'Roma,' 'First Man' and What Mattered at Telluride This Year

THR's awards columnist Scott Feinberg and executive editor of features Stephen Galloway discuss the week's awards-related news and controversies.
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Alfonso Cuaron directs Yalitza Aparicio in a scene from 'Roma.'

FEINBERG Stephen, after yet another cinema-packed Labor Day weekend in the Rockies, we are now en route back to L.A., so let’s do a debriefing. Based on what you saw and heard at the 45th Telluride Film Festival, did any movie pop more than the rest?

GALLOWAY Roma was the only film I saw that received universal acclaim. That’s good news and bad news for Alfonso Cuaron’s movie. It means that it becomes the instant frontrunner — but, as you know (and as The Front Runner points out), frontrunners become a target for rivals, and there were some other really strong entries at Telluride this year that will give it a run for its money.

FEINBERG Like everyone else, I loved Roma. But Netflix, its distributor (or, more aptly, its streamer), won’t have long to celebrate, because it quickly needs to convince Academy members to watch a black-and-white, Spanish-language film starring nobody they’ve ever heard of. It’s a tall task, but not an impossible one. The Artist wasn’t an easy sell, either.

GALLOWAY That’s going to be complicated by the fact that Roma’s leading actress, Yalitza Aparicio, doesn’t speak English — though that didn’t prevent Jean Dujardin from winning best actor for The Artist, and I gather the Netflix awards team has already started looking for an English tutor.

FEINBERG Right up there with Roma for most people, including me, was another film that came to Telluride after having its world premiere in Venice, Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a Neil Armstrong biopic that reunites Chazelle with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling; and also another one that came from Cannes, Cold War, a black-and-white Polish film from Ida Oscar winner Pawel Pawlikowski, which I think I may have liked a bit more than you.

GALLOWAY You’re right. I had mixed feelings about Cold War. It looks gorgeous, and I was blown away by its leading lady, Joanna Kulig. But I came out infuriated by the thinness of the script and the improbability of some of the plot points. I don’t want to give away what happens, and I’m sure awards voters will embrace this heavily, but I’m still fuming.

FEINBERG Roma and Cold War are almost certain to be the foreign-language Oscar entries of Mexico and Poland, respectively, but wouldn’t it be something if they both wind up as best picture nominees, too? That would mark the first instance in the category in 38 years of multiple black-and-white nominees, and the first instance ever of multiple non-English-language nominees.

GALLOWAY What would also be something is if either film gets nominated for the “popcorn Oscar” or whatever they’re calling it — though there’s about as much chance of that happening as White Boy Rick being nominated in the foreign-language category.

FEINBERG Don’t get me started on the popcorn Oscar. You know that I’m one of the few people who thinks it’s a good and necessary addition — and I can’t wait for Black Panther and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again to go head-to-head in February!

GALLOWAY This is one of the few things we disagree on. Another, I think, is The Favourite, which I simply adored — I’m predicting it’s a lock for a best picture nomination. It’s going to scoop up a host of other nominations, too, including many below-the-line and Olivia Colman in either the lead or supporting actress category. My understanding is that Fox Searchlight is still deciding how to classify her, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.

FEINBERG I didn’t dislike The Favourite — I’m just skeptical that an eccentric costume drama set in the 18th century about a queen and two women competing for her affection will be able to score a best picture nomination with an organization that is still 69 percent male. But I’m totally with you on its strength in the other categories.

GALLOWAY Let’s come back to First Man. You know how much I admire Chazelle — and I liked him enormously when I spent time with him for our recent cover story — but I wonder whether Armstrong’s aloofness will prevent voters from feeling emotionally invested. What do you think?

FEINBERG Some people can find a reason to gripe about anything, as we saw with Sen. Marco Rubio and the American flag “controversy.” But I think the intensity of the film’s action sequences — which make Apollo 13 look like a student film — will keep people thoroughly engaged; and Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, as Mrs. Armstrong, manage to communicate an awful lot without saying much at all, especially in the powerful closing scene.

GALLOWAY The biggest surprise of the festival for me was Can You Ever Forgive Me? and the peculiar platonic “love affair” between Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant (best known for Withnail & I). I read the book it’s based on when it came out years ago, and the story is so thin I never imagined it could be this well-adapted. McCarthy was great in an unusual dramatic role, but Grant was remarkable. He’s going to be a major contender for supporting actor, which would be his first-ever Oscar nomination.

FEINBERG There were quite a few imperfect movies with standout performances: Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart in The Front Runner, Nicole Kidman as an L.A. detective in Destroyer and Matthew McConaughey as a delinquent’s dad in White Boy Rick — each of whom stands a shot at landing an acting nom (Jackman and Kidman in the lead acting categories, but McConaughey in supporting).

GALLOWAY Did you notice that all these movies except Roma were toplined by Caucasian actors? There are some big pictures that have already been seen that may get awards traction — Black Panther, BlackKklansman and Crazy Rich Asians — but I’m worried that the acting categories will be awfully thin when it comes to diversity.

FEINBERG The directors of two of the five most recent best picture Oscar winners, Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), have new pictures with diverse casts that will roll out at upcoming film fests — If Beale Street Could Talk and Widows, respectively — so perhaps that will change. Were there any other films at Telluride that you really loved?

GALLOWAY The National Geographic documentary Free Solo. It’s the true story of one of the world’s greatest mountain climbers, and his death-defying attempt to scale Yosemite’s El Capitan mountain. I won’t reveal what happens, but readers with vertigo beware. How about you?

FEINBERG Like the rest of the audience at Free Solo, which broke into applause multiple times mid-movie, I was totally caught up in it from start to finish, and think it could and should be a real contender for best documentary feature. I also admired the Pauline Kael doc What She Said and the abortion doc Reversing Roe.

GALLOWAY I was a bit let down by Werner Herzog’s new doc Meeting Gorbachev, which, incidentally, I saw in the Herzog Theatre. I’ve really loved his other documentaries, but this one didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.

FEINBERG Well, I only have tomorrow to enjoy my Rocky Mountain high before heading north of the border to the Toronto International Film Festival, which is set to screen many of the same films that played at Sundance (Colette), Cannes (Everybody Knows), Sundance and Cannes (Wildlife), Venice (22 July, The Sisters Brothers and the fourth big-screen iteration of A Star Is Born) and Telluride, and will also premiere a host of other wannabe contenders — If Beale Street Could Talk and Widows, plus Beautiful Boy, Ben Is Back, Green Book, The Hate You Give, Hotel Mumbai, Life Itself, Outlaw King, A Private War and the list goes on.

GALLOWAY The list always goes on, Scott. The question is: how long can we?