Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’ Overshadows More Somber Oscar Bait at Telluride Opening

"Argo" isn't typical festival or Oscar fare, but it enraptured most Telluride viewers — leaving more serious opening-night contenders, like Sally Potter's latest, to pick up sloppy seconds

Telluride is already the highest film festival in the world, as far as elevation goes. But if there’s anyone in town who should be humming the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” right now, it’s Ben Affleck.

Ben Affleck in ArgoHis third directorial effort, “Argo,” emerged from its world premiere screening Friday as a seeming runaway hit with the kind of buzz that any other film will be hard-pressed to match over the rest of the Labor Day weekend, even if the feel-good suspense film is not even officially on the Telluride program. (It screened in an unannounced "sneak preview" slot.)

On the gondola ride down the mountain from the Chuck Jones Cinema, one woman weighed all the dark fare about to unspool over the following days and gushed, “I’d rather just see this film again, and again and again.”

And it wasn’t just the popular vote. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott enthused over it, too. Ergo, “Argo’s” a hit.

But is it Oscar fodder? Big disagreements there. No sooner had bloggers emerged into the mountain air than the tweeting about “instant best picture contender” began. Others were astonished at that idea. It may come down to how seriously Academy members are willing to take what is essentially a crackerjack popcorn movie (to mix concession-stand metaphors).

Affleck’s film has its basis in a true story with political ramifications, two factors that scream Oscar consideration. As anyone who’s seen the trailer before seemingly every public cinema showing in the last six months knows, it’s the story of how a scraggly American intelligence operative (played by Affleck) enlists the help of some Hollywood types in 1979 to enable refugees from the U.S. embassy in Tehran escape from an incredibly hostile Iran by posing as a Canadian film crew.

Throw in dozens of wisecracks about Hollywood, and you’ve got a third Academy-friendly feature in its favor.

But, for better or worse—and many would say better—Affleck hasn’t remotely set this true saga up in typical serious Oscar bait fashion. It’s all about pulse-pounding suspense, and then laughs in the Hollywood-set mid-section, and then more pulse-pounding suspense.

The veracity of the details will certainly come up for question, as the escaping Americans never get out of a jam with minutes to spare when they can get away with seconds to spare… all the way to an arguably hokey but undeniably effective final getaway that has their plane being chased down the runway by machine gun-toting revolutionary guards, while Alexander Desplat’s music triumphantly swells. That climactic moment got a big cheer from the Telluride audience, underscoring just what a hit Warner Bros. has on its hands.

Even if it does get love in the picture, screenplay and director categories, as some bloggers were quick to predict, acting nods may be harder to come by, just because Affleck doesn’t waste much time with character-driven moments on the way to ramping up the edge-of-seat suspense. The would-be hostages get barely any dialogue, while most of the character actors — including Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin— are there to spit out knowing, cynical laugh lines like Arkin’s “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA.”

Anyway, if Affleck and his studio had to choose between a word-of-mouth popular smash and an Oscar picture, they’d surely pick the former. If they really do have the latter coming out of Telluride, that’s gravy.

Telluride’s opening night also had the debuts of some more characteristic festival fare. Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa” and Roger Michell’s “Hyde Park on Hudson” both unreeled in their world premieres Friday night, garnering reactions ranging from lukewarm to effusive, with many attendees awarding higher marks to the two films’ acting turns than the overall efforts, in a sort of reprise of the responses to “Albert Nobbs” at Telluride last year.

Ginger and Rosa“Ginger and Rosa” may be most highly regarded as a showcase for Elle Fanning, who plays the first half of the titular teen duo. Acting opposite newcomer Alice Englert, the daughter of another celebrated female filmmaker, Jane Campion, Fanning (right) goes effortlessly from girl-crush giddiness to catatonia to hysterics as she deals with her libertine dad’s infatuation with her best friend.

Christina Hendricks plays her gorgeously forlorn mom and Annette Bening is her radical-lesbian-feminist substitute mom, among the many Yanks affecting solid British accents in this period tale.

One big problem is Alessandra Nivola as the licentious dad. He showed up to do a Q&A with Potter after the premiere, looking and acting pretty much the same way he does in the film — though unfortunately for a movie set in 1962, no effort was made to style Nivola as anything other than a smug, lusty liberal of 2012.

Another problem is that the crux of the picture is how Fanning’s young character internalizes the threat of imminent nuclear destruction. At the Q&A, Potter said she thought the Cuban missile crisis had modern apocalyptic parallels in global warming, but it might be tough for audiences to draw that explicit a connection between today’s vague adolescent unease and Fanning’s all-out nuclear hysteria.

Friday night’s final late-night screening was “A Royal Affair,” a Danish blockbuster that won kudos at the Berlin Film Festival but was enjoying its American premiere here. If it becomes Denmark's official selection in the Oscar foreign-language race, “Royal” surely has a good shot at the subtitles crown, and it wouldn’t be undeserving in the admittedly unlikely event it could cross over to the top category.

Leading man Mads Mikkelson will be the subject of one of three Telluride tribute programs (the others are Roger Corman and Marion Cotillard), and he has two films in the program, with “The Hunt” joining “Royal Affair.” He’s best known stateside as the dude who cried blood in “Casino Royale,” but that should change if these films get traction over here.

The sumptuous, epic “Affair” should appeal to anyone who has the slightest soft spot for tragic royal romances, and even some of us who didn’t know we did. But given our lack of knowledge of great Danes, Magnolia Pictures still has its work cut out in getting America to go mad for Mads.

On the Telluride lineup for Saturday: a world premiere of Noah Baumbach’s and Greta Gerwig’s “Frances Ha”; the much awaited performance of Michael Shannon as a hitman in “The Iceman”; and the first indoor screening of “Hyde Park on Hudson,” after a Friday night premiere in the park attended largely by blanket-enshrouded locals.