Oscar hopefuls set to bow as Telluride Film Festival unveils its secret lineup

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field's "Tár."
(Courtesy of Focus Features)

Set in a remote box canyon in Colorado’s rugged San Juan Mountains, with nary a red carpet or paparazzo to be found, the Telluride Film Festival has prided itself for nearly 50 years on its low-key, all-about-the-movies ethos. And this year’s edition, which kicks off Friday, may feel even further from the noise of Hollywood than usual.

As Telluride has become an increasingly pivotal stop on the awards-season calendar, playing host to eight of the last 10 best picture winners, recent years have seen the festival launch a number of splashy, crowd-pleasing studio Oscar hopefuls, from “Judy” to “Ford v Ferrari” to last year’s “King Richard.” This year’s lineup is relatively light on such glitzy, star-driven fare, instead giving the spotlight to a range of smaller-scale and more intimate films, many tackling weighty themes.

But while there may be fewer dressed-down A-listers than usual casually milling about the festival, that’s not to suggest that the 39 films in this year’s main Telluride program lack cinematic heavy-hitters — or potential future Oscar favorites.


Rolling out over Labor Day weekend, the 49th Telluride Film Festival will feature such highly anticipated films as “Women Talking,” a provocative ensemble drama about a group of rural Mennonite women who band together to stand up to their abusers; “Tár,” a character study starring Cate Blanchett as a formidable orchestra conductor; “The Wonder,” starring Florence Pugh as a nurse in 19th century Ireland unraveling the mystery of a girl who seems miraculously able to survive without eating; and director Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones and All,” starring Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell as cannibalistic lovers on the run (yes, you read that right).

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film "Empire of Light."
(Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

New films from Oscar-winning directors Sam Mendes (“Empire of Light,” a love story set in 1980s England starring Olivia Colman) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” a semiautobiographical tale of a journalist returning home to Mexico City), are certain to be hot tickets among the crowd of devoted cineastes, filmmakers, journalists and critics who descend annually on the festival.

Telluride Film Festival executive director Julie Huntsinger acknowledged that this is “a very unusual year” for the festival and the industry as a whole, as programmers, film distributors and theater owners alike continue to adapt to shifting moviegoing habits and the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even as Telluride jockeys for position alongside bigger, splashier fall festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York — which this year will feature the premieres of such high-profile Oscar hopefuls as Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise,” Steven Spielberg’s “The Fablemans,” Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” and Maria Schrader’s “She Said” — Huntsinger said she has never focused on awards hype or commercial considerations.

“I just keep my eyes on our very specific prize, which is showing what we think is the best,” Huntsinger said. “I’m very proud of every movie we’re showing, and there’s nothing that I want that we don’t have.”

Cast of "Women Talking."
Michelle McLeod stars as Mejal, Sheila McCarthy as Greta, Liv McNeil as Neitje, Jessie Buckley as Mariche, Claire Foy as Salome, Kate Hallett as Autje, Rooney Mara as Ona and Judith Ivey as Agata in “Women Talking.”
(Michael Gibson / Orion Pictures)

One of the most fought-over titles among this year’s fall festival programmers, “Women Talking” — which is directed by Sarah Polley and features a stellar cast including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Frances McDormand — is sure to have Oscar prognosticators talking when it makes its world premiere at Telluride.

“It’s a very assured and masterful work by a tremendously talented woman,” said Huntsinger of Polley, who will receive the festival’s Silver Medallion Award along with Blanchett. “It is a beautiful ensemble piece with a huge amount of weight and profundity to it. It’s one of those movies — I feel like there are are one or two every year — where I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”

“Empire of Light” marks the first Telluride entry for Mendes, whose last film, the World War I epic “1917,” earned 10 Oscar nominations including best picture and director and won three including cinematography. “It’s a tender and very sensitive film,” Huntsinger said. “It’s an intimate, personal look at complex human relations and how we can form these really beautiful family structures outside of our traditional families. And we see Olivia Colman go to a place here that is devastating in parts.”

Of Iñárritu’s “Bardo,” which clocks in at three hours and likely will be one of Netflix’s key awards titles this year, Huntsinger said the film defies easy description. “We are let all the way into [Iñárritu’s] brain and heart and soul,” she said. “There’s absurdity, there’s depth, there’s profound human emotion and Mexican history. It touches on everything that it is to be a human being alive in the 21st century without ever being chaotic or messy.”

Taylor Russell, left, as Maren and Timothée Chalamet as Lee in "Bones and All."
(Yannis Drakoulidis / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

As for “Bones and All,” while much of the attention will inevitably go to Chalamet — here reuniting with “Call Me By Your Name” director Guadanigno — Huntsinger said the film’s real revelation is Russell, who made a splash at Telluride three years ago with the drama “Waves.” “Every time she’s onscreen, you just love her so much — she gives it a great emotional center,” Huntsinger said. “The film is bizarre but it’s stunningly beautiful and very romantic.” She laughed. “And cannibals!”

The Telluride program will give North American audiences their first look at three features that were well received at this year’s Cannes Film Festival: James Gray’s “Armageddon Time,” Mia Hansen-Løve’s “One Fine Morning” and Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s “Broker.”

The Telluride lineup includes a bonanza of strong documentaries, including “Sr.,” a portrait of the late filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. and his relationship with his movie-star son; “If These Walls Could Sing,” Mary McCartney’s celebration of Abbey Road Studios, where her father, Paul, famously recorded; “Icarus: The Aftermath,” a follow-up to the Oscar-winning doc about Russia’s doping scandal; and new works by filmmakers Matt Tyrnauer (“The End of the World”), Ondi Timoner (“Last Flight Home”) and Anton Corbijn (“Squaring the Circle”).

While last year’s festival was held in the shadow of the pandemic, which entirely shuttered the 2020 edition, this year’s Telluride promises to mark one small step closer to normalcy.

“I weighed up a lot of different things and what I landed on was leading through example,” Huntsinger said of this year’s somewhat eased COVID protocols. “I hope that people will wear their masks in theaters. We’re not requiring it but right now what the entire world is doing is relying on personal accountability and people’s good judgment.”

As for which way the winds of awards season or the box office may blow in the coming months, Huntsinger is letting others worry about all that.

“It’s funny, I’ve been doing this for the past 16 years and there are years where you guys [in the press] just haven’t seen the movies yet so you don’t know they’re the ones that are going to be talked about,” Huntsinger said. “I really try to operate in my own little vacuum. As long as we keep showing what we think is the absolute best — and we talk about it and we celebrate it — we’re good.”