Telluride Film Festival reveals slate including ‘Spencer,’ ‘King Richard’ and more

 Telluride Film Festival reveals slate including ‘Spencer,’ ‘King Richard’ and more

The Telluride Film Festival prizes its remoteness. Nestled in an isolated box canyon in the mountains of Colorado (elevation 8,750 feet), the annual event has a decidedly dressed-down, un-Hollywood feel, sans red carpets and paparazzi, the bustle and chaos of the rest of the world at a safe remove.

Alas, when it comes to a global pandemic, not even this picturesque cinematic Brigadoon can escape reality.

After being forced to cancel last year’s in-person gathering, Telluride organizers are ready to welcome back scores of filmmakers, stars and movie executives when the 48th edition of the festival kicks off Thursday. As this year’s lineup rolls out over Labor Day weekend — featuring such highly anticipated features as Jane Campion’s atmospheric Western drama “The Power of the Dog,” with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst, Mike Mills’ heartfelt, intimate “C’mon C’mon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, and Pablo Larraín’s portrait of Princess Diana, “Spencer,” with Kristen Stewart as the late royal — Oscar prognosticators will be hunting for signs of which films could be headed toward Oscar glory.

But with the pandemic continuing to rage — and the film industry still ailing greatly as a result — this year’s Telluride will hardly be business as usual.

Attendees are required to show proof of vaccination and a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of arrival at the festival, which has added an extra day this year to allow for greater social distancing. Masks will be worn at all indoor screenings. And as much as everyone may want to celebrate a return to some semblance of normalcy, with the Delta variant circulating and large swaths of the country still unvaccinated, safety concerns will be paramount.

“I don’t want it to be an anxious gathering, but at the same time, we’re not going to be letting our hair down, like, ‘Woo! Let’s go to a party in a tiny space and sweat and dance,’ ” says executive director Julie Huntsinger. “I want excitement and I want buzz. But we’re not going to reach euphoria. Maybe this time there will be an internal personal euphoria.”

For all its laid-back, jeans-and-flannel attitude, Telluride has become an increasingly pivotal stop on the awards-season calendar, punching above its weight alongside bigger, splashier fall festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York. In the past decade, eight eventual best picture winners, including “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “The Shape of Water” and “Parasite,” have screened at Telluride. (This year’s winner, “Nomadland,” held a Telluride-hosted L.A. premiere at the Rose Bowl drive-in in September 2020, despite the fest’s cancellation.)

With the theatrical business still struggling for a comeback, the positive chatter that a successful festival launch can deliver may be especially critical this year.

But at the same time, the pandemic has dealt a particularly heavy blow to the sort of artistically ambitious fare that tends to draw an older audience — and many of this year’s awards hopefuls are heading directly for streaming platforms — making it unclear just how much effect festivals like Telluride will have.

The 36 films in the festival’s main program are a typically eclectic mix. On one end of the spectrum is splashier star-driven fare like Warner Bros.’ “King Richard” — director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s drama starring Will Smith as Richard Williams, who coached his daughters Serena and Venus to tennis greatness — which will open day and date in theaters and on HBO Max on Nov. 19, and Neon and Topic Studios’ “Spencer,” which will hold its North American premiere after first screening at Venice and then open exclusively in theaters Nov. 5.

Of Stewart’s performance as Princess Diana in the film, Huntsinger says, “I think my jaw was on the floor the whole time.”

On the other end of the spectrum are more intimate films including Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical coming-of-age story “Belfast,” Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket” and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, “The Lost Daughter.” The latter is one of three Netflix awards hopefuls at the festival, along with “The Power of the Dog” and “The Great Beauty” director Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God.”

Starring Phoenix as a radio journalist who takes in his young nephew while his sister is dealing with a crisis, Mills’ black-and-white “C’mon C’mon,” set to be distributed by theatrical release stalwart A24, is the kind of indie that will need as much worth-of-mouth momentum out of festivals as it can get.

“It’s a beautiful film and Joaquin’s performance is just the opposite of ‘Joker,’” says Huntsinger. “Mike is an incredible storyteller who gets at the delicate little in-between places of emotion that not every storyteller has access to.”

Female filmmakers either directed or co-directed half of the films in this year’s main program, including French director Céline Sciamma (“Petite Maman”), Russian filmmaker Kira Kovalenko (“Unclenching the Fists”) and Campion, who will be one of three recipients of this year’s Silver Medallion Award in recognition of her career in film. (Riz Ahmed and Peter Dinklage, who will be at the festival with the films “Encounter” and “Cyrano,” respectively, will also receive the prize and be feted with tributes.)

“I want to bring in people who we haven’t heard from, but they’ve got to be great movies,” Huntsinger says of this year’s inclusive slate. “I have such a responsibility: It’s very hard to get here, our program is tiny. But magically, there is some incredible work being done by a ton of new voices.”

Telluride tends to boast a strong selection of nonfiction films, and with subjects as varied as rock legends (“The Velvet Underground”) and the life of a bovine (“Cow”), this year is no exception.

Highlighting both the importance of Telluride and its own growing ambitions, National Geographic Documentary Films is bringing four releases to the festival, including “Becoming Cousteau,” the family saga “Torn,” the Thailand-cave-rescue chronicle “The Rescue” from the directors of the Oscar-winning “Free Solo” and — perhaps most fittingly — “Fauci,” a portrait of director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci. (“He was going to come but he’s kind of busy,” Huntsinger says dryly.)

Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Director Barry Jenkins, who has a close relationship with Telluride stretching back two decades, is serving as the festival’s guest director this year and has curated a selection of provocative repertory films like the rarely seen 1979 “West Indies” and the 2003 Israeli drama “Garden.” Having started out at the festival as a production apprentice sweeping up popcorn between screenings, Jenkins went on to have his own career-making moment when his film “Moonlight” wowed audiences there in 2016.

“I don’t know what it’s going to feel like this year,” he says. “As someone who makes films and really cares about the presentation of them, I hope that once we’re all in the theater that we can all be — and feel — safe. After that last year, it’s just wonderful to have the opportunity to gather again.”

As Hollywood — and the world at large — continues to weather unprecedented challenges, Huntsinger hopes that Telluride will offer at least a temporary balm to weary cinephiles.

“For a lot of artists, when they come here it’s rejuvenating,” she says. “It makes them remember, ‘This is why we do this: We love movies.’ You fill your cup up again and then you go back to the grind.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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