The Telluride Film Festival has launched many Oscar Best Picture winners, from “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire” to “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight.” Oscar campaigners bring their films here to build critical reaction and positive buzz, often amplifying awareness at subsequent festivals in Toronto, New York, and London. Last year, “Tár” and “Women Talking” made it to Best Picture nominations.
This year, the film most likely to wind up in the Best Picture race is Yorgos Lanthimos’ surreal fantasy “Poor Things” (Searchlight), which premiered in Venice to rave reviews (Metascore 94) and moved on to wow Telluride crowds. No other film was as discussed and debated and admired, not only for its stunning heightened style and design but also for the brilliant comedic performances by “La La Land” Oscar-winner Emma Stone as the reanimated Bella, figuring out how to function with her newborn baby’s brain in her skull, and three-time Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo as her buffoonish Lothario lover, who shows her the ways of sex and society.
We see the world through Bella’s eyes, as she grows and matures and unabashedly learns how to use her body for profit. Willem Dafoe is unaccountably moving as her Dr. Frankenstein “God,” who was used for horrific scientific experiments by his own father. Lanthimos will wind up in the Adapted Screenplay race with Tony McNamara (“The Favourite”), adapting the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, as well as Director, and multiple craft nominations will accrue, including Production and Costume Design as well as Cinematography and Editing.
Is the movie too sexy for staid Academy voters? Maybe, but the Academy is not what it used to be. Its tastes are more sophisticated and diverse, as proven by Oscar voters’ embrace of such boundary-busting flicks as “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Promising Young Woman.”
Building on its Grand Prix-winning premiere at Cannes, Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” (A24) continued to amaze and upset viewers with its brilliant take of German family life under the smoky shadow of Auschwitz. The UK may submit it for Best International Feature, it could wind up in the race for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay (from the Martin Amis novel), and Best Actress Sandra Hüller, among many craft considerations. And the German actress also could be in contention for Palme d’Or winner “Anatomy of a Fall” (Neon), playing a professional German woman who is accused of pushing her French husband out a window to his death. Because the film is in French and English, it’s unclear whether France will submit it for Best International Feature.
Another German actress, the lauded Leonie Benesch, who stars in German Oscar entry “The Teacher’s Lounge” (Sony Pictures Classics) is a long shot Best Actress contender as well. She plays a beleaguered high school teacher trying to do the right thing. She attended Telluride, but because an AMPTP signatory is releasing the film, she can’t do interviews.
Also building buzz in Telluride: British director Andrew Haigh’s “All of Us Strangers” (Searchlight), a haunting ghost story adapted from a 1987 Taichi Yamada novel. Haigh moves the setting from Tokyo to England and crafts the tale of a man (Andrew Scott) who somehow meets his young parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) at the age they were before they died. At the same time, he embarks on a passionate affair with a neighbor (Paul Mescal). All four actors are superb, especially Scott, who has never taken on such a rich leading role. At a Q&A, Haigh said it was important to cast a gay actor as his lead. From reverting to childhood in the scenes with his parents, to revealing the romantic yearnings of a lonely, wounded man, Scott is heartbreaking in the best role of his career.
Focus’s Oscar contender, Alexander Payne’s heartwarming Christmas tale “The Holdovers,” could yield Oscar nods for once-nominated Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”), who was overlooked for Payne’s “Sideways,” and Supporting Actress Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who was overlooked for “Dolemite is My Name.” Payne is a perennial directing nominee, and has won twice for Adapted Screenplay for “The Descendants” and “Sideways,” though “The Holdovers” comes from an original screenplay by David Hemingson.
Also in the running for a Best Actor nomination is George C. Wolfe’s Civil Rights era biopic “Rustin” (Netflix), starring Colman Domingo in the title role; a Best Actor nomination could be in the cards. The crowdpleaser was embraced by Telluride audiences. Neon will push its “Perfect Days” Cannes Best Actor winner Koji Yakusho for his tender portrait of a toilet cleaner in Tokyo who finds joy in his simple life. The Wim Wenders film was submitted by Japan for Best International Feature Film.
Netflix’s other Telluride Oscar candidate is “Nyad,” the inspirational true story of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad (four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening) and her best friend and coach (Oscar-winner Jodie Foster). Directed with energy by documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, making their narrative feature debut, the well-reviewed story of an athlete overcoming insurmountable odds faces controversy over Nyad’s true legacy. What matters in the Oscar race is Academy reaction to the movie. The long-overdue Bening is a shoo-in for not only her gutsy performance but her athletic training (she’s still swimming) and acting under prosthetic makeup.
Actors will also love Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders” (20th Century Studios), a vivid portrait of ’60s biker culture in Chicago led by Oscar nominees Tom Hardy (“The Revenant”) and Austin Butler (“Elvis”), and rising star Jodie Comer, who just won the Tony for “Prima Facie.”
Oscar nominee Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” follow-up, “Saltburn” (Amazon/MGM), a racy and entertaining send-up of British aristocracy, turned away overflow audiences at Telluride and kicked up debate over its quality (Metascore: 60). Depending on how it fares at the box office, the comedy could deliver nominations for one-time nominee Best Actor Barry Keough (“The Banshees of Inisherin”) and Supporting Actress Rosamund Pike, who was nominated for “Gone Girl.”
Also playing well at Telluride are potential International Oscar contenders “The Promised Land” (Magnolia)” from Oscar-nominated “The Royal Affair” director Nicolaj Arcel, who 11 years later reteams with Mads Mikkelsen. He delivers yet another miracle of expressive minimalism as a veteran soldier-turned-pioneer farmer tries to conquer the Danish heath. The film was shortlisted by Denmark, which will choose from three titles on September 26.
“The Taste of Things” (IFC), from Vietnamese-French filmmaker Anh Hung Tran, director of Oscar-nominated “The Scent of Green Papaya,” features a transcendent performance by Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche (“The English Patient”) and could wind up France’s selection. TIFF sales title “The Monk and the Gun,” Pawo Choyning Dorji’s compelling follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Bhutan entry “Lunana: The Yak in the Classroom,” about a mountain village facing its first elections, could be selected by Bhutan.
In the running for Best Documentary contention is Errol Morris’ John le Carré portrait “The Pigeon Tunnel” (AppleTV+), along with Sundance entry “Beyond Utopia” (Fathom Events/Roadside Attractions).
Whether or not these titles wind up in the Oscar race, Telluride executive director’s Julie Huntsinger’s first solo program was an undeniable success.