Telluride’s Big Winners: Ben Affleck, Bill Murray and … Sarah Polley

Affleck's "Argo" remained the festival's most popular triumph, but by Labor Day's end, newbie documentarian Sarah Polley had claimed the late-buzz trophy

Actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley may have been toting a baby around Telluride this weekend, but the shine coming off her wasn’t strictly “new mother glow.”

At least some of the radiance may have had to do with her status as the 39th Telluride Film Festival’s newly anointed favorite daughter, thanks to the rapturous reception for her first documentary, “Stories We Tell.”

At the beginning of the festival, Polley’s doc was hardly considered one of the must-sees. Even if she’d gotten acclaim for moving from acting to directing features, how likely was it that a true-life family memoir wouldn’t be self-indulgent?

But by the time things wrapped up Monday night, the biggest grumbling from passholders — other than how impossibly long the lines were this year — was that they hadn’t heard the good buzz about “Stories We Tell” in time to catch the sleeper hit of the festival.

“Brilliant” and “superb” were words popping up to describe Polley’s film on Twitter… terms that weren’t being necessarily used even to describe Telluride’s other popular successes, like “Argo” and “The Sapphires.”

“It is not only Sarah Polley's best film, and one of the best films I've ever seen, but it kind of walked away with the festival,” said Awards Daily blogger Sasha Stone.

You could add Polley’s name to Telluride’s unofficial list of big winners, which included Ben Affleck (an It Boy again as “Argo’s” director and star), Bill Murray (a widely heralded FDR in “Hyde Park on Hudson”), Marion Cotillard (luminescent in the French “Rust & Bone”) and Greta Gerwig (acclaimed for an “Annie Hall”-style breakout turn in “Frances Ha”).

Telluride is short — just three and a half days — as well as noncompetitive and highly curated, so outright bombs at the mountain fest are rarer than days without thunderclouds. As a result of that selectivity, it’s always easier to catalog the disappointments than the favorites.

So why not get those out of the way? The combination of whimsical politics and serious presidential philandering in “Hyde Park on Hudson” left a lukewarm impression on many, even though Murray’s presidential impression won universal praise and profligate Oscar-nom predictions.

Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa,” though beautifully made in parts, exited with considerably less buzz than it had upon entry, but there was no shortage of major fans for Elle Fanning’s major-league adolescent angst. A third entry that inspired best-actor but not best-picture talk was “The Iceman,” with rising star Michael Shannon putting the big chill on impressed viewers as a very prolific mob killer,

Among other underwhelmers that had their supporters, but not nearly enough: “At Any Price,” with festival guest Dennis Quaid (and absent Zac Efron); “Love, Marilyn,” a documentary that has big-name actresses reading from Monroe’s diaries; and “Midnight’s Children,” which screenwriter and frequent Telluride guest Salman Rushdie adapted from his book.

The list of films with positive buzz stretched far longer than any passholder could see in one weekend … even though the film was lacking for obvious Oscar frontrunners like previous Telluride-premiering “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech.” The festival’s directors seemed almost to relish in remarking about how it was a good thing that Telluride was getting back to under-the-radar fare instead of obvious Oscar bellwether stuff.

But if you were looking toward the best foreign film race, you could certainly look here. Cannes winner “Amour” lived up to its impressively bleak rep. Tribute recipient Mads Mikkelsen brought two Danish films, “The Hunt” and “A Royal Affair,” and in a perfect world, these wouldn’t cancel each other out in any awards race.

“Barbara,” which was just a few days ago deemed Germany’s entry into the best foreign film race, turned out to be almost universally beloved after a few early declarations that it was “The Lives of Others Lite.” “No,” about Pinochet-era Chile, got a big yes.

If oppression in 1980s East Germany and Chile didn’t seem relevant enough, there were two films implicitly taking modern-day Israel to task: the documentary “The Gatekeepers” and fictional “The Attack,” both of which went over well in Telluride but are bound to stir up some dust later on.

It would be easy to pick a best documentary lineup just from Telluride’s selections. Besides the Polley film and “The Gatekeepers,” passholders were keen on Ken and Sarah Burns’ “The Central Park Five,” even if it got a few knocks for its talking-heads PBS/”Dateline” approach. 

Way on the other end of the scale of documentary conventionality, the Errol Morris-produced “The Act of Killing” let anti-communist Indonesian terror squads brag about and reenact their mass killings for two hours, and those who had the stomach for this polarizing pic were prone to calling it one of the boldest, most must-see docs in years.

But the festival’s two biggest popular successes were its two unabashed feel-good films, “Argo” (world-premiering in Telluride) and “The Sapphires” (already buzzed about at Cannes). Noah Baumbach's hilarious and moving "Frances Ha," which is both his best and most mainstream film to date, might also count in that happy-go-lucky category.

It’s the festival’s not-so-dirty little secret that although it attracts some of the world’s most hardcore cineastes, it has probably at least as big a contingent of well-heeled Midwesterners and retirees who come every year not because of the typically dark fare but possibly in spite of it.

These annual attendees are sophisticated enough to at least put up with Michael Heneke devoting two hours to the deterioration of an elderly stroke victim in “Amour,” if not embrace it. But something that hits their need for some sweet relief—and can also hit the sweet spot of critics—will leave Telluride with massive buzz.

Ben Affleck is certain benefitting from that with his tense yet hugely upbeat suspenser about Americans escaping from Tehran in 1979. And it doesn’t get any happier than the Weinstein Company’s aboriginal musical “The Sapphires,” which was being described in line as “this year’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’” even if some industry types were being quick to qualify it as “really more of a Globes picture than an Academy picture.”

One thing that didn’t have attendees dancing in the aisles this year: longer lines that had passholders feeling they needed to show up two hours in advance for a movie instead of just one, reducing the number of films that anyone could squeeze into one weekend. Telluride veterans were biding their time in line by drafting protest emails they planned to circulate and forward to festival directors.

But next year could be a little easier on that front anyway, as the lineup is being expanded to five days instead of four, in honor of the fest’s 40th year. Even so, it wouldn’t hurt to start lining up at the Sheridan Opera House in July.