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David Poland

By David Poland

25 Weeks To Oscar: What Happened In Telluride

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Twenty-nine new films premiered (or close to it) at Telluride. About half figure in the award season.

The two clear winners – at a festival without a competition – were Lady Bird (which gets first billing as the less-expected smash) and Darkest Hour, a movie highly anticipated for the performance of Gary Oldman… and then overdelivered.

Expect Best Picture nominations for both. From there, it gets complicated.

Hostiles, a stark, thoughtful western from Scott Cooper, has no distributor and would be hard-pressed to get on an Oscar tear with such a short window and with star Christian Bale on another film, Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney movie, shooting and then racing to be ready, potentially, for a December qualifying Oscar run. Hostiles isn’t getting picked up by a major, so the investment in an instant Oscar run is also a problem. The gigantic balls move would be for producer John Lesher and his/Cooper’s billionaire investor to four-wall the movie and to campaign Bale – who is sensational – as bait to sell the movie after a nomination. Did I mention that the balls would have to be humongous?

First Reformed is another Telluride favorite — everyone loves a Paul Schrader comeback — without distribution and unlikely to ramp up in 2017. Look for it to fall to Sony Classics and get a respectful release in the spring.

First They Killed My Father is a personal epic by Angelina Jolie, who tells the remrakable story of a family trying to survive the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. This is some really fine filmmaking. Best of Jolie’s directing career. Best film Netflix will release this year. But… Netflix. On top of that, Academy powers are already questioning whether the film will qualify if nominated for Foreign Language by Cambodia, as cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and production designer Tom Brown are British, co-editor Patricia Rommel is French, and art director Patrick Sullivan Jr., is American. Jolie herself apparently has dual citizenship. These issues have been a problem for great Foreign Language entries in recent years. Toss-up. The movie should be a Best Picture player… but it will have to thread the needle perfectly.

Not swimming through difficult distribution waters are Downsizing, The Shape of Water and Wonderstruck. Each of these are amongst the best career work by three beloved veteran directors. But they are also… uh… weird. Gloriously weird, but weird. (And this will surprise none of the three filmmakers.)

Downsizing is latest from Alexander Payne and regular writing partner Jim Taylor. The high-concept idea is, “What if people could be made small and then live in societies built-to-scale, making the world safe from using all the earth’s resources?” It’s the funny version of this, of course. In the hands of these filmmakers, it is more a change of perspective than a story about being small (not one long “help me… help meeee” joke).

The film ran into resistance from people who felt there was too much going on in the story. Payne and Taylor have a lot of homage in the film… and a deep well of originality. To try to explain what happens in the film in 100 words or less is a fool’s errand. “Getting small” is just the launching pad. (No Steve Martin mention that I recall, either.) Matt Damon is the straight man, as it were. Christoph Waltz may give his best performance yet, breaking away from the Tarantino verbal rhythm and appearing to have the time of his life. Newcomer Hong Chau, who is really the female lead (another one of those surprises that throws people off), plays a downsized house-cleaner of unexpected depth. And the parade of cameos is an endless joy (though I am told I misidentified a passing glance at Paul Dano).

This is a true multi-view movie… which is often not the most Oscar-friendly thing. The film came into Telluride with a big head of steam off Venice reviews and then… it wasn’t what people expected. I think it may be the best film in Payne’s remarkable career.

The Shape of Water is classic Guillermo del Toro. Huge, loving, beating heart. He says that it is currently his favorite of his films, ahead of the masterpiece, The Devil’s Backbone. And it will become the favorite of his career for many this fall.

The Shape of Water is a movie that can be summed up easily, in your head. A version of “The Creature From The Black Lagoon” is captured by a Cold War America, seeking to use his special powers. The Russians also want him. And then the mute (but hearing) cleaning woman falls in love with him and he with her and they seek to live happily ever after.

But obviously, it’s wildly more complicated than that. An ensemble cast led by six performers that audiences can’t help but love—Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones as The Lovers, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as Hawkins’ best friends, Michael Stuhlbarg as the double agent, and Michael Shannon as evil incarnate—live in Del Toro’s hyperreal period universe, where each one gets an unexpectedly full narrative arc. But Del Toro does the near-impossible… to give everyone depth, but to never overreach or bore. The audience gets satisfied, but not overstuffed, not left hungry.

Del Toro has never shown himself to be shy about sex, but this film speaks to love and lust more directly than anything else he has made. Like so much of the film, that passion arrives in many colors. Some audiences may squirm… but it all comes back to love. So Guillermo.

The challenge for Wonderstruck is that it is unlike anything you have experienced in a movie theater. (In some ways, it is more like a theater experience than a normal film experience.) But if you can leave your cynicism at the door – as your children will, without being asked – the depth and richness of the sheer beauty of the duea stories (which accordion out to four stories, really) is overwhelming.

Also, we’re back to the no-logline situation. To simplify Wonderstruck to the story structure would be to miss the point altogether. The silence that the deaf characters creates their own unique emotional space, where the audience is deprived of easy verbosity and distraction, our senses heightened in much the way that losing one sense is said to enhance the others.

This is one of the great films for families – children of all ages – ever made. And it is so deep and rich that adults will love it on its own level.

But serious art that doesn’t connect easily on a narrative level is always a challenge to Academy voters. So there is a lot of work to do to overcome this extremely beautiful problem.

There were three films at Telluride that I suspect will be in play – you never know what will happen in the pre-February processes of these categories – this award season. Ai Weiwei’s documentary, Human Flow, is 140 minutes of traveling to locate the world’s refugees. Its enormous power is in the seeming simplicity of the film, crossing the globe and finding our shared humanity every place it goes. Samuel Moaz delivers his second feature eight years after Lebanon left a big footprint (but not an Oscar nomination) with Foxtrot. And looking to break into the animation category is “the first oil-painted movie,” Loving Vincent.

And finally, the less happy stories.

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell are both excellent in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. But the movie just isn’t as compelling as one might hope. Bening, who deserves a bushel of Oscars and who gave probably the performance of the year last year in 20th Century Women, but still went without a nomination, gives a perfect performance, but of a not intensely memorable character. What could have been made of this true tale of Gloria Grahame’s last great romance is tantalizing. But it’s not on screen. Wish it was.

Battle of the Sexes suffers the classic biopic problem. It can’t make up its mind about what story to tell. This movie desperately wants to be a Billie Jean King biopic with Bobby Riggs as one small side story. But the name of the movie says it is about the collision of the reluctant feminist leader and the ultimate smirky macho conman. As a result, the movie is all over the place in a distracting effort to keep balance. King coming to her true sexuality as a lesbian during her marriage to Mr. King is a key… so we get to see Bobby Riggs’ marriage, which is predictable and adds nothing (with no aspersions on Elizabeth Shue’s performance). On top of that, Larry King (husband and namesake, not the talker) is given no depth or purpose, as blonde and bland and distant as a cardboard cutout. What was the marriage before BJK’s first gay love? The movie is obsessed with Marilyn Barnett, much as Billie Jean is. Fine. But even there, the movie never really gets down to in. There is an exclusively gay sex moment… but is Billie Jean having her first orgasm? What does a person feel when they are sexually fulfilled for the first time. The movie gives us googley eyes and all, but it’s a million miles from lustful. But even worse, Billie Jean’s tennis skills go on a rollercoaster ride and the movie doesn’t answer the question of whether she was distracted or afraid or tired or what. It asks the question, but it doesn’t offer an insight… because it is too busy moving on to the next storyline.

There are a bunch of really good movies in this movie. A movie about a bunch of young female athletes breaking away from the mainstream male- dominated tennis world and empowering themselves could be great. A movie about a hugely popular celebrity of the 1970s slowing coming out in the face of a nation that is not generous of forgiving… could be great. A movie about the “Battle of the Sexes” event that really made a change in the world discussion of female power (the world outside the tent is shockingly non-existent in this film)… great. Even the Bobby Riggs story, of one of the great hustlers of all time, who was funny and charming and could win a million and lose a million in the same afternoon, and the rich wife who put up with him… could be great. It is almost impossible to make a good movie, much less a great one, about this many ideas. A biopic that takes on this much almost never works, even when the audience is deeply familiar with the story that is coming.

One part of the genius of Darkest Hour is that the entire film takes place over 26 days. It is one Churchill story told in great detail, with all the meaning and metaphor contained in this concentrated period.

I am a big fan of pretty much everyone involved in The Battle of the Sexes, on-screen and off. They have all not only done good work, but unique and special work, from Little Miss Sunshine to Slumdog Millionaire to La La Land to Foxcatcher (and more for all of them). I would bet on the top-line five people on this movie every time they made a film.

But as wonderful and important as Billie Jean King is, it’s just not a good movie. It has its moments. Score is good. Recreations of the period are strong. Acting is all excellent. But it left me wanting in every single section of the film. Sarah Silverman as “The Loud Mouth Feminist Power Jewess” and Alan Cumming as “The Magic Gay Man Who Knows All” should be amongst the most memorable supporting performances of the year. Both actors have the skill to hit these roles out of the park and into the stratosphere. But they are just “good.” It’s infuriating, really. For many, it will be entertaining. How can it not be? This is a murderer’s row of talent. But for me, it was a movie without a single surprise or deep insight. The villain, Jack Kramer, is written as a caricature. The real story is that the guy actually helped create professional women’s tennis in the 1940s before being a block to equal pay in the 60s and 70s. What a turn! Not in this movie. At all.

And the story of The Battle of the Sexes match is that is was a massive social event, much bigger than Riggs, or certainly King, ever imagined. America was the biggest part of the story… but not in this movie.

So frustrating. I believe a lot of the reaction coming out of Telluride had to do with Billie Jean King being in the room. And I would be gobsmacked by her too. She is an important social figure in the history of this nation. And Emma Stone does her justice. But she’s a tennis god, not a filmmaker.

So, that is the story of Oscar and Telluride 2017. My version.

I expect there to be four or five key stories to come of Toronto this year. I’ll write about those soon.

4 Responses to “25 Weeks To Oscar: What Happened In Telluride”

  1. Chris L. says:

    Best Actor seems almost barren beyond Oldman and perhaps Denzel, so there ought to be room to promote Bale in Hostiles and Hawke in First Reformed given the reviews both have had. Respectful spring releases will only get them buried by next fall’s fests. I guess the wheels of distribution move more cautiously than they once did. Whatever the reasoning, a shame for these films.

  2. Stella's Boy says:

    Is there going to be a Hostiles backlash? Granted it’s only one review, but Variety tore it to shreds and called it racist and highly problematic.

  3. Ray Pride says:

    The Debrugettes will take up the pitchforks!

  4. Stella's Boy says:

    I didn’t mean that. I just wonder if it portends other similar reviews.

Quote Unquotesee all »

What do you make of the criticism directed at the film that the biopic genre or format is intrinsically bourgeois? That’s the most crazy criticism. That’s an excuse for not engaging with the content of the movie. Film critics sometimes, you know, can be very lazy.

Come on, formal criticism is valuable too. But I’m amazed when this is the thing they put in front of the discourse. My situation is that I’m dealing with a highly explosive subject, a taboo subject that nobody wants to deal with.

Karl Marx? Yes, this is the first film ever in the Western world about Marx. And I managed to make an almost mainstream film out of it. You want me at the same time to play the artist and do a risky film about the way my camera moves and the way I edit? No, it’s complicated enough! The artistic challenge — and it took me ten years with Pascal to write this story — was the writing. That was the most difficult part. We were making a film about the evolution of an idea, which is impossible. To be able to have political discourse in a scene, and you can follow it, and it’s not simplified, and it’s historically true. This is the accomplishment. So when someone criticizes the formal aspects without seeing that first, for me, it’s laziness or ignorance. There’s an incapacity to deal with what’s on the table. I make political films about today, I’m not making a biopic to make a biopic. I don’t believe in being an artist just to be an artist. And by the way, this film cost $9 million. I dare anyone in the United States to make this film for $9 million.
Raoul Peck on The Young Karl Marx

“The Motion Picture Academy, at considerable expense and with great efficiency, runs all the nominated pictures at its own theater, showing each picture twice, once in the afternoon, once in the evening. A nominated picture is one in connection with which any kind of work is nominated for an award, not necessarily acting, directing, or writing; it may be a purely technical matter such as set-dressing or sound work. This running of pictures has the object of permitting the voters to look at films which they may happen to have missed or to have partly forgotten. It is an attempt to make them realize that pictures released early in the year, and since overlaid with several thicknesses of battered celluloid, are still in the running and that consideration of only those released a short time before the end of the year is not quite just.

“The effort is largely a waste. The people with votes don’t go to these showings. They send their relatives, friends, or servants. They have had enough of looking at pictures, and the voices of destiny are by no means inaudible in the Hollywood air. They have a brassy tone, but they are more than distinct.”All this is good democracy of a sort. We elect Congressmen and Presidents in much the same way, so why not actors, cameramen, writers, and all rest of the people who have to do with the making of pictures? If we permit noise, ballyhoo, and theater to influence us in the selection of the people who are to run the country, why should we object to the same methods in the selection of meritorious achievements in the film business? If we can huckster a President into the White House, why cannot we huckster the agonized Miss Joan Crawford or the hard and beautiful Miss Olivia de Havilland into possession of one of those golden statuettes which express the motion picture industry’s frantic desire to kiss itself on the back of its neck? The only answer I can think of is that the motion picture is an art. I say this with a very small voice. It is an inconsiderable statement and has a hard time not sounding a little ludicrous. Nevertheless it is a fact, not in the least diminished by the further facts that its ethos is so far pretty low and that its techniques are dominated by some pretty awful people.

“If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. Making a fine motion picture is like painting “The Laughing Cavalier” in Macy’s basement, with a floorwalker to mix your colors for you. Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn’t they be?”
~ Raymond Chandler, “Oscar Night In Hollywood,” 1948