. You could leave it right there and it would succeed on those merits. Or you could go a little deeper to talk about how few smart, meaty stories like this are even made anymore. Wonder why not, and marvel that this one was.

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tell feature 3

The rain continued its moody descent upon Telluride village, ebbing and flowing at its own discretion. The festival can’t stop for the rain, nor can we whine about having no sunshine because that would be unseemly. Telluride looks the way it does because of the rain. Nonetheless, it made for a somewhat less celebratory mood. My morning started out with a trip up the gondola for an early screening of No, written and directed by Pablo Larraín about the election to unseat Chilean Augusto Pinochet in or around 1989.

You never know what kinds of conversations you’ll be having on the ride up the gondola, depending on what combination of people you end up with. I met a couple this time, on their first trip to Telluride but already so much more organized about it all than I have ever been. They knew what time was the best time to get into the long lines. They knew where the best wi-fi was and how to tether their computers to their blackberries, if the wi-fi didn’t work. They’d been going to Sundance for years but it became “too much of a zoo.” Since there had been so much buzz around Telluride in the last few years they figured they’d give this a try. I wondered what it would be like to just come here for the sheer fun of it, for the love of cinema, to hang out with someone who really liked doing film festival stuff for fun.

The large number of senior citizens who attend this festival is a hopeful harbinger of what might lie ahead for some of us. When kids aren’t at home, when there’s no more 40-hour work weeks, there are film festivals in beautiful cities all over the country. It’s a thing to do, anyway. “How are you doing,” the coffee barista at Between the Covers asked one of the elderly customers. “I wonder if I’ll remember anything later,” she said.

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Some trailers don’t need accompanying synopsis or explanation. This isn’t one of those. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about Indonesian Death Squads will screen in Toronto as well, and the TIFF site is where I found the best observations about the bizarre proceedings.

“I have not come across a documentary as powerful, surreal, and frightening in a decade,” wrote Werner Herzog after seeing an early preview of The Act of Killing, and both he and Errol Morris were impressed enough to sign on as executive producers. A chilling and revelatory exploration of the sometimes perilously thin line between film violence and real-life violence, the film investigates a murderous, oft-forgotten chapter of history in a way that is startlingly original and bound to stir debate: enlisting a group of former killers to re-enact their lives (and deaths) in the style of the film noirs, musicals and westerns that they love.

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Telluride 2012 feat

  • THE ACT OF KILLING (d. Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark, 2012)
  • AMOUR (d. Michael Haneke, Austria, 2012)
  • AT ANY PRICE (d. Ramin Bahrani, U.S., 2012)
  • THE ATTACK (d. Ziad Doueiri, Lebanon-France, 2012)
  • BARBARA (d. Christian Petzold, Germany, 2012)
  • THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE (d. Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon, U.S., 2012)
  • EVERYDAY (d. Michael Winterbottom, U.K., 2012)
  • FRANCES HA (d. Noah Baumbach, U.S., 2012)
  • THE GATEKEEPERS (d. Dror Moreh, Israel, 2012)
  • GINGER AND ROSA (d. Sally Potter, England, 2012)
  • THE HUNT (d. Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 2012)
  • HYDE PARK ON HUDSON (d. Roger Michell, U.S., 2012)
  • THE ICEMAN (d. Ariel Vromen, U.S., 2012)
  • LOVE, MARILYN (d. Liz Garbus, U.S., 2012)
  • MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN (d. Deepa Mehta, Canada-Sri Lanka, 2012)
  • NO (Pablo Larraín, Chile, 2012)
  • PARADISE: LOVE (d. Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2012)
  • PIAZZA FONTANA (d. Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2012)
  • A ROYAL AFFAIR (d. Nikolaj Arcel, Denmark, 2012)
  • RUST & BONE (d. Jacques Audiard, France, 2012)
  • THE SAPPHIRES (d. Wayne Blair, Australia, 2012)
  • STORIES WE TELL (d. Sarah Polley, Canada, 2012)
  • SUPERSTAR (d. Xavier Giannoli, France, 2012)
  • WADJDA (d. Haifaa Al-Mansour, Continue reading…

Inspired by a true story, THE SAPPHIRES follows four vivacious, young and talented Australian Aboriginal girls from a remote mission as they learn about love, friendship and war when their all girl group The Sapphires entertains the U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1968. Cynthia (Tapsell), Gail (Mailman), Julie (Mauboy) and Kay (Sebbens) are discovered by Dave (O’Dowd), a good-humored talent scout with a kind heart, very little rhythm but a great knowledge of soul music. As their manager, Dave books the sisters their first true gig giving them their first taste of stardom, and travels them to Vietnam to sing for the American troops.

The last days of Telluride were about seeing movies but they were also about connecting with people.  Some of them were movie stars.  Some of them were film critics, some were publicists, and some film bloggers.

On one morning I had the occasion to meet and talk to the great Glenn Close, staring in Albert Nobbs. A few of us were given a small window to interview her after the film screened the night before.  She was there to do a q&a about the film.  Close, now in her 50s 60s, is still a strikingly beautiful woman.   Scott Feinberg, Kris Tapley, Anne Thompson, Jeff Wells and I were all sitting around up at the Chuck Jones theater shooting the shit about the Oscars.  I bet Feinberg a cool $20 that Viola Davis was going to win in the Best Actress category, despite it being really Close’s year.  The reason for this is that I think Davis wins in any category she’s put in but I think they’ll put her in lead. If she isn’t put in that category, Close will take it.  The Oscars are always hard to predict, especially when you try to do it as early as September.

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I don’t need no lasso
I don’t need no ball and chain
I don’t need anything with you
Such a shame, shame, shame
Shame, shame, shame
Shame is the shadow of love
–PJ Harvey

Steve McQueen’s unflinching look at sexual addiction and what drives it is the subject of this startlingly moving film, which had its premier in Venice but played here in Telluride yesterday.  The film stars Michael Fassbender as a successful but isolated businessman who relies on porn, prostitutes and masturbation in place of real intimacy. He can’t get close to anyone but he can have pseudo closeness.  It’s not all that far from Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, “you don’t understand my plight.”  But in Sideways it was never really examined so closely.  In Shame, the character is running from past emotional damage; he’s doing whatever it takes to rub out whatever that was, driving him deeper into his addiction.

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Five days ago in Venice Black Swan roused audiences to their feet for a 5-minute standing ovation. A surprise screening in Telluride last night has inspired the same excitement stateside.

Eric D. Snider, Cinematical

Black Swan is a wholly engrossing, almost unbearably tense drama about a fairly mundane thing: backstage anxiety in the performing arts. Countless movies have addressed the same subject, but I feel safe in saying none have addressed it in quite this way. Aronofsky, working from a screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz, shows a knack for combining genres in a most unsettling fashion. Here you’ll find psychological thrills, body horror, sexual awakening, symbolic self-discovery, hallucinatory trickery, and the terrifying calf muscles of ballet dancers, all in one movie.

At the center of this psychological nightmare is Natalie Portman, giving the best performance of her career… She’s in nearly every frame of the movie, often dancing, often in close-up, conveying a huge range of intense and complicated emotions. No matter how suspenseful, strange, or astonishing things get, we’re right there with her, feeling every bit of Nina’s fear, confusion, excitement, and eventual liberation.

Peter Sciretta, SlashFilm

Black Swan is a brilliant mind fuck. It is one of the boldest films I’ve seen produced by a Hollywood studio in years.

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Not formal reviews on the Times movie page yet — of course, those will wait for the movies to be released — but A.O. Scott has a lot of praise for two of today’s Telluride standouts on this artsblog which give us a clear idea of his enthusiasm. He says 127 Hours made an “unannounced sneak appearance,” a festival tradition, and recaps the harrowing circumstances recreated by James Franco as hiker Aron Ralston:

You may remember the story: trapped in a narrow crevice in a deep canyon, Mr. Ralston escaped by cutting off part of his right arm, which was pinned against a rock.

His experience is disconcerting enough just to think about, and to see it recreated, in Mr. Boyle’s characteristically fast-moving, immersive style, is jarring, thrilling and weirdly funny. At a question-and-answer session after the first screening on Saturday afternoon, Mr. Boyle — director of “Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later” and of course “Slumdog Millionaire,” which snuck into Telluride two years ago — described himself as a thoroughly “urban” type with no great love for or interest in nature. And the jangly, jumpy energy he brings to a story of silence, solitude and confinement gives the film an irreverent kick that deepens and sharpens its emotional and spiritual insights.

Scott compares The Way Back to earlier Peter Weir films that have shown “a reverence for the beauties and terrors of nature,” like Picnic at Hanging Rock, “in which the topography of his native country assumes a haunting, even demonic presence.”

Compared to Mr. Boyle’s, Mr. Weir’s style is stately, almost classical, and the astonishing story he has to tell in the new movie — about a group of men who escaped from a Soviet Labor camp in 1941 and walked from Siberia to India — has an old-fashioned gravity and grandeur. There are fine performances from Ed Harris, Sioarse Ronan and Jim Sturgess as Januzs, the Polish prisoner who leads the trek toward freedom, and breathtaking images of tundra, desert forest and grassland.

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