It isn’t easy — or, for that matter, cheap — to get to the Telluride Film Festival, nestled in an isolated box canyon in the mountains of Colorado (elevation 8,750 feet) where miners once dug for silver and gold. So the festival’s programmers know they need to make it worth the trip.
“The thinking is, if people are spending a lot of money to come to Telluride, we’d better show them some stuff they haven’t seen before, some stuff that’s outrageously good,” says executive director Julie Huntsinger, who curates the festival’s program with Tom Luddy. “We’re just devoted to saying, ‘Look at this. You need to look at this.’ ”
With that urgent mandate in mind, when the 46th edition of the festival kicks off Friday, some 5,000 attendees, including scores of filmmakers, stars and movie executives, will descend on the picturesque little town in the hopes of seeing something special — and gleaning an early sense of which way the winds of this year’s Oscar season may be blowing.
Telluride, which this year is dedicated to the late French filmmaker Agnès Varda, proudly clings to its decidedly lo-fi, paparazzi- and red-carpet-free vibe; one of its venues is a middle school gym, another an ice-skating rink. Still, despite this air of casualness, it has become an ever more important early stop on the awards season calendar, holding its own against bigger, flashier festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York with which it jockeys. In the past decade, seven films that eventually went on to win the best picture Oscar screened at Telluride, including “The Shape of Water,” “Moonlight,” “Birdman” and “12 Years a Slave.”
As this year’s lineup rolls out over Labor Day weekend — featuring such highly anticipated features as Noah Baumbach’s wrenching divorce drama “Marriage Story,” James Mangold’s high-octane period film “Ford v Ferrari” and Josh and Benny Safdie’s crime thriller “Uncut Gems,” starring Adam Sandler as a self-destructive jewelry store owner looking to make a big score — Oscar prognosticators will be taking audiences’ temperatures for indications of which films could follow that path to Oscar glory.
The 35 films in the festival’s main program are a typically eclectic mix. On one end of the spectrum is splashier, star-studded fare like the Judy Garland biopic “Judy,” featuring Renée Zellweger, who will receive a special silver medallion tribute; the period adventure film “The Aeronauts,” which reunites “The Theory of Everything” costars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones; an adaptation of the 1999 Jonathan Lethem detective novel “Motherless Brooklyn” directed by and starring Edward Norton; and “Ford v Ferrari,” starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon.
“Christian Bale achieves new heights and Matt Damon shows a side of him that I don’t think we’ve seen before,” Huntsinger says of “Ford v Ferrari,” which chronicles Ford’s effort to unseat the seemingly indomitable Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans auto race. “Two and a half hours flies by.”
On the other end of the spectrum are smaller, more intimate films, including director Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves,” which centers on a suburban African American family whose patriarch is played by Sterling K. Brown; Kelly Reichardt’s 1800s-set frontier drama “First Cow”; and “Marriage Story,” which brings together Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as a couple who, despite their best intentions, find themselves pulled into an increasingly messy divorce.
Driver, whose Scott Z. Burns-directed political drama “The Report” plays Telluride after a Sundance bow earlier this year, will also be feted with a special tribute at the festival, as will Zellweger and acclaimed director Philip Kaufman, whose films include 1978’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” 1983’s “The Right Stuff” and 1988’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
Along with Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” which will open the New York Film Festival, “Marriage Story” is one of Netflix’s key hopefuls to follow the trail blazed by last year’s “Roma” (which also screened at Telluride) into the best picture Oscar race. That would mark a first for writer-director Baumbach, whose earlier films include “Kicking and Screaming,” “The Squid and the Whale” and “The Meyerowitz Stories.”
“I think it’s his best work so far,” Huntsinger said of Baumbach’s film. “He advanced the ball again in terms of human relations and how we have to learn to separate without there being a zero-sum game. It’s this very humane, lovely portrait but it’s also not without its moments of dark humor.”
Telluride will also offer North American audiences their first opportunity to see a handful of international films that made waves earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, including French director Céline Sciamma’s period drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”; Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory,” starring longtime collaborator Antonio Banderas as a director reflecting on his turbulent life; and “Parasite,” a twisty, satirical meditation on class from director Bong Joon-ho that won the Palme d’Or and has already been a massive hit in South Korea.
On the documentary side are several films that offer intimate portraits of major public figures, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates (“Inside Bill’s Brain”), former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos (“The Kingmaker”) and Argentine soccer superstar Diego Maradona (“Diego Maradona”). Telluride will also screen director Dror Moreh’s hot-button doc “The Human Factor,” which probes the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and selections from the epic, 14-hour-plus “Women Make Film,” which charts the history and legacy of women filmmakers.
While the spotlight on the festival has grown brighter over the years, Huntsinger says she remains determined to preserve Telluride’s Brigadoon-like feel. “We can’t get any bigger — we’re the exact right size,” she says. “We’re just going to keep it small, keep on doing what we do, stay faithful to our tradition.”
If anything, at a time when many in the film business are wringing their hands over the steep challenges faced by adult-oriented fare — with the distribution landscape undergoing seismic shifts and the box office increasingly dominated by an ever-smaller handful of ever-bigger remakes and sequels — that adherence to tradition has become even more critical, Huntsinger says.
“The eternal flame is the new films that come here every year, because without them we’re nothing,” she says. “That new spirit is born every year. When movies aren’t made like this anymore, that’s when we’ll be in trouble. And I don’t think that’s going to happen.”