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Telluride Watch 3: Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, and Awards Buzz

by Anne Thompson
September 1, 2008 6:25 AM
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Elkspaneldscn2832One of the tricks of the fall film fest trade is to launch a few movies that will gain awards season traction. Telluride has often done well picking some of these pics in advance, such as Brokeback Mountain, Walk the Line and last year's Juno. So given this year's short supply of completed specialty division fare, as many distribs have opted to take the late-year approach to chasing Oscar, Telluride dug up its own indie and foreign gems to help them get some attention.

What these films desperately need is good reviews and buzz.

One unfinished big-studio film came to Telluride anyway. David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button played well in the Opera House with the folks who actually saw it, but risked the Wrath of the Internet--bloggers reviewed the tantalizing 20-minute assemblage (edited by Fincher's editor, Kirk Baxter), which could hardly be reviewed as a real movie, including one blogger who hadn't even seen it. (On the other end of the time continuum, GQ sent a writer here who is prepping a 6000-word Fincher profile.)

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What worked for Paul Thomas Anderson the year before seemed to backfire this time. For one thing, unpredictably, there were more bloggers and fan sites covering the fest this year. This instant reaction from Slashfilm gives a sense of how the blogosphere can weigh in on a movie. Fincher couldn't show one long sequence--the usual practice-- because he needed to show the passage of time and the different faces of Button (Brad Pitt), so the concept of the movie would be clear. (Telluride wanted fewer, longer clips, but didn't get them until the eve of the showing.)

The other difference between Button and There Will Be Blood is the difference between a Paramount Vantage indie directed by PTA and a big studio director who has commandeered a major movie star and $150-million in big-Paramount resources. Insiders can't help but speculate on the eventual outcome of the movie. Will it get good reviews and be an Oscar contender? Will it lose a fortune? (Is it Memoirs of a Geisha all over again?) The real folks in Telluride will spread good word in their communities, which was Paramount's intention here. But the fanboys are interested in this movie too, and it may not be for them.

No matter how the film turns out, the buzz on Brad Pitt--who was impressive in the Fincher Tribute scenes from Seven and Fight Club-- is getting louder. It could be his turn.

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Among the relative unknown pics with Oscar hopes on their sleeves are Flash of Genius, a heart-tugging David-and-Goliath story starring Greg Kinnear in a moving performance as the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper who takes on Ford and loses everything in the process. Universal backed this deliberately old-fashioned drama from producer-turned-director Marc Abraham (Children of Men, The Family Man). Kinnear was nominated for As Good as it Gets, so he's in the Oscar zone. But while he and Lauren Graham give their all, the tearkjerker has not built much momentum here, and even with mighty Universal behind it, will need great reviews to get anywhere.

Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky comes out of Telluride with some heat for actress Sally Hawkins, yet another relative British unknown like Vera Drake's Imelda Staunton, who went on to win an Oscar nomination (along with Leigh for writer and director). Leigh insists on picking his own actors and says he will never ever succumb to pressure to hire anyone, much less an American star. (He desperately wants to make his biopic on the great Romantic painter Turner, but no one will fund it.) Miramax is releasing.

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Leigh also held his own on Friday's Director/Actors panel, moderated by Annette Insdorf--and went up against Fincher, insisting that although they work with actors entirely differently and with an enormous budget differential, they're actually after the same thing: creating authentic characters. Here's a video snippet featuring Fincher.

A movie that does not have a distrib is Paul Schrader's Adam Resurrected, which stars Jeff Goldblum in an astonishing role as a Berlin cabaret performer who survived a concentration camp by playing a dog for a commandant (Willem Dafoe). The movie is magical, fictional and outrageous, like the popular Yoram Kaniuk novel it is based on, and marks a feat of daring on the part of Schrader and Goldblum. Some small distrib will figure out that there is a long-shot Oscar play here for Goldblum, who uses every skill he ever learned in his career for this juicy sexy crazy role.

UPDATE: Another possible awards contender is Brit actress Kristin Scott Thomas, star of French novelist Philippe Claudel's intense two-hander I've Loved You So Long, his directorial debut. Thomas plays a mysterious woman who comes to live with her younger sister (an impeccable Elsa Zylberstein). Slowly we begin to learn the details: the elder sister has been in prison for fifteen years, and is shut down. Slowly, she begins to wake up to the family around her, two little nieces, her sister, husband, and her father-in-law. She starts to talk. Gets a job. Engages with her sister about what happened. While Claudel started out wanting to explore his experience teaching in prison, this story of two sisters emerged. Thomas has lived in France for 25 years, but this is her first role carrying a French movie. Sony Pictures Classics is also taking this to Toronto. France has a plethora of films for possible Oscar submission this year, led by Palme d'Or winner The Class (which opens the NYFF). But if the actress field is open enough, Thomas could sneak in. This is more than just an accent or a beautiful woman made plain.

Here's Kim Voynar's Cinematical review.

The discovery of the fest for Leigh, me and many others was Swedish auteur Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments, which is based on a true story of a downtrodden turn-of-the-century woman who learns to use a camera. Silent images convey much of the story, and the photography and detail of daily life are stunning. So is the performance of Maria Heiskanen as the mother of an ever-increasing brood who finds joy in observing the world around her through a camera lens, just as Troell does. He has been making films in Sweden for more than 40 years (as well as a few Hollywood pics such as Zandy's Bride). He was Oscar-nominated for writing and directing 1973's foreign Oscar winner The Emigrants. Thanks to Telluride's cajoling, Troell, 77, came to the fest to accept a silver medallion and brought his spanking new film, which will now go to Toronto to seek a North American distrib. It will open in Sweden in September; it is a strong candidate foreign Oscar submission. Todd McCarthy also raves in his Telluride Wrap.

More anon. Here are my interviews with Hunger's Steve McQueen and Danny Boyle, whose Slumdog Millionaire is the breakout hit of the festival. Here's Todd McCarthy's review.

UPDATE: The irony is that by shutting down Warner Independent, Warner Bros. gave away the biggest hit they might have had; nonetheless sharing the release with Fox Searchlight is smart because big Warner would have had no clue what to do with it. The movie is brilliantly structured and executed; a thrill ride inside the bustling world of Mumbai. As the 18-year-old Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? contestant answers each question, the movie flashes back to his life to show how he learned the answer. The movie is painful and sordid, exhilarating and joyous. Will it go all the way? To a smash hit, yes. Then you think: cinematography, writing, directing, editing, score...and yes, there's a Bollywood musical number under the closing credits.

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[Actor-director panel participants from left, Greg Kinnear, Mike Leigh, Elsa Zylberstein, moderator Annette Insdorf, David Fincher, Jean Simmons and Jeff Goldblum; Danny Boyle, bottom.]

More Telluride photos on the jump.


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[Group shot; Michael O'Keefe and Laura Linney; fest co-director Tom Luddy; Fest managing director Julie Huntsinger; Danny Boyle; and co-director Gary Meyer; Lauren Graham; Kimberly Reed.]

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

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