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Director Guillermo Del Toro at The Shape of Water’s Toronto premiere. The Fox Searchlight release hits theaters on December 8.

Navigating the fall festival circuit is akin to traveling aboard a vast cruise ship that docks at a dizzying array of ports. The experience varies wildly from voyager to voyager and is largely determined by one’s proclivities (an afternoon of historic ruins or shopping?) and tiered by access level (stateroom or steerage?). Beginning at 8:30 a.m. and running well beyond midnight, the Telluride Film Festival (boutique, with less than 40 features) and Toronto International Film Festival (aka TIFF and sprawling, with 250+ films from 75 countries) offer intrepid filmgoers an immersive opportunity to preview what’s coming soon to screens large and small, as well as discover the gems that only a festival reveals. It will take time to unravel and reflect upon the myriad story strands evoked by the 75 films we saw, but here are our preliminary impressions.

Spotlight Films

Whether they like it or not, Telluride and TIFF have become bellwether launch pads for the increasingly over-flogged awards season machine. And while there weren’t the cinematic breakouts like last year’s Moonlight or La La Land—conversely, a handful of pedigree premieres found themselves unexpectedly mired in critical quicksand—there were plenty of possible contenders to satisfy the Oscar prognosticator echo chamber: an utterly transformed Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill (Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour); Frances McDormand’s incendiary rendering of a grieving mother (Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri); Andrew Garfield as Robin Cavendish, the real-life polio-stricken activist for the disabled (Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe); Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King (Battle of the Sexes from the Little Miss Sunshine team). The list goes on.

One of the festivals’ most original high-profile premieres was Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, winner of Venice’s top prize. Sally Hawkins forms the film’s luminous center, suffusing this amphibious fairytale with surprise and tender humanity. Another revelation was Berlin Festival winner, A Fantastic Woman, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s (Gloria) superb drama about an indomitable transgender woman starring phenomenal newcomer Daniela Vega.

A maestro of the ensemble, Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep) serves up another caustic political satire with The Death of Stalin. Russian spoken here? Nyet. Instead the cacophonous riot of English accents—Steve Buscemi’s, Jeffery Tambor’s, Michael Palin’s, Rupert Friend’s, and Andrea Riseborough’s among them—only augments the barbed hilarity abounding in this historical tragedy played as farce.

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Lady Bird stars Saoirse Ronan and screens at Aspen Filmfest on Thursday, October 5. 

As Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan proves the perfect avatar—with Laurie Metcalf and Tracey Letts ideal parental foils—for actress Greta Gerwig, who makes her writer-director debut with this beguiling charmer. Mining personal experience leavened with fondness and often-trenchant humor, Gerwig’s assured first feature offers a beautifully toned portrait of family, the last year of high school, and secret dreams. 

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The Florida Project stars Willem Dafoe and screens at Aspen Filmfest on Friday, October 6 & Saturday, October 7.

A truly fine Willem Defoe grounds Sean Baker’s The Florida Project as the weary yet infinitely patient motel manager and only real grownup in a seedy tilt-a-world bursting with kitsch and color at the edge of a certain Orlando theme park. But because this soulful tale refracts largely through a child’s eyes, Baker makes an inspired choice with his pint-sized leading lady—novice Brooklynn Prince. Part rapscallion, with a nonstop potty mouth, and 100 percent kid, her six-year-old Moonee thrills to the wonder of adventure and clings to a mom who’s not much more than a girl herself. 

Documentaries

Telluride and TIFF also rolled out an impressive slate of new documentaries. Memorable standouts were Agnès Varda and JR’s joyful Faces Places (France), a collaborative ode to art making, road tripping, and real people; Ex Libris – The New York Public Library (USA), Frederick Wiseman’s masterful paean to a beloved institution of learning; and Errol Morris’s stunning opus Wormwood (USA), a mind-bending inquest into a chilling 60-year-old mystery. Other personal favorites included Erika Cohn’s The Judge (Palestine/USA), an inspiring portrait of the first woman judge to be appointed to one of the Middle East’s Shari’a courts; Silas (Canada/S.Africa/Kenya), Anjali Nayar and Hawa Essuman’s profile of Liberia’s indefatigable forest lands eco-activist Silas Siakor; The China Hustle (USA), Jed Rothstein’s exposé of outrageous Wall Street shenanigans, this time with an alarming Chinese twist; Makala (France), Emmanuel Gras’s patiently rendered chronicle of a Congolese charcoal maker’s labors; and Mila Turajlić’s The Other Side of Everything (Serbia), where the sealed doorway in a childhood home becomes the portal to a multilayered rumination on a family’s—and country’s—past. 

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The New Zealand–made film Waru screens at Aspen Filmfest on Sunday, October 8.

World Cinema

Both festivals curated an impressive panorama of world cinema. With highlights too numerous to list, here are a few: The Rider (USA), Chinese director Chloé Zhao’s movingly observed contemporary cowboy tale set in South Dakota; What Will People Say, Norwegian-Pakistani director Iram Haq’s unblinkered coming-of-age-in-a-collision-of-cultures drama; Waru (New Zealand), an innovatively told (eight directors) look into modern-day Maori culture; Zambian director Rungano Nyoni’s I am not a Witch, a clever blend of magic realism and tongue-in-cheek satire; and Zama (Argentina), Lucrecia Martel’s lushly mounted fever dream set in the colonial backwaters of 18th-century Patagonia. 

39th Aspen Filmfest

Aspen Film presents its 39th annual Aspen Filmfest from Wednesday, October 3–Sunday, October 8 featuring 20 narrative and documentary films from the international festival circuit. Fest-goers can walk up to most screenings at the Isis Theatre and Wheeler Opera House in Aspen or the Crystal Theater in Carbondale, but grab tickets in advance for the always anticipated Surprise Film (Sunday, 8:15 p.m., Wheeler Opera House).

Critics' Picks

Lady Bird: Thursday, October 5, 8:15 p.m., Isis Theatre
The Florida Project: Friday, October 6, 8:15 p.m., Isis Theatre; Saturday, October 7, 7:30 p.m., Crystal Theatre
Waru: Sunday, October 8, 5:30 p.m., Wheeler Opera House

Aspen Filmfest single screening tickets are $20; aspenfilm.org (full program); aspenshowtix.com (tickets) 

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