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From ‘First Man’ to ‘Roma,’ Oscar season comes into focus at Telluride Film Festival

Lukas Haas, Ryan Gosling and Corey Stoll in the film “First Man.” (Daniel McFadden / Daniel McFadden)
Lukas Haas, Ryan Gosling and Corey Stoll in the film “First Man.” (Daniel McFadden / Daniel McFadden)

TELLURIDE, Colo. – The Telluride Film Festival, which concluded Monday, proudly sets itself apart from bigger and flashier festivals. There is no backroom deal-making or juries doling out prizes at the scenic Rocky Mountain gathering, where Hollywood directors and stars mingle with local hikers and their dogs, and the unofficial dress code of jeans and untucked shirts is as far from the glamour of Cannes as you can get.

“We know what we want to remain, and where things don’t jibe with our ethos and culture, it’s pretty easy to keep them out,” said the festival’s executive director, Julie Huntsinger. “I feel like we’re still in a sweet spot.”

For all its efforts to stay true to pure, unadulterated movie love, though, Telluride – which has played host to eight of the last nine best picture winners – can’t deny its increasingly critical position on the awards-season calendar. As the 44th edition of the fest unfolded over Labor Day weekend, all eyes were on the 33 movies in the festival’s main program to see which might get an early boost in the pursuit of Oscar glory.

Two of this Oscar season’s most anticipated films – Damien Chazelle’s sweeping Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” and Alfonso Cuaron’s poetic, deeply personal period family drama “Roma” – screened simultaneously on the festival’s opening night, a prime slot that in the past two years propelled “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird” to acclaim. And, following their strong receptions at the Venice Film Festival, both films were embraced by the Telluride crowd.

“This film is autobiographical, in the sense that 90 percent of the scenes come out of my memory,” Cuaron told the audience of the black-and-white, Spanish-language “Roma,” which many are predicting could land Netflix its first spot in the best picture race after it hits theaters and the streaming service in December. “We shot in the places where these scenes took place.”

In a sign of the streamer’s increasing push into this year’s awards race, top Netflix executives Reed Hastings, Ted Sarandos and Scott Stuber were all on hand to support “Roma” and the company’s other films at the festival, including Orson Welles’ never-released final film, “The Other Side of the Wind” and a companion Welles documentary, “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.”

Speaking to The Times the day after “First Man” screened, Chazelle – marking his return to Telluride after his 2016 musical “La La Land” played here – said the film, which Universal opens Oct. 12, attempts to explore the less-well-known aspects of the historic Apollo 11 moon mission and the sacrifices and tragedies that Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) underwent along the way.

“We’re trying to puncture the myth that this was a fun adventure,” said Chazelle, who found himself navigating a controversy that flared up during the festival over his decision not to include a scene of Armstrong planting an American flag on the moon.

“I mean, certainly it was an adventure, but to kind of treat it as fun and games sort of does a disservice to the people who put themselves on the line.”

While “Roma” and “First Man” sucked up a lot of the oxygen – something already in short supply at 8,750 feet above sea level – a number of other movies also got a leg up as awards season cranks into gear.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ bizarro, profane period dramedy “The Favourite,” which centers on a power struggle between scheming cousins in the 18th century court of Queen Anne, built on its enthusiastic reception at the Venice Film Festival, with many predicting that the film’s three stars – Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz – as well as the film itself could become serious awards contenders for Fox Searchlight (which released the reigning best picture champ, “The Shape of Water”).

Stone, who was honored by the festival with a Silver Medallion Award along with Cuaron and Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, said she relished the chance to play a character who is utterly conniving and devious. “I did still have to think about being likable because she has to use her charm,” she told The Times. “But all the other facets to her were wonderful.”

The lighthearted crime dramedy “The Old Man & the Gun” – a real-life story of a gang of elderly bank robbers – also received a warm reception. Robert Redford, who has announced that this will be the final film of his seven-decade acting career, received a standing ovation when he arrived at the first screening.

“I think I’ve been doing this since I was 21, and I have put my soul into it, and I said to myself, ‘That’s enough. Why don’t you quit while you are a little bit ahead?’” the 82-year-old Redford told the audience. “I couldn’t think of a better project to go out on than this film.” (At the same time, he left the door open a crack, saying, “Never say ‘never.’ ”)

Other performances also received strong buzz coming out of the festival. Melissa McCarthy drew praise for her turn toward the dramatic as an author turned literary forger in director Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Hugh Jackman was roundly declared a contender in this year’s lead actor race for his performance as scandal-plagued 1988 presidential candidate Gary Hart in Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner” – one of several films with timely political overtones at this year’s festival, including the abortion documentary “Reversing Roe” and Charles Ferguson’s four-hour doc “Watergate.”

Nicole Kidman’s transformative turn as a detective in director Karyn Kusama’s gritty crime drama “Destroyer” led many to predict that the actress, who won the lead actress Academy Award in 2003 for “The Hours,” could land her fifth Oscar nomination for her work in the film.

Kidman also earned kudos, along with costars Lucas Hedges and Russell Crowe, for the emotionally wrenching gay-conversion-therapy drama “Boy Erased,” which drew generally positive reviews in its first festival outing.

As attention shifts away from Telluride and toward the splashier Toronto Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday, “Boy Erased” writer-director and costar Joel Edgerton said that he, for one, is trying to tune out the noise of who’s up and who’s down in the early stages of the Oscar derby.

“I’ve had that experience before as an actor where people lean in and whisper to you, ‘This is your year, pal,’ ” Edgerton told The Times. “You start to buy a ticket to your own myth party, and then you feel dirty at the end of the year. I kept saying to people, ‘Let’s just make a movie that’s as good as we can make it, and if that happens, cool. But let’s not start patting ourselves on the back just yet.’ ”


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