About 650 people poured out of a theater into a stand of birch trees under a star-filled sky, then started talking, texting and tweeting about "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)." The genre-defying film, which stars Michael Keaton as a Hollywood has-been trying to reinvent himself, skewers the commodification of celebrity and the kind of contemporary life in which every feeling is mediated through a hashtag — in other words, precisely what was unfolding this night in the Rockies.
"Birdman's" auspicious North American debut on Saturday was a highlight of the paradoxical Telluride Film Festival, the site of several media moments and a fair amount of Oscar prognosticating over the Labor Day weekend, despite festival co-directors Julie Huntsinger's and Tom Luddy's stubborn aversion to hype.
A low-key gathering in which a mountain-chic brunch with chairs made of hay bales replaced the step-and-repeat of the red carpet, Telluride still managed a mention on the gossip website Just Jared. ("Channing Tatum gives his best serious face," read a post about the North American premiere of Bennett Miller's well-regarded drama "Foxcatcher.")
Huntsinger characterized the 41st annual Telluride lineup as "quieter" than that of last year, when eventual Oscar winners "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" exploded out of the festival. Nevertheless, Telluride hosted the crowd-pleasing first screening of "The Imitation Game," inaugurating Benedict Cumberbatch into the Oscar discussion for his portrayal of British code breaker Alan Turing, and the festival saw block-long lines for Jon Stewart's directorial debut, "Rosewater," which proved the "Daily Show" host could bring his signature humor and his loyal TV audience to a political drama.
Reese Witherspoon hiked and Instagrammed from Telluride's trails the morning before unveiling her risk-taking performance as Cheryl Strayed in "Wild," Jean-Marc Vallée's adaptation of Strayed's bestselling memoir about self-discovery on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Tommy Lee Jones, whose beard and dubious squint could get him mistaken for a local throwback in this former mining town, held forth on the subject of the "so-called western" at a showing of the frontier drama he wrote, directed and stars in with Hilary Swank, "The Homesman," which screened as part of a tribute to the actress.
And after a screening of "Foxcatcher," in which Steve Carell plays a paranoid schizophrenic Du Pont heir opposite Tatum as Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, the actor best known for movies such as "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" joked that, "I'm going to be more pretentious now."
The attention flooded the mountain town even though the Toronto International Film Festival, which opens Thursday, had instituted a new policy this year designed to keep Telluride from stealing its limelight: Any film that screened first at Telluride would miss out on one of Toronto's coveted opening weekend slots.
Some of the most talked about films at Telluride, however, will benefit from moving on to Toronto's larger stage. Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan's "Mommy," about the dysfunctional relationship between a single mother and her teenage tyrant, inspired countless gondola debates for its intensity, while Ramin Bahrani's "99 Homes," which stars Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in a morality play about the 2008 foreclosure crisis, played to appreciative crowds in a city full of multimillion-dollar second and third properties.
As an antidote to some of the festival's darker films, audiences sought out "Wild Tales," an Argentine black comedy comprising six short films on the subject of vengeance, and "Seymour: An Introduction," Ethan Hawke's admiring documentary about classical pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein.
And they took in the program's older films, including an "Apocalypse Now" tribute attended by director Francis Ford Coppola and screenwriter John Milius, whose public appearances have been limited since a stroke.
With its uncomfortably high altitude (some hotels even provide oxygen canisters to their guests), remote location and a secret program that filmmaker Ken Burns called "the only artistic act of faith in the film exhibition business," Telluride attracts especially open-minded and enthusiastic audiences.
As ever, that seemed to be the case this year.
"I'm a film festival virgin," Stewart told the fourth sellout audience for "Rosewater." "I couldn't have lost my virginity to a kinder, more compassionate group."
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