TELLURIDE, Colo. — Most film festivals offer the average moviegoer what Elaine May, in an old Nichols and May routine, referred to as "proximity but no relating." You're vaguely aware of famous filmmakers and performers in your midst, but only vaguely.
The Telluride Film Festival is different. Now in its 42nd year, 8,750 feet up in southwestern Colorado's San Juan Mountains, Telluride is smaller, easier, more expensive and, in terms of geologic scenery, far more staggeringly beautiful than the average internationally prominent festival. It's a nicely packed four-day affair that exerts a weird degree of influence on the perception, and reality, of the fall awards season, concluding early the following year at the Academy Awards.
And look! There's Meryl Streep (or Michael Keaton, or Rachel McAdams or Rooney Mara) strolling down Colorado Avenue, the main drag in this former mining town, not too many miles from the ranch on which Quentin Tarantino recently shot much of his snowy post-Civil War potboiler "The Hateful Eight."
Along with movie stars, in Telluride you might spy a bear, just like the bear featured on this year's festival poster. I saw a bear cub on Sunday morning, running down a side street and up the mountain. He scrambled at about the same impressive speed of a Telluride festival badgeholder, one of roughly 4,000 in town this Labor Day weekend, trying to make a 9 a.m. screening at one end of town, all the way from the other.
"No red carpet, no b.s.," director Alexander Payne, who's on the festival board of governors, told me at the annual opening-day brunch, held a few miles out of town at a private residence called Gray Head. "It's everybody's favorite film festival," Payne said. "Mine, anyway. Everyone's actually here for the films."
Telluride joins the Venice Film Festival (concluding this weekend) and, closer to home, the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-20) as the golden triangle of hype at the start of Oscar buzz season. Six of the last seven best picture Oscar winners played Telluride before Toronto, before New York, before anywhere else in North America and, sometimes, the world.
The highest-profile awards hopefuls on this year's Telluride slate have made a lot of noise, though festival co-director Julie Huntsinger, who runs Telluride with co-director Tom Luddy, told indiewire.com the other day: "I don't think the (Oscar) conversations will be quite as loud this year. There is a steadiness to the films and a balance in quality. Sometimes there are things that are so super sparkly and explosive. This year, we have films that require a lot of thought. If that means awards people get bored, so be it."
Even so, expect some serious awards contention for, among others, director Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight," an engrossing and superbly acted "All the President's Men"-style procedural opening commercially Nov. 6. The script focuses on the Boston Globe's investigative reporters and editors, played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d'Arcy James and Liev Schreiber, who broke the story of the Boston Archdiocese sexual abuse cover-up.
At a panel discussion in the park Saturday, director and co-writer McCarthy said the reporters made a natural focal point for the storytelling. "They were so connected to the community, and they had a simultaneous sense of professional excitement and personal horror, as they started to uncover something they knew existed but had no sense of the scope and reach of the crimes, and just how treacherous and predatory these priests were. And more importantly (they learned) how long the Catholic Church not only allowed it to happen, but was complicit in putting these priests back in parishes, again and again and again."
"Spotlight" made its world premiere in Venice last week, to considerable acclaim. The Telluride screening marked the film's North American bow. On Saturday Telluride scored one of several bona-fide world premieres, however, with director Danny Boyle's ambitious "Steve Jobs," starring Michael Fassbender (already generating online Oscar yak) as the difficult genius behind the Mac, the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod. The film opens commercially Oct. 9.
Compared to his Oscar-winning screenplay for "The Social Network," which painted a jaundiced portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Aaron Sorkin's theatrically structured three-act "Steve Jobs" script is at once softer and more floridly verbose. In "The Social Network," director David Fincher's sinister atmosphere provided stimulating contrast to Sorkin's verbal wit. In "Steve Jobs" director Boyle, known for his kinetic technique ("Slumdog Millionaire," "127 Hours") acts as a humanizing agent, packaging Jobs as a narcissistic bully-visionary who learns to be a better father. Whether you buy the flashy, mythologized resultsmay subconsciously depend on whether you wordlessly bless the iPhone each time you text on it, or whether you mutter curses about the size of your thumb in relation to the size of the touch screen.
Sorkin, a playwright as well as a screenwriter, organizes "Steve Jobs" as a three-act backstage drama, beginning in 1984. Jobs is about to launch the Macintosh personal computer at a Cupertino, Calif., community college. His ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) has a five-year-old daughter (Makenzie Moss) whose paternity Jobs denies. A few steps from welfare status, they've come to ask for a bump in child support, while multi-millionaire Jobs just wants to make sure his product launch goes smoothly.
Then we jump to 1988 and another new product launch, this one for the costly, ill-fated "black cube" computer Jobs developed after being kicked out of Apple. We're backstage at the San Francisco Opera House, and relational chaos reigns once again. Jobs' right-hand woman and Macintosh colleague Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) acts as sounding board, conscience and a Shakespearean truth-telling fool. Sorkin goes whole hog with the Shakespeare parallels, creating a "Henry IV" dynamic between Jobs and his father figure (Jeff Daniels as Apple CEO John Sculley). Meantime there's Jobs' egocentric, slow-drip betrayal of his old friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, excellent).
The film leaves out Jobs' later relationships, and the pancreatic cancer that took his life at age 56. Instead it concludes in 1998, finding Jobs backstage and beleaguered a final time, at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall, prior to the launch of the iMac that resembles "Judy Jetson's Easy-Bake oven," according to one choice Sorkin phrase. Director Boyle chose, shrewdly, to shoot part one on analog-looking 16 millimeter film, part two on 35mm and part three on high-definition digital video. The results are never less than entertaining visually, but a little toothless dramatically.
I'm in the minority already on "Steve Jobs"; the Telluride critical response has been extremely strong, and Fassbender seems assured of an Oscar nomination. So does Johnny Depp for his turn as Boston mobster "Whitey" Bulger in "Black Mass," another Telluride offering. (I'm seeing a Sunday afternoon "Black Mass" screening; check online later for a review.)
Other films off to an encouraging start here include the striking and often hilarious animated feature "Anomalisa" from writer and co-director Charlie Kaufman, working here with co-director Duke Johnson. By Sunday morning it had yet to pick up a distributor, but it's just a matter of time. The tale of a customer service expert and his love life, taking place mostly in a Cincinnati hotel room, works wonders in its unusually supple stop-motion animation.
Director Lenny Abrahamson's stark, poetic "Room" (opening Oct. 16) features Brie Larson and preteen phenom Jacob Tremblay as abduction victims eking out an existence in a modified garden shed. That description alone is enough to scare some people off, but the Emma Donoghue novel was a worldwide best-seller, and her screenplay adaptation adjusts the narrative perspective (entirely the boy's on the page) without minimizing its impact. Joan Allen excels as the Larson character's mother, whose grieving life changes in unpredictable ways when her daughter returns to alleged normal life.
Among other Telluride titles this weekend, director Todd Haynes' "Carol" starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) premiered earlier this year at Cannes, as did the gripping Holocaust drama "Son of Saul" and the taciturn black comedy from Iceland, "Rams." I rode a shuttle bus with Haynes, who confirmed he'll introduce "Carol" next month at the Chicago International Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker confirmed that "Son of Saul" will be showing up for the Chicago festival as well. "Carol" was one of many Chicago festival titles announced last month, along with Telluride offerings "45 years" and "Hitchcock/Truffaut."
"Amazing Grace" was supposed to play both Telluride and Chicago and, in between, Toronto. But the long-awaited Aretha Franklin concert film, shot during her recording of the 1972 gospel album of the same name, ended up a no-show. Only hours before the scheduled Friday Telluride screening, Franklin obtained a temporary restraining order in federal court. Legal and technological challenges kept the "Amazing Grace" footage in a Warner Brothers vault for 40 years. Film festival audiences will have to wait a little while longer to see and hear it for themselves.
The Telluride "Amazing Grace" screenings were replaced, on short notice, by additional screenings of other offerings. One was Jennifer Peedom's gripping documentary "Sherpa," focusing on the Mount Everest guides left out of the picture by so many other mountaineering docs. Nobody seemed to miss "Amazing Grace." The audiences here are forgiving, open-minded and ready for anything. Also, nobody texts during a screening, or checks their messages. Telluride isn't Sundance, or Toronto. While the movies are on the screen, at least, the world Steve Jobs created can wait.
The festival concludes Monday. For updates, go to chicagotribune.com/movies.
Michael Phillips is a Chicago Tribune critic.