Each Labor Day, Colorado’s San Juan mountains play host to one of the first hurdles in the long steeplechase that is Oscar season — the Telluride Film Festival. Compared to Venice or Toronto, it’s a small town. But its importance shouldn’t be taken lightly. Eight of the last nine best pictures winners have screened here, including the close-but-no-cigar La La Land and the actual, oh-this-cigar-is-for-you winner Moonlight last year. When Telluride picks its slate, Oscar voters listen.
This year’s lineup features a lot of movies you’ll soon be hearing a lot about, including Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour with Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Angelina Jolie’s Cambodian genocide drama First They Killed My Father, Nebraska director Alexander Payne’s shrunken-Matt Damon flick Downsizing, Scott Cooper’s Christian Bale-starrer Hostiles, and Wonderstruck, the latest from Carol and Far From Heaven director, Todd Haynes. Still, the movie I was most eager to see coming into this year’s festival was Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.
Early buzz coming out of Venice this past week was rapturous. And, to be honest, it had been a while since a del Toro movie really wowed me and knocked me back on my heels. Neither Pacific Rim nor Crimson Peak really did it for me. I might even have to go all the way back to Pan’s Labyrinth, and that was a decade ago. But with someone as strange and singular as del Toro, each film is something to really anticipate and savor like a great meal. The good news is The Shape of Water doesn’t disappoint. It’s pure movie magic – weird and wonderful.
Del Toro introduced the film on Saturday night saying that he’d been thinking of the story ever since he saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon when he was 6. And the movie, which is very adult, has a childlike sense of wonder and fantasy. Set in Baltimore in 1962 and painted in a palette of shades of green, the film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a lonely mute cleaning woman who mops up at a top-secret government lab where the military is housing an amphibious gilled creature that the Russians want to get their hands on. A gonzo Michael Shannon (is there any other kind?) is the creature’s sadistic jailer. Michael Stuhlbarg is the scientist who’s sympathetic to it. But not as sympathetic as Elisa, who forms an unlikely intimacy with it. If it sounds bizarre, well, it is. But it’s also poignant, tender, funny, romantic, and just breathtaking in its shoot-the-moon ambition. There’s even a Busby Berkeley dance sequence! If you’re willing to go with this movie (and man, was I), it’s a sci-fi love story like nothing you’ve ever seen – or dreamed you might ever want to see. And Hawkins is just amazing.
The flibbertigibbet indie darling Greta Gerwig, best known for her roles in Frances Ha and Mistress America, made her directorial debut at the festival with Lady Bird – a coming-of-age crowdpleaser that features a terrifically bittersweet (and occasionally very funny) performance from Saoirse Ronan. It’s a promising first film even if it got a little too Pretty in Pink in parts to totally bowl me over. But the performances are all aces. Ronan plays a Catholic high school senior whose name is Christine, but prefers to be called “Lady Bird” much to the dismay of her perpetually scowling, tough-love mother (Laurie Metcalf). The film is set in Sacramento, which Lady Bird dismissively refers to as “the Midwest of California,” and is so keenly observed that it feels autobiographical. Lady Bird is from the wrong side of the tracks and is trying to negotiate the high school minefield of popularity, boys, and where she fits in. The real reason to see the film is Ronan, who, as always, is fantastic. Still, Lady Bird represents something new for her. Ronan has always possessed a wise-beyond-her-years air of knowingness (Brooklyn, Atonement, The Grand Budapest Hotel), but here she really shines by not knowing who she is. She’s just a teenager trying to figure that all out. And who can’t relate to that?
Making it three-for-three in terms of terrific leading actress performances, Emma Stone returned to Telluride 12 months after blowing the doors off the joint with La La Land. This time, she plays tennis legend Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes – Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s occasionally stirring chronicle of the real-life 1973 PR stunt/tennis match between King and former men’s champ Bobby Riggs that became a watershed moment in American feminism/equality. Stone certainly looks like King with her wire-rimmed glasses and black bangs and her physical skill on the court is completely convincing. But the movie, as powerful as it as times, has a cliché-larded TV movie quality to it (the ‘70s time period and the sideburns and wigs that come with it don’t help). Every important point about equal rights or King’s struggle with her then-closeted sexuality feels too on the nose. Too pat. The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) needed more subtlety, more showing and less telling. Steve Carell nails Riggs’ cartoonishly broad male-chauvinist hustler persona — the guy was a brash Barnum-esque pig who not only knew it but was proud of it. The best moments in the film – the ones that really stay with you — are the scenes between Stone and Andrea Riseborough (Nocturnal Animals), who plays King’s on-the-DL lover. When the two of them are on screen together, the film takes flight…for a while at least before coming back to earth.