TELLURIDE, Colo. – The Telluride Film Festival prides itself on being unlike bigger, glitzier festivals. The atmosphere is decidedly low-key and intimate, with neither the deal-making frenzy of Sundance nor the black-tie glamour of Cannes. There are no red carpets, no juries doling out awards. Most of the venues aren't even actual movie theaters — one is a school gym, another is an ice-skating rink and yet another is the town's Masonic Hall.
"You think it's a festival and it's going to just feel like a festival, but it doesn't," said Angelina Jolie, who attended the Rocky Mountain festival over Labor Day weekend for the first time to screen her latest directorial effort, the Cambodian genocide drama "First They Killed My Father." "It's a lot of nice people, and you get the chance to really talk and have some amazing conversations. I geeked out on Ken Burns."
That said, Telluride isn't only about filmmakers and stars convivially communing in jeans and untucked shirts — although there is plenty of that. In recent years, the festival has taken on an increasingly important role in the awards-season ecosystem, having hosted seven of the past eight best picture winners.
So as the 44th edition of the fest unfolded, Oscar prognosticators had their antennae finely tuned to pick up reverberations of buzz. And in what was widely seen as a strong crop of films, several got an early leg up on the long climb to potential Oscar glory.
Screening in the same opening-night slot in which "Moonlight" played last year, actress Greta Gerwig's directorial debut, the coming-of-age dramedy "Lady Bird," made a major splash. The audience warmly cheered the film about a rebellious high school senior (Saoirse Ronan) who yearns to escape her hometown and her stormy relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf).
"It was intimidating to be in the same slot that 'Moonlight' was in," Gerwig said the next morning. But, she added, "I didn't feel as if I had to pass the 'Moonlight' bar. So in a way it was just an honor. I just felt like it was very warm and kind."
Director Guillermo del Toro's surreal adult fairy tale "The Shape of Water" — the story of a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) who falls in love with an aquatic humanoid creature in a secret government laboratory — built upon the wave of rave reviews it earned after premiering at the Venice Film Festival.
While films with fantasy elements sometimes have a difficult time being taken seriously by critics and Oscar voters, Del Toro brushed aside any concern about being placed in a box. "That would be important if I cared — but I don't," the director said bluntly. "Look, I've been doing this for 25 years. If I thought it was not the route to go, I would have changed."
Films dealing head-on with real-life conflict also resonated with festivalgoers. In addition to Jolie's film, director Joe Wright's World War II drama "Darkest Hour," which chronicles Winston Churchill's attempt to unite Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany in 1940, also earned its share of acclaim. Nearly unrecognizable beneath makeup and prosthetics, Gary Oldman humanizes Churchill as a sometimes erratic and overly emotional but brilliant leader in a performance that is sure to put him in the heart of the lead actor conversation.
The festival's documentaries confronted weighty and contentious issues, including "Eating Animals," an investigation into the ills of factory farming produced by Natalie Portman, and Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei's "Human Flow," an epic, nearly three-hour look at the global refugee crisis.
On a somewhat lighter note, "Battle of the Sexes" — about the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) that turned King into a feminist icon — received a warm reception — as did King, who attended the screening.
Director Scott Cooper's brutal western "Hostiles" drew a number of glowing reviews, with many singling out the performance of Christian Bale as an Army captain who reluctantly agrees to escort an ailing, elderly American Indian to his tribal home.