By Leah Greenblatt
Updated September 08, 2015 at 12:14 PM EDT
Credit: Claire Folger
  • Movie

The first big news out of Telluride, the film festival known for its high-altitude beauty, intimate setting, and Oscar ESP — six of the last seven Best Picture winners debuted here, including Birdman, Argo, and 12 Years a Slave — was what wouldn’t be there: Amazing Grace.

Late director Sydney Pollack’s long-unfinished documentary on the recording of Aretha Franklin’s legendary 1972 album of the same name was pulled from the festival hours before it was set to premiere, after the singer filed an emergency injunction in a federal Colorado court claiming it was completed and presented without her consent.

The not-quite-analogous Sherpa, about the 2014 avalanche on Mt. Everest, was brought in as a last-minute substitute and the show, like it almost always does, went on. This year’s awards-season frontrunners weren’t hard to find — especially if you followed the lines snaking around the theater entrances: The blood-drenched Whitey Bulger biopic Black Mass, featuring Johnny Depp’s most chilling performance (and prosthetic hairline) in years; Aaron Sorkin’s stagey, ratatat take on Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, and Seth Rogen and directed by Danny Boyle; Todd Hayne’s forbidden-love melodrama Carol, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara; the historical rabble rouser Suffragette; and Spotlight, featuring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo as Boston journalists working to expose a massive coverup in the Catholic Church.

It might or might not be a coincidence that all but one of those is based on real events (Carol pulls from a lesser-known 1953 novel by Patricia Highsmith). Cary Fukanaga’s Beasts of No Nation, another novel-based entry with a much harsher ring of truth, blurred the lines between fact and fiction and was easily the most unforgettable film of the festival: a brutal but beautifully executed portrait of a West African child soldier (14-year-old Abraham Attah, discovered on the streets of Ghana), with a riveting Idris Elba as his rebel commander.

Among the best of the low-budget indies, foreign entries and documentaries were the lovely Cuban offering Viva, executive produced by Benicio del Toro; Room, a harrowing captivity drama with knockout performances by Brie Larson and 8-year-old newcomer Jacob Tremblay; the profile in courage doc He Named Me Malala, helmed by An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim; the stop-motion-animation fantasia Anomalisa, written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman; and the smart, solution-oriented climate-change doc Time to Choose. Larger-than-life gangsters, lady crusaders, and eccentric iGeniuses may have made the biggest noise, but these smaller movies are the ones that really honor the spirit of festivals like Telluride — and more than one of them might prove to be a dark horse for that Best Picture run in 2016.

WANT MORE EW? Subscribe now to keep up with the latest in movies, television and music.

Beasts of No Nation

2015 movie
  • Movie
  • 136 minutes
  • Cary Fukunaga