The 44nd Telluride Film Festival was held, as always, during Labor Day weekend in the former mining town in a mountain canyon of southwest Colorado.
As tradition, the film schedule is not announced in advance. Places like an ice rink and a school gymnasium are converted into theatres with top-of-the line projection and sound. During the Festival, nine indoor theaters show films daily along with outdoor panels and conversations with international filmmakers.
This year, the Opening Night Feed in the closed off main street of the town had an oriental design. Festival regulars like Ken Burns (showing an episode of his upcoming “The Vietnam War”) and Werner Herzog showed up again.
Some of the biggest crowds were for “Battle of the Sexes” about the Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) tennis match. Both Stone and King were in Telluride for a Q&A.
Angelina Jolie and her film “First They Killed My Father” also attracted large audiences. As director, Jolie brought sensitivity and strong images to the story of a family arrested by Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. After the screening, Jolie and Loung Ung, on whose autobiography the film is based, had a heartfelt conversation on Cambodia and how this country changed Jolie’s life.
This year the Tributes were to Christian Bale with his new Western “Hostiles” and the cinematographer Ed Lachman. Lachman’s film “Wonderstruck” was one of the finest at Telluride this year. Directed by Todd Haynes (“Carol”), “Wonderstruck” tells 2 compelling stories set in 1927 and 1977 of hearing-impaired children travelling to New York City on a personal quest. Each sequence has the style of films of the era.
Annette Bening deserves to be an Oscar front-runner for the emotional range and poignancy she brings to her portrait of Gloria Grahame in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”. This film is based on the memoir of the younger actor who became involved with Grahame after the Oscar-winning actress’s movie career faded and she appeared on stage in Britain.
Gary Oldman is also award-caliber in “Darkest Hour” as Winston Churchill, newly appointed as Prime Minister, attempts to rouse England in the fight against Hitler.
Ethan Hawke gives an intense performance as a conflicted minister in “First Reformed” which continues writer/director Paul Schrader’s investigation of violence and obsession. Schrader referred to his film as “Diary of a Country Priest” meets “Taxi Driver” (which he wrote).
“Downsizing”, directed by Alexander Payne and starring Matt Damon, was about shrinking human beings in an attempt to solve overpopulation. It received a very mixed reception.
My favorite film at Telluride was the documentary “Faces Places” directed by Agnes Varda, called “the godmother of the French New Wave”, then 87, and artist JR, 32. Their film highlights their marvelous rapport as they travel throughout parts of France not often shown in films, pasting large photographs on building exteriors and interacting with a variety of people. The film concludes with an unexpected melancholy.
“Loving Vincent” was uniquely remarkable. 125 artists animated Van Gogh’s oil paintings. I told one of this film’s directors that I was very impressed that Van Gogh’s thick brush strokes came through in the animation. “Loving Vincent” tells an intriguing story of a postman’s son attempting to deliver the artist’s last letter and finding conflicting versions of the artist’s last days.
“Wormwood” directed by Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”) was the longest selection at Telluride, gripping throughout the over 4 hour run time. This Netflix series examines a son’s attempt to investigate the death of his father during a government experiment in the 1950s. Morris masterfully combines interviews, home movies, archival footage and dramatizations with Peter Sarsgaard as the man who died under mysterious circumstances. At intermission, 1950s cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served.
Other notable documentaries included “Arthur Miller, Writer” made by Miller’s daughter Rebecca who provided unique intimate insights to her father and how his life affected his plays. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was at Telluride with “Human Flow” which documented the harsh conditions faced by refugees throughout the globe.
One of my favorite directors, Aki Kaurismaki, brings his unique deadpan style with eccentric characters to “The Other Side of Hope” about a Syrian refugee who smuggles himself into Finland.
Other films brought a hard-edged looks at their home countries. “Loveless” from writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the acclaimed “Leviathan”, presents a harrowing view of contemporary Russia. When an angry couple plan a divorce, neither wants to find a place for their teenage son. In “The Insult”, a conflict over a drain pipe escalates into a court case that exposes the enduring divisions in contemporary Lebanon.
In “A Man of Integrity”, an Iranian man refuses to become involved in widespread bribery, facing severe repercussions with his family. The film’s writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof whose last film was released without credits, said that none of his films will be approved for showing in Iran. “Hostages” dramatized the desperate attempt of young people to escape from Soviet Georgia in 1983, leading to an airplane hijacking.
The most entertaining show was “The Cotton Club Encore” which was accompanied by the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola came across a tape of his original final version of the 1984 film and reconstructed “The Cotton Club” from that. “The Cotton Club” was beset with behind the scenes conflicts, including a murder linked to on one of the film’s producers. Coppola passed out a statement saying he was told “too many black people” and “too much tap dancing” and over 20 minutes of footage was cut.
Coppola restored some terrific previously unseen musical numbers, including a fantastic “Stormy Weather” sung by Lonette McKee, playing a singer who later tries to pass for white. One of the film’s stars Maurice Hines spoke after the screening that it was an honor to dance in the film with his late brother Gregory Hines, playing brothers in a tap dancing act.
Maurice also told an amusing anecdote. He said the film’s star Richard Gere asked him how he was able to bring so much emotion in his first film on the first take of a scene where his brother tells him he’s doing a solo act. Maurice told Gere he was thinking of the difference between Gere’s salary and what he was making.
It was so misguided to take out the musical acts in 1984 as these scenes are what are unique to the actual Cotton Club. Too much emphasis in the original release was on the well-acted but conventional gangster plot.
A unique aspect of the Telluride Film Festival is the possibility of casual encounter with international filmmakers. At the Labor Day Picnic, I saw Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. He smiled when he saw that I was wearing a T-shirt with his name and a Zodiac face from his exhibit in Pittsburgh. He said he had never seen the shirt.
Future posts will cover key films in more detail.