They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?: Telluride Day Two
By J. Don Birnam
September 4, 2016

Sure, she is.

Twenty-four hours, several screenings, and little sleep later, the Telluride Film Festival heads into the home stretch with some early favorite and potential Oscar contenders, as awards season picks up steam heading into Toronto.

The biggest revelation, for me, has been Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. A year after wowing critics with Sicario, the director of Prisoners has showcased his best work yet. La La Land may very well be the early Oscar favorite, but it is Arrival that I think people will remember down the line. I will try not to overhype either of these movies - that nasty, dirty word of the Oscar race - so as to preserve them for you, but they’re both good.

The Buzz Around Town

The only late-breaking buzz of the festival was the small indie comedy Lost in Paris, a Charlie Chaplin screwball comedy featuring Emanuelle Riva in a supporting role. The word around town spread like a disease - I spotted a screening last night with about 30 people out of 650 seats. This morning’s, which I just attended, was sold out and left people outside. It’s a pretty fun movie that will hit theaters in 2017, and that will please fans of slapstick, Keaton-style comedy.

The real buzz for me, though, has been how the festival continues to live up to its reputation of a who’s who, elbow-knocking affair. I had the opportunity to attend tributes to Amy Adams and to listen to Emma Stone talk about making it in Hollywood - and her fears of not doing so. More amusing, however, was to watch Stone and Rooney Mara walk out of the Arrival screening this morning with the rest of the crowd. The screening was a tribute to their friend Amy Adams, but clearly the two were also checking out the competition. All three are generating Best Actress talk.

Another “Telluride” moment came last night, when I asked for a lighter from a stranger on the sidewalk - he informed me that it was his friend Pablo who had the lighter. The guy in question was Pablo Larrain, the director of Oscar-nominated No, who has Neruda at this festival and Jackie in Toronto. The Chilean was with Gael Garcia Bernal, a frequent collaborator of Y Tu Mama Tambien. We all smoked a cigarette while they had a glass of wine.

In other buzz, Tom Hanks and Laura Linney had a seminar in town today. I missed it to see Arrival, but it garnered large crowds. The question on everyone’s mind now is whether there will be any surprise addition to the last lineup tomorrow. We will soon find out.

Initial Reactions to Screenings
So, I promised a reaction to La La Land first. It’s a very good movie. Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) is very talented, particularly at using sound. His ode to old musicals from Liza Minnelli’s films to Singing in the Rain and even West Side Story is well taken by this uber-nostalgic, musical lover. Emma Stone is the strongest piece (Ryan Gosling falls a bit into his usual surly, hipster irony tendencies), and Mandy Moore’s choreography is fantastic, particularly in the amusing opening sequence.

The film is trying to achieve a lot - it’s an epopee to Los Angeles, to the film industry, and to the past. Those are three of the Academy’s favorite things, so to say the movie is a clear favorite may be underselling it. The movie is a crowd-pleaser, it has a great heart, and is executed nearly flawlessly. Nothing will beat it for the Golden Globe, and it should reach double-digit nominations.

What kept me from thinking it an A+ movie is that the film seems to be unaware of itself, or to be made simply to justify its own existence in some strange paroxysm of creativity. The characters constantly complain about how the crafts they like are dying in their original form, particularly Gosling’s jazz-loving dude. There is an internal struggle to stay true to their convictions or to adapt to survive. Chazelle unapologetically choses the latter, and I’m sure that was no coincidence. It’s the message that took Birdman to the pinnacle, after all.

But is that realistic? Is that the truth of the future of film? As sad as I am to admit it, I doubt it. I’m nostalgic as the next of you - trust me that the closing minutes of La La Land had me in stiches, crying and heartbroken - but I also love film too much to want to see it disappear because of stubborn resistance to adaptation. The movie, in a sense, does not help its own case.

Contrast it, then, to Arrival, the new Amy Adams movie about a linguist tapped by the government to try to communicate with the new species that has come to the planet on 12 different spaceships. Adams knocks it out of the park as the introspective, pensive, and conflicted doctor. Villeneuve showcases his creative mettle, with beautiful use of light and sound, aided tremendously by the great soundtrack of Johan Johansson (who also scored Sicario for Villeneuve, as well as The Theory of Everything two years back).

It is hard to describe the thrust of the story, though, without spoiling it, and that would be criminal. Suffice it to say that the movie is much more than another alien story. It has pieces of Inception and Interstellar, by the way, which to me are the hallmarks of greatness. It urges you to grapple with difficult questions of destiny and death, hope and life, and the decisions we make to get us there. It is about what makes us human and the choices we make.

Like successful science fiction movies, it is not overwrought even though it has its “out-there” scene or two, and you obviously have to suspend your disbelief when it comes to the crux of the plot twists and the explanations. If you allow yourself to be immersed, you won’t be disappointed.

Can it do well at the Oscars? Absolutely. I think it has sufficient star wattage and critical respect already that that alone almost guarantees it a spot. A win, however, is another matter entirely. After all, whenever you’ve pitted a science fiction movie against a musical, a movie about or for the future against a movie about the past, there has never been any doubt as to the outcome of the Oscar race. Still, this could be Adams’ year.

Still to come

The festival winds downs tomorrow. There are a lot of movies I have not seen and probably will not get a chance to see. I was particularly bad at checking out the docs, but I’m hoping TIFF saves me. Still, I’ll try to catch Wakefield, Neruda, and maybe even Maudie.

Of course, Telluride’s legendary closing day picnic is tomorrow, as people say goodbye. It is a melancholy moment, but there is no rest for the weary, as many of the people here (myself included) are packing up and making the trek to the Great White North, where the Toronto festival begins Thursday.

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