Telluride Recap: The Ballad of Ballard and Ajax


As I take the shuttle out of Telluride, I am met with the same bittersweet feelings I have each year as the festival comes to a close. The past few days have been a whirlwind. The festival seems to conclude just as it’s beginning, and there are far too many films I’ve left unseen. I look out the rear window of the transport as the jagged tips of Mounts Ballard and Ajax fade over the horizon, as if to bid me a personal adieu. My heart aches for these mountains as the transit pulls further away, and my mind drifts back to all the amazing experiences I’ve had once again in this quaint little valley in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

For the third year in a row, I was lucky enough to room with Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone and our friend Michael. Their faces have grown so familiar to me now, and I was comforted by the fact that they were here with me to experience another chapter of this remarkable gala.

The festival began with the patron screening of David Lowery’s “The Old Man and the Gun,” where Lowery, Sissy Spacek, and Casey Affleck welcomed renowned star Robert Redford for his swan song. He was a little late to arrive, as can be the case when traveling to Telluride. Next on the docket would be the film I am taking home with me as a new treasure, just as I did with “Spotlight” (2015), “La La Land” (2016), and “The Shape of Water” (2017) in my previous ventures to Telluride. Of course, I am speaking of Damien Chazelle’s “First Man.” The 33-year-old boy genius scored triumphantly once again, and by my measure, he is the most exciting director working today. “First Man” was the only film I gave a full four-star review to this year. It was already a late night before we settled in for Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” which had the misfortune of screening its world premiere immediately after “First Man” – in the same venue and to roughly the same audience. It is the one movie need to give a second chance to, as all I could think about was the film which just preceded it and blew my mind.

On day two, we started bright and early, making the long hike followed by the traditional gondola ride (you’ve seen everyone’s pictures from this elevated view) to the Chuck Jones Cinema up in Mountain Village. It was well worth the venture, as we were gifted with Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant and deeply personal “Roma.” Prior to the feature, we celebrated the career of Cuarón with a nice tribute and Q&A. The film seemed to win most over, and could likely be this year’s critical darling, but again, I am not sure how much that will extend to the Academy. The material, while beautiful, might be seen as lethargic, and the fact that it is not in English might be concerning (“Amour” was the last film not in the English language to be nominated for Best Picture – 2012). In the end, voters may feel it best belongs in the Foreign Language category. Be wary, but be hopeful. The second showing on day two belonged to Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer,” which will certainly divide audiences. One thing I think most will agree on, however, is how terrific Kidman was with the material (despite some flawed makeup work). There was a Q&A following, and it was quite a treat to listen to the amazing actress talk about her film. Another divisive film would wrap up day two: Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite.” Surprisingly, I was in the camp that thoroughly enjoyed the movie – despite my issues with prior Lanthimos films and costume dramas. One of the more interesting debates we will be having this season is the placement of the three ladies – Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, and Emma Stone (all of which are outstanding). If it were up to me, I’d push Stone as the lead (it’s primarily her story), and Weisz and Colman supporting. I’d then put all my money on a campaign for Colman in that category because frankly, I think she could win there. It sounds like Colman may, unfortunately, be pushed as a lead, and if so, I worry about her chances at even being nominated. Prior to “The Favourite,” we were guests for a tribute to Emma Stone, one of the highlights of the festival. She is such an intelligent, charming, talented, and hilarious lady – the audience could not get enough of her. She has quickly become a favorite of the festival, bringing films here in four of the last five years (“Birdman,” “La La Land,” and “Battle of the Sexes,” prior to this selection).

Day three would bring the end of the screenings we would take in this year, due to an early departure the next day. We wrapped up the festival with the surprise hit of the slate, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Her performance might have made Melissa McCarthy the front-runner for Lead Actress, she’s just that good. It’s also a deglam role that is outside of her comfort zone (McCarthy’s career has been mostly physical comedy), two things the Academy tends to reward in the Lead Actress category. Considering how amazingly funny and entertaining she will be on the award’s circuit (the red carpet, not this site, though we’d love to have her for a chat!), and you can definitely see her shaking hands and kissing babies all the way to the podium. I would add Richard E. Grant’s fantastic performance as well. He should certainly be in your predictions for Supporting Actor at the moment, and like McCarthy, he knows how to work the room. The pair sat for a Q&A following the movie, and I hope they can campaign together this season – their chemistry is off the charts. The final film that we were in attendance for was Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased,” in which Lucas Hedges might have given my favorite performance of the festival. He, Edgerton, Nicole Kidman, and the man the source material is written by, Garrard Conley, sat after for a deeply moving Q&A. Following the closing film, Sasha and I went to the party Universal was throwing for “First Man.” I then spent the next 90-some minutes talking with Chazelle, Justin Hurwitz (film composer), and Josh Singer (screenwriter) and drinking an expensive cabernet. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have had in four years of attending Telluride – discussing how the celestial score was designed, and sharing my love of both “First Man” and, especially, “La La Land” with the man behind my favorite film of the decade. Oh, what a night.

And that was it.

The next morning, we ate a delicious breakfast at The Butcher & The Baker, a traditional Telluride stop (along with Brown Dog’s Detroit-style pizza), and then we were off to our homes and regular day-to-day lives.

For those interested, here is how I would rate the films I was able to see:

  1. First Man (4-stars)
  2. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (3.5-stars)
  3. Roma (3.5-stars)
  4. The Favourite (3.5-stars)
  5. Boy Erased (3.5-stars)
  6. The Old Man and the Gun (3-stars)
  7. The Front Runner (2.5-stars)
  8. Destroyer (2.5-stars)

Thank you, once again, to our editor and friend, Clayton Davis. Allowing me Telluride has been the most amazing gift of my life (aside from my kids, of course), and I will be forever thankful and proud to have been a part of the Awards Circuit family. Thank you to Karen, for editing all my posts (especially this manifesto!). Thank you, Chelsea, for the very early and very late rides to and from the airport. Thank you, Sasha, for your generosity and companionship. Thank you to my wife and kids, for letting me escape to the mountains to do what I love most. And thank you, to all those who read my work and followed along with me vicariously. Your kind words and support make it worth the hard work that goes into seeing eight films in two and a half days (which is also quite a joy, don’t get me wrong).

What a terrific experience, as always. Now we wait for Toronto, New York, and the rest of the festival season to unfold and give us insight before we are all able to see the movies for ourselves and formulate our own opinions. Predictions will be made. Predictions will shift. And then the Oscars. Before you know it, the 46th Telluride Film Festival will be underway.

Who knows what the next year will hold as I await my return to the mountains of Telluride, God (and Clayton) willing? There will be many bends and turns in my life, I am sure, just like the snaking San Miguel River that flows through the old silver mining town. But what I do know is I’ll come out the other side, as we always do, and there Ballard and Ajax will be waiting.

Be sure to check out the Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where these films rank!