Telluride and Toronto Lineups: A Critical Crystal Ball

THR's chief film critic vets the fall festivals for the titles most likely to impress

By virtue of its rapturous reception at its world premiere on opening night of the Venice Film Festival, it appears that the "the season" already has a pace-setter by the name of Birdman. In terms of explosive cinematic style and viewer exhilaration, Alejandro G. Inarritu's breathlessly stylish look at a once-famous actor trying to make a comeback would be hard to beat in any year, which is not to say that many films won't give it a shot. And several of them will be unveiled over the next two weeks, first over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, where both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity first turned heads a year ago, and then at the cinematic blow-out in Toronto, where an announced total of 143 films will have their world premieres.

Unless one has personally curated one of these festivals, it's difficult to know which films will break out and/or have the staying power to still be remembered come year's end, or even by the conclusion of the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 14. On the surface, there would seem to be fewer powerhouse titles packed into the early September curtain-raising period than there were a year ago. Two biggies — David Fincher's Gone Girl and Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice — were long ago snatched for the New York Film Festival in late September/early October, while Christopher Nolan may have decided he didn't want to let the cat out of the bag concerning the mysterious Interstellar any sooner than necessary (unless, of course, it turns up as an unannounced sneak in Telluride or New York, which is looking doubtful).

Because it's only a four-day festival, with a refreshingly eclectic lineup that's discerningly programmed, Telluride typically sports a far higher batting average of very strong films than do the giant smorgasbord-type events; one expects Telluride selections to be good, or at least worth seeing. Therefore, one is tempted to suspect that the films that will make their initial bows in the Colorado mountains at least have something special going for them. In addition to Birdman and Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes making their U.S. debuts fresh from Venice, the high-profile premieres at Telluride this year will be: Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon in Jean-Marc Vallee's first outing since Dallas Buyers Club, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum's WWII code-breaking story The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch, Regis Wargnier's The Gate, Sophie Barthes' Madame Bovary starring Mia Wasikowska and, in a whispered surprise, Italian actor Andrea Di Stefano's first feature, Escobar: Paradise Lost, a crime drama starring Josh Hutcherson and Benicio Del Toro.

Telluride will also show Jon Stewart's directorial debut, Rosewater, and the anticipated documentaries Seymour by Ethan Hawke, Merchants of Doubt from Robert Kenner and Nick Broomfield's Tales of the Grim Sleeper.

With so many world premieres on offer this year, Toronto now looks quite peevish indeed having declared a vendetta against Telluride for presuming to snare a handful of world bows for itself; does Toronto really feel it has to have absolutely everything first to retain its position? In any event, Toronto, having abandoned its policy of always opening with a Canadian film, will launch with the world premiere of David Dobkin's family legal drama The Judge, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, which can only be an improvement over last year's ill-advised opener, The Fifth Estate.

Another high-profile Hollywood release bowing in Toronto is director Antoine Fuqua's reteaming with Denzel Washington on The Equalizer, a kick-Russian-butt action thriller Sony must be happy with, as the studio has already greenlighted a sequel, suggesting long-term franchise potential.

Director James Marsh has scarcely put a foot wrong in his eclectic career thus far, so one dares to have real hopes for The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen Hawking and his wife. After flaming out in his recent tiresome comic vehicles, Adam Sandler seems intent upon turning a page to see if he can cut it as a more serious actor by way of two films, Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children and Tom McCarthy's The Cobbler.

James Gandolfini will grace the big screen for the final time in Belgian director Michael R. Roskam's The Drop, also starring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, while the seldom seen Charles Grodin is back in Noah Baumbach's new one, While We're Young, a title that sounds like something made in 1960 and set in Palm Springs but which co-stars Ben Stiller, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Driver and Naomi Watts. The latter also appears opposite Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy in Theodore Melfi's St. Vincent, while Richard Gere is back as a New York man reduced to living in a homeless shelter in Oren Moverman's latest, Time Out of Mind.

In short, it doesn't look like there's a 12 Years a Slave or Gravity in this year's crop. But there will invariably be something else, likely, as before, featuring international directors working their ways in unexpected fashion into the American or broad English-language market with offbeat and/or serious-minded fare.