Where Oscar winners make their debut

TELLURIDE (Colorado) • The Telluride Film Festival in this highaltitude former mining town prides itself on its low-key, locavore vibe - movie stars mingle with tourists and students in Colorado Avenue - but transmits a loud and resonant signal to the movie world below.

That is partly because of people like me. Telluride doesn't issue press credentials, but the number of journalists attending has grown in recent years, both a cause and an effect of the event's elevated profile.

Eight Oscar Best Picture winners in the last decade made their North American debuts here, most recently Moonlight, whose director, Barry Jenkins, had been part of the festival's staff. (This year, he programmed a selection of short films.)

The sense that we might find ourselves at the start of a path that will terminate at the Academy Awards next March puts scribblers in a bind. We'd rather make discoveries than predictions. But our sincerity gets tangled up in our cynicism and vice versa. That's show business.

The cynical eye might alight on Darkest Hour, Joe Wright's depiction of Winston Churchill's first days as wartime Prime Minister. The film embodies the Great Man Theory of History and, more to the point, the Great Man Theory of Acting. Gary Oldman mutters and blusters, while a fine supporting cast (including Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Mendelsohn) goes through various motions of Englishness. The film is a display of pedigree and prestige, which are certainly part of the coin of the Oscar realm.

I intend no snark. I'm writing from inside a glass house and I'll leave the stones on the ground. I'm in favour of popular entertainment that shows ambition, even at the risk of self-seriousness.

I like it a lot that Greta Gerwig, an actress and screenwriter making her solo-directing debut, has so thoroughly reinvigorated the senior- year-in-high-school coming-of-age comedy with Lady Bird. The movie is sharp, shrewd, funny and impeccably cast. Saoirse Ronan is Christine McPherson, who prefers to be called Lady Bird and who grapples with some of the usual frustrations of adolescence: sex, school, friendship, parents (Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf, both superb). The story unfolds episodically, through homecoming, college applications and senior prom; the overwhelming impression is of an original creative voice in the process of self-discovery: Christine's and also Gerwig's.

Lady Bird is one of a cluster of movies that might be described as stories of individuals - of women, in many cases - laying claim to their rightful share of dignity.

The famous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs - the subject of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's Battle Of The Sexes - was in some ways a loopy spectacle of 1970s craziness. The film-makers capture the circus- like atmosphere, but the centre of the movie is Emma Stone's King, a feminist pioneer without apology.

Will Stone win a second consecutive Oscar for the role? Will she compete with Sally Hawkins, who plays a mute cleaning woman in The Shape Of Water, Guillermo del Toro's passionately revisionist monster movie? I don't care. But I am dazzled by del Toro's ability to mobilise old-movie tropes and movie- geek scholarship with the heart-on- the-sleeve humanism shown here.

But if I had to declare a favourite from this festival, it would be A Fantastic Woman, the new film by Chilean director Sebastian Lelio.

The title character is Marina, a transgender woman whose lover dies suddenly, leaving her to deal not only with her own grief, but also with his estranged family. Played by Daniela Vega, Marina suffers with the grace and ferocity of a 40s heroine. The film neither politicises her plight nor denies its political implications. It does what many of the people she encounters can't seem to manage: It lets her be.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2017, with the headline 'Where Oscar winners make their debut'. Print Edition | Subscribe