The Telluride Film Festival has long cherished its image as an oasis for movie lovers, tucked away in a remote Colorado box canyon, free from the cares of the world.
Alas, this year, not even the rugged San Juan Mountains that circle the picturesque town could keep the existential anxieties plaguing Hollywood entirely at bay.
Attendees of the 49th edition of the festival lined up as eagerly as ever to get their first look at some of this year's most anticipated Oscar hopefuls — including Sarah Polley's "Women Talking," Todd Field's "Tar" and Alejandro G. Inarritu's "Bardo" — keenly aware of Telluride's growing importance as an awards-campaign launchpad that has played host to eight of the last 10 best picture winners.
But longtime Telluride attendees noted that the mood seemed a bit more subdued than usual this year. There were fewer A-listers to be seen casually strolling through town in jeans and flannel (such stars as Timothee Chalamet and Florence Pugh were in Venice but not Telluride, while Oscar winner Olivia Colman beamed into her premiere via Zoom). The parties were a little less lively. "I feel like nothing has really popped," one publicist noted late in the festival, which unfolded over Labor Day weekend.
In part, that may have been due to the overall seriousness of this year's lineup, which was light on splashy, star-driven crowd-pleasers in favor of smaller, weightier films, a number of them grappling with knotty themes of gender, race, power, artistic angst and abuse.
Zooming out further, though, there was no way to ignore the steep challenges facing exactly the sort of ambitious, adult-oriented films that Telluride exists to celebrate, as audiences continue to shift away from theaters and the industry struggles to recover from the disruptions of the pandemic.
"The movie business is f—," director James Gray — on hand for the well-received North American premiere of his autobiographical coming-of-age drama "Armageddon Time" — said bluntly during a brunch on the festival's opening day, lamenting that audiences accustomed to a steady diet of "junk food" seemed to be losing their taste for more nuanced fare.
During a Q&A following the world premiere of his new film "Empire of Light" — an interracial romance set in 1980s England starring Colman that also serves as a love letter to movies — Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes ("1917") noted that the film had been born out of his pandemic-stoked fears that cinema as he has known and loved it his whole life could be on its last legs.
"There was a time, pre-vaccine, when we thought, 'It's all gone. It's gone away. We will never be in this situation again. We will never sit with people in the dark again,' " Mendes said.
Despite such less than rosy sentiments, there were plenty of signs that, rumors of its death notwithstanding, the art form is still very much alive and kicking.
"Women Talking," a provocative ensemble drama about a group of rural Mennonite women who band together to stand up to their abusers, drew a highly enthusiastic response from the Telluride crowd, as did "Tar," a searing character study starring Cate Blanchett as a brilliant but flawed orchestra conductor.
Both Polley and Blanchett received special tributes and were awarded the festival's Silver Medallion. And the impeccable craftsmanship, keen intelligence and fine acting in each movie spoke for itself. "There's not much to say about this film," said Field, introducing a packed screening of "Tar." "So I won't."
Still, although both films seem certain to find favor with awards voters and critics, with Blanchett already considered a veritable lock for an Oscar nomination and possibly her third win, it remains to be seen how such rigorous, challenging and uncompromising fare will connect with mainstream audiences.
Other films drew more mixed reactions. While Oscar prognosticators predicted "Empire of Light" will bring Colman her fourth acting nomination and many in the Telluride crowd greeted the film warmly, some critics, including the L.A. Times' Justin Chang, were less favorable toward the film.
Similarly, even as "The Wonder" drew praise for Pugh's performance as a nurse in 19th-century Ireland unraveling the mystery of a girl who seems miraculously able to survive without eating, the film itself drew a generally muted response.
One of the most anticipated films heading into this year's awards season — Inarritu's wildly ambitious if clunkily titled "Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths" — landed with a thud after its poorly received premiere early at the Venice Film Festival.
The prospect of the Oscar-winning filmmaker returning to his Mexican roots to make his most personal film stirred high hopes, with Netflix looking to follow the same playbook it used to propel Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma" to a best picture nomination.
But the opening-night screening of "Bardo" was only two-thirds full, and more than a few attendees walked out of Inarritu's nearly three-hour film, which many critics have deemed a self-indulgent monument to the director's ego.
Speaking to the L.A. Times, Inarritu — who won back-to-back directing Oscars for "Birdman" and "The Revenant" — pushed back strongly against the criticism of the film, a surrealistic journey through the memories, dreams and existential anxieties of a famous Mexican journalist-turned-filmmaker.
"Every artist has the right to express himself the way he wants without being accused of being self-indulgent," Inarritu said. "I hope somebody can turn down that narrative, which is very reductive and a little racist, I have to say."
By turns tender and horrific, director Luca Guadagnino's "Bones and All," starring Chalamet and Taylor Russell as cannibalistic lovers on the run, drew applause from the Telluride audience. The film's shocking moments of gore proved too much for some attendees, though, sparking a handful of viewers to head for the exits and raising the question of just how wide the audience will be for an arty, often melancholy horror film about doomed young flesh-eaters, even with a star like Chalamet on board. (One patron came up to Guadagnino during the festival and told him he had briefly fainted during the movie from shock but absolutely loved it.)
This year's Telluride also featured a plethora of strong documentaries, including "Sr.," a portrait of the late filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. and his relationship with his movie-star son; "Icarus: The Aftermath," a follow-up to the Oscar-winning doc about Russia's doping scandal; and new works by filmmakers Werner Herzog ("Theater of Thought"), Ondi Timoner ("Last Flight Home") and Anton Corbijn ("Squaring the Circle").
Of course, it would be unwise to read too much into the vibe at a single film festival — and competing festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York promise to inject further life into this year's awards season, featuring eagerly awaited films including Steven Spielberg's "The Fabelmans," Rian Johnson's "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery," Maria Schrader's "She Said," Andrew Dominik's "Blonde" and Darren Aronofsky's "The Whale."
Meanwhile, Telluride is already looking ahead to next year, when it will celebrate its 50th anniversary with an added day and no shortage of fanfare.
Speaking to the L.A. Times before the weekend kicked off, festival director Julie Huntsinger expressed undimmed confidence not only in the future of Telluride but in the movies themselves.
"I really try to operate in my own little vacuum," she said. "As long as we keep showing what we think is the absolute best — and we talk about it and we celebrate it — we're good."