When Emma Donoghue was invited to a party at the Telluride Film Festival hosted by AMPAS, the Irish-born playwright and novelist didn’t know what the acronym meant. Though Donoghue is the screenwriter of “Room,” one of Telluride’s breakout films, the awards-driven tenor of the festival, in which baby Oscar contenders are delivered into the world, is new to her.
“It sounded like a trade organization,” Donoghue said of the abbreviation for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in an interview at about 9,500 feet. “I pulled my T-shirt out of my bag and realized, ‘Oh, it’s the academy!’ ” she said of the Oscars giveaway. “I can’t tell which of my symptoms here are excitement and which are high altitude, because I’m permanently breathless.”
“Room,” director Lenny Abramson’s suspenseful drama starring Brie Larson as a resourceful young mother living in captivity, was one of a handful of films to rise above the fray at Telluride this year, as a festival heavy on serious subject matter and larded with awards hopefuls unfolded over Labor Day weekend. Some of the highlights:
Telluride got off to a rocky start after a U.S. district judge allowed Aretha Franklin to block the festival from premiering “Amazing Grace,” an anticipated documentary featuring footage from one of her 1970s concerts that she objected to using. There were other wrinkles too — relentless rain, a small fire at the opening brunch on a sprawling mountaintop ranch — but ultimately what Telluride audiences were talking about, as always, were the films.
There were five sellout crowds for “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy’s “All the President’s Men"-style procedural about the Boston Globe journalists who broke the Catholic Church sex abuse story, including one audience who sang “Happy Birthday” to star Michael Keaton.
Keaton, who turned 64 over the weekend and roamed the cold, rainy Telluride streets in shorts and a baseball cap, leads “Spotlight’s” disciplined ensemble, as Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery capture the texture of modern newspaper life, down to the long hours and the goodbye cakes.
Crowds were also vocal about Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” which screenwriter Aaron Sorkin liberally adapted from Walter Isaacson’s biography of the Apple co-founder, structuring each of the film’s three acts around a key Apple product launch.
Telluride may be one of the few places where screenwriters get the rock star treatment: After one virtuosic dialogue sequence between Michael Fassbender as Jobs and Jeff Daniels as Apple CEO John Sculley, an appreciative audience member cried out, “Sorkin!” During a pre-screening Q&A when Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak took the stage beside Seth Rogen, who plays him, and Kate Winslet, who plays Jobs’ capable work wife Joanna Hoffman, hundreds of iPhones popped up in the audience to capture the moment, in a vivid illustration of the movie’s timeliness.
A decidedly feminist theme unfolded at many of the other films, as Meryl Streep took the opportunity of the premiere of Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette,” in which she plays the small but vital role of pioneering British suffrage activist Emmeline Pankhurst, to speak out about issues facing contemporary women, including political representation, pay equality and education. At one Q&A, she called on Pope Francis to take more action on women’s issues and explained that she was pushing Congress to pass the long-stalled Equal Rights Amendment because, “Law matters. Symbols matter.”
Pakistani girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai addressed the audience for Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about her, “He Named Me Malala,” by satellite from England. Guggenheim’s film shows the ordinary moments in Malala’s life — she’s disappointed with a physics grade, Googling handsome cricket players, teasing her brothers — but his cameras also follow the young advocate, shot by the Taliban, as she visits schoolgirls in Nigeria and refugees on the Syrian border, and fights through surgeries and physical therapy resulting from her injuries.
When technical difficulties hampered Malala’s satellite connection, her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who had traveled to Telluride, stole the show. “I was looking at beautiful mountains and lush green forests and thinking, ‘You are so lucky,’ ” Ziauddin said, likening the small Colorado mountain town to his own in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. “We have the same forests and trees.... Once Swat was like a heaven. It became a hell for its inhabitants.”
When Telluride announced that Rooney Mara would be the subject of one of its prestigious tributes, some of the festival’s cineaste attendees reacted with surprise. At 30, Mara is young to receive the honor, and though her resume includes an Oscar-nominated performance in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and small but memorable roles in such distinguished films as “The Social Network” and “Her,” the introverted actress is still in the early stages of her career and seems reluctant when navigating awards season’s obligatory, chest-beating rituals.
But at a tribute before Friday’s North American premiere of “Carol,” the Todd Haynes period film in which Mara stars as an awkward young shopgirl with a crush on a glamorous customer (Cate Blanchett), Mara revealed a bit of the real woman behind the aloof persona. “I’ve kind of been preparing for that my whole life,” Mara said of her quiet role in “Carol,” which earned her the actress award at the Cannes Film Festival in May. “I’m a very quiet person. As a quiet person, I feel that’s wonderful. Extroversion is over-valued.”
The festival was also an occasion for some happy reunions. When Idris Elba, who had flown in from shooting in Canada to appear at a screening of Cary Fukunaga’s intense boy soldier drama “Beasts of No Nation,” ran into his 15-year-old costar, newcomer Abraham Attah, they embraced, and Elba noted that Attah had gotten taller.
Asked his favorite thing so far about Telluride, Attah, who is from Ghana, paused for a moment and said, “The skateboarding.”