ENTER-MOVIE-TELLURIDE-ANALYSIS-MCT

Scarlett Johansson, left, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in the movie “Marriage Story.”

By JOSH ROTTENBERG

Los Angeles Times

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Set in an isolated box canyon in the mountains of Colorado, the Telluride Film Festival likes to pride itself on its casual, decidedly un-Hollywood atmosphere. Red carpets and paparazzi are nowhere to be found, and even the high-powered film executives who arrive on private jets stroll around town in jeans.

But beneath this laid-back surface, Telluride, along with the other fall festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York, has become an increasingly pivotal stop on the awards-season calendar in recent years. And as the 46th edition unfolded over Labor Day weekend, all eyes were peeled for signs of which movies might be destined for Oscar glory and which would fizzle on the launch pad.

“It is the modern equivalent of gladiator fights,” director James Mangold, whose car-racing drama “Ford v Ferrari” was warmly received in its world premiere, told The Times. “What’s more dramatic than some filmmaker coming to a festival and in one day being dead or damaged and bleeding? But you brave it.”

One of this Oscar season’s most anticipated movies, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s wrenching divorce drama “Marriage Story,” drew a rapturous reception at Telluride on the heels of its debut at the Venice Film Festival. Many expect the film, which stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, to earn Netflix a spot in this year’s best-picture race.

Numerous critics have praised the picture as the strongest yet for Baumbach, whose earlier movies include “Kicking and Screaming,” “The Squid and the Whale” and “The Meyerowitz Stories.” “It’s not for me to say,” Baumbach said. “But working with these actors, there were definitely moments and scenes we shot where I felt more affected by what they were doing. It felt charged and moving and exciting in ways that felt unique.”

As Netflix continues to hunt for its first best picture trophy, the streaming giant’s other major Telluride feature, the Fernando Meirelles-directed “Two Popes” — a kind of theology-inflected buddy dramedy chronicling the relationship between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis — stirred buzz for its performances from actors Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.

A number of other performances also got major boosts at the festival, including the lead turns by “Ford v Ferrari” costars Matt Damon and Christian Bale, who are no strangers to awards season. Adam Sandler drew career-best reviews for his hyperkinetic performance as a self-destructive, gambling-addicted diamond dealer whose life is careening off the rails in the gonzo, white-knuckle crime thriller “Uncut Gems,” from directors Josh and Benny Safdie (“Good Time”).

Renee Zellweger — who earned a special tribute at the festival along with Driver, whose political drama “The Report” also screened — drew standing ovations for her work in the Judy Garland biopic “Judy,” in which she plays the Hollywood icon near the end of her turbulent life. Many are already predicting the film will mark a return to the Oscars for Zellweger, who won supporting actress for 2003’s “Cold Mountain” and earned nods for 2002’s “Chicago” and 2001’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

Telluride offered North American audiences their first opportunity to see a handful of movies that had made splashes this year at the Cannes Film Festival, including French director Celine Sciamma’s period drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory,” and “Parasite,” a twisty, satirical meditation on class from director Bong Joon-ho that won the Palme d’Or.

“Parasite,” which has Oscar ambitions beyond the foreign-language category, earned a particularly strong response, with hundreds turned away from a screening on the festival’s final day. Bong, speaking through a translator, told The Times he was delighted with the reaction to the film, which has already been a major hit in his native South Korea.

“I was able to watch the last hour of the movie with the audience and the response was so immediate — I could hear the laughs, the screams and people just gasping,” he said. “Rather than watching a movie, I felt like I was watching a live performance. I’m not sure if that’s how the audience at Telluride normally is or if that’s how American audiences usually are, so I’m very curious to see.”

Other films didn’t come out of the festival with the same momentum, however. The ‘50s-set noir detective drama “Motherless Brooklyn,” a long-gestating passion project for director and star Edward Norton, drew mixed reviews. Amazon Studios’ most high-profile entry, “The Aeronauts,” a hot air-ballooning period adventure film that costars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, earned more positive notices but still had a somewhat hard time breaking through the noise. Similarly, director Kitty Green’s timely, downbeat drama “The Assistant,” which centers on a young assistant to a never-seen film executive clearly modeled on Harvey Weinstein, drew some favorable attention but left Telluride still seeking distribution.

Arguably the biggest sleeper hit of this year’s Telluride was writer-director Trey Edwards Shults’ wrenching drama “Waves,” the story of an upper-class African American family torn apart by tragedy and trying to repair itself. Stylistically audacious and difficult to describe, the film — one of three A24 titles at the festival, along with “Uncut Gems” and Kelly Reichardt’s well-defined frontier drama “First Cow” — earned some of the weekend’s strongest reviews.

For the 30-year-old Shults, whose earlier films, “Krisha” and “It Comes at Night,” flew largely under the mainstream radar, the prospect of suddenly being vaulted into the thick of awards season was too much to process. As a Telluride first-timer, he was having a hard enough time just wrapping his mind around the idea that he was breathing the same thin, high-altitude air as some of his filmmaking heroes.

“I was just standing near Martin Scorsese, someone who’s changed my life with his work,” Shults told The Times the day after his film’s world premiere. “I didn’t talk to him. There’s no way I could. I just watched people talk to him.” He laughed and shook his head. “It’s a trip.”