Venice, Telluride Fests Launch With Praise for ‘Gravity,’ Questions About Bruce Dern

Alfonso Cuaron wins raves in Venice; in Telluride, "Nebraska" and "Inside LLewyn Davis" are ready for their close-ups

With the Venice and Telluride film festivals kicking off this week, the fall fest season is off and running with two films about women alone in impossible situations — one of which found critics grasping for superlatives.

Also on the first-day agendas at the Venice Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival: George Clooney‘s real-life space program, a debate over where Bruce Dern fits in the Oscar race and a guessing game about Telluride’s secret bookings.

The big news out of Venice was the premiere of Alfonso Cuaron‘s 3D space movie “Gravity,” in which Sandra Bullock and Clooney play astronauts adrift in space after a malfunction.

TheWrap rounded up the first group of rave reviews on Wednesday, but they have for the most part continued unabated. “This is seat-gripping tense, virtuoso cinema that explores and exploits space as never before, with 3D so convincing the audience lurches and gasps as though on a fairground ride,” wrote Kate Muir in the London Times.

Also read: ‘Gravity’ Reviews: Critics Call Alfonso Cuaron’s Space Adventure a Masterpiece

The film, Cuaron’s first since the extraordinary “Children of Men” seven years ago, is “the best opening to a film festival that you could ask for,” added indiewire’s Oliver Lyttelton, whose review was studded with phrases like “technically perfect,” “cleverly written” and “phenomenally directed.”

And you have to hand it to Clooney: "Gravity" may end up focusing more on the plight of Sandra Bullock's character than his, but Clooney even found a way to tie in his philanthropic and humanitarian efforts to the film. At a Venice press conference for the movie that takes place in the far reaches of the Earth's atmosphere, Clooney revealed that he is paying for a satellite over Sudan – an effective deterrent, he said, that has helped halt attacks along the border between Sudan and South Sudan.

TracksSome Venice reviewers have found common ground between “Gravity” and another of the festival’s premieres, John Curran’s “Tracks” (right). The true story of a young woman who made a 1,700-mile trek across the Australian Outback in 1977, the film is, like “Gravity,” “another dramatic tale of female isolation and empowerment in one of the most inhospitable enviroments imaginable,” wrote Matt Mueller at Indiewire, who applauded the film’s “frequently breathtaking” visuals and called it a “modest but compelling approach” to the story.

Xan Brooks at the Guardian wasn’t as impressed: “‘Tracks’ trudges into competition … on the basis of some spellbinding scenery, a gritty if faintly one-note performance from the talented Mia Wasikowska, and not a whole lot else,” he wrote. “… The tale wanders lazily in endless, pretty circles.”

First-day screenings at Telluride include J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost,” which precedes a tribute to Robert Redford, along with the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto” (based on stories by the ubiquitous James Franco), Agnieszka Holland’s three-part “Burning Bush” and the Cannes winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”

Another Thursday Telluride screening is Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” In Contention’s Kris Tapley weighed in on the movie (“it may be a small film but it has a big heart and people will want to stick up for it”) and on its star Bruce Dern, who will be the subject of a Q&A on Friday afternoon.

Picking up on the question of whether Dern should be pushed for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor in the awards race – a matter of some debate in Oscar-pundit circles lately – Tapley insisted that the veteran actor belongs in the lead category, even if Will Forte has more screen time as his son.

“While Will Forte is great as Woody's son, David, and has more to do on screen, we really know precious little about him,” Tapley wrote. “Every moment of the film is either about or informed by Dern's presence and performance … This is Bruce Dern's movie.”

Meanwhile, festivalgoers in the mountain speculated about the identity of Telluride’s unannounced sneak previews. Last year, to the surprise of nobody in Colorado, Ben Affleck’s “Argo” filled one of the slots; this year, the smart money seems to be on Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners,” both Toronto-bound next week.

Over the next five days, Chris Willman will have regular reports on Telluride for TheWrap.