The man who might have gotten the biggest boost from Friday’s opening of the Telluride Film Festival, Benedict Cumberbatch of “The Imitation Game,” wasn’t even there to enjoy his acclaim. But his ears were surely burning, because his film opened to the kind of near-universal kudos that nearly eclipsed the somewhat mixed reaction to the day’s other bows.
On an opening night that found Telluride hosting three Toronto-defying world premieres, Jon Stewart enjoyed newfound star power as an off-camera writer-director with the debut of “Rosewater,” while Reese Witherspoon had some festivalgoers supposing that “Wild” could have her walking a red-carpet line to another Oscar nomination.
But the absent Cumberbatch was the toast of Telluride, and “The Imitation Game” director Morten Tyldum and distributor Harvey Weinstein did turn up to usher in the film’s first public screening. As Oscar bait, this “Game” has nearly everything going for it, combining a critical historical moment — the cracking of the German Enigma code, which some say made the difference in the Allies winning WWII — with a contemporary hot-button topic, as found in the eventual persecution of Cumberbatch’s war hero character for the mere fact of being illegally homosexual.
Gritty and glossy at the same time, in the tradition of some of Weinstein’s biggest successes, “Imitation” also has the virtue of being quite good. Weinstein may actually have an easier job than usual, at least when it comes to collecting nominations. Predicting whether Cumberbatch will earn one kind of counts as a “no s–t, Sherlock” no-brainer.
Earlier in the day, “Wild” premiered up in the blue yonder at the mountaintop Chuck Jones Cinema, where it was warmly if not wildly received by an invitational patrons-only crowd. Among the well-wishers were Oprah Winfrey, who helped popularize Cheryl Strayed’s source memoir by making it a book club selection.
Although reaction to the film among bloggers was as divided as the response for last year’s ultimately unsuccessful opener, “Labor Day,” “Wild” certainly stands a better chance of making an incursion into the awards picture via Winfrey’s support and all the residual good will for Witherspoon. As the story of a woman who walks the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail in response to the death of her mother (played by Laura Dern in dozens of regularly-scheduled flashbacks), “Wild” is likely to divide critics into camps of those who respect it as a tale of spiritual self-enlightenment and those who wonder how it’s even possible to trail-walk while doing that much navel-gazing.
There was slightly less intrigue surrounding Friday night’s unveiling of “Rosewater,” since selected trade critics had been allowed to see and review Stewart’s debut as an auteur in advance of the Telluride bow — again, to mixed reviews. But the atmosphere surrounding Stewart in the mountains was little short of worshipful, first at a patrons brunch (where he mingled at length with pal and “Foxcatcher” star Steve Carrell) and later at a post-screening Q&A that boasted the highest retention rate you’ll ever see at any festival screening.
Introducing the first public screening, Stewart welcomed the chance to unspool it “in what I think we can all agree is the nicest middle-school auditorium” anywhere — i.e., a gymnasium that for one weekend becomes the state-of-the-art Galaxy Theatre.
“This ain’t New Jersey,” he added, presaging what turned out to be a surprising succession of NJ jokes for a film set exclusively in Iran and mostly in a solitary confinement cell.
Stewart decision to make a drama about the imprisonment of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari — who fielded questions alongside him, as did the Mexican actor who plays him, Gael Garcia Bernal — was instigated when an appearance Bahari made in a filmed comedy sketch on “The Daily Show” was used against him when the Islamic regime accused him of being a traitor and American secret agent.
“In the absence of any evidence I was a spy,” Bahari said, “they had to come up with something, and I guess some idiot gave them this (TV tape) as evidence.”
“It’s not great evidence,” said Stewart, dryly.
“But I was happy that Jay Leno was not played” in the interrogation, quipped Bahari, proving that everyone’s a comedian.
Stewart talked about making the film during his three-month sabbatical from his nightly gig. “We had very little time to make this film [and] very little money,” he told the audience. “It was 95 degrees, it was the summer [in Jordan], and it was Ramadan, so a good portion of the crew was fasting. The Syrian conflict was taking off about 45 minutes away from us.
“And the good news was, I had never done it before.”
Speaking of conflicts, journalists at a press briefing that preceded the first screening wanted to know what the Telluride Film Festival’s chieftains really thought of their counterparts at the Toronto Festival taking a harder line against Telluride getting films first.
“We wish them the best and hope they have a great festival next week,” said executive director Julie Huntsinger. Pressed for more, she conceded that “it is the elephant in the room.”
Added festival co-founded Tom Luddy, “The people who always give us films are giving us films” — Sony Classics and Fox Searchlight being foremost among them — “and we’re sorry they’re being punished for that.”