On the opening night of my first Telluride Film Festival, in 1979, co-founder Bill Pence stood on the stage of the historic 1913 Sheridan Opera House and told us that if we could see all the films we wanted to he would consider the festival a failure. Although Bill and his wife Stella have passed the baton to Gary Meyer, Julie Huntsinger, and fellow founder Tom Luddy, that mission statement has remained intact: Telluride is an embarrassment of riches, more than ever as it celebrated its 40th year by adding an additional day to the Labor Day Weekend festivities.
While it’s tempting to avoid the big-name movies that will open theatrically in a matter of weeks, it’s undeniably exciting to see them before anyone else, especially when the filmmakers are present. I try to balance my menu by seeing at least a few obscurities and revivals; no two attendees are likely to have the same moviegoing diary. For instance, I missed such high-profile debuts as Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, Steven McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, and Errol Morris’ latest documentary, The Unknown Known—all of which I’m anxious to see.
Of the high-profile “sneak previews” this weekend, I was most excited about Gravity, which did not disappoint. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in this dazzling outer-space saga directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who wrote the screenplay with his son Jónás. I was lucky enough to lead a discussion with the collaborators following its first showing, but we only got to scratch the surface of how they conceived and executed this elaborate production—which took four and a half years to complete. Jónás introduced the film by saying that they wanted to give us a thrill-ride experience, but afterwards both father and son admitted that they also saw the story in metaphoric terms about survival and rebirth. That’s precisely why it works so well: it’s tremendous entertainment with meat on its bones. (I got to experience it at Telluride’s newest venue, the Werner Herzog Cinema, where it was screened in 3-D at 48 frames per second by two synchronized projectors, which put twice the normal amount of light on the screen. When the festival is over, this outstanding theater reclaims its true identity as a skating rink.)
The curtain-raiser for Gravity was another knockout, an innovative new 3-D Mickey Mouse short called Get a Horse! After it was first unveiled at the Annecy Animation Film Festival last spring, friends assured me that I would enjoy it most if I knew almost nothing about it beforehand. They were right. You’ll get to see it when it plays with the Disney feature Frozen this November. It was a pleasure to meet the short’s talented and enthusiastic director, Lauren MacMullan, a relative newcomer to Disney who was working on the story team for Wreck-It Ralph when she got the chance to pitch her idea for this cartoon. Lauren joined animator/entrepreneur Bill Plympton and me for a casual conversation about the state of the art in the lobby of the Chuck Jones Cinema on Sunday night. (Chuck was a longtime supporter of Telluride who designed some of its earliest posters; his daughter Linda continues the tradition.)
Bill’s latest short, Drunker than a Skunk, which he animated by himself with a ball-point pen, proved to be an apt accompaniment to Alexander Payne’s new feature Nebraska, a beautifully nuanced character study in glorious black & white. Bruce Dern gives an award-worthy performance as a taciturn, senile Midwesterner whose sympathetic son (Will Forte) accompanies him on an odyssey that some would call a fool’s errand. Although Payne didn’t write the screenplay (Bob Nelson did) it still has his fingerprints all over it and makes a strong companion piece to About Schmidt. Dern is obviously proud of his work in the film, and lived up to his reputation as a first-class raconteur when I interviewed him on Friday before a rapt audience at the local courthouse.
Whatever one’s choices, Telluride offers the chance to discover films and learn from their filmmakers—not only at q&a sessions but in informal conversations anywhere you chance to encounter them. After watching Yuval Adler’s compelling Israeli drama Bethlehem the director (who also co-wrote the screenplay with an Arab journalist) held court on the lawn outside the Masons Hall Cinema for a handful of eager audience members.
Many of my most rewarding experiences this year came from listening to the filmmakers speak about their work. Asghar Farhadi, who blew us all away two years ago with A Separation, was forthcoming about his excellent new movie The Past, a haunting story of relationships plagued by misunderstandings. Tracks director John Curran was joined by two producers, his talented composer Garth Stevenson, his leading actress Mia Wasikowska, and the woman she portrays onscreen, Robyn Davidson. (Most of the audience’s questions were directed at Davidson, who made a 2,000 mile trek across the Australian desert with a dog and three camels as her companions. I was glad to learn that the Weinstein Company has acquired this stimulating and highly entertaining movie.)
The most unusual discussion I witnessed followed a showing of Philippe Claudel’s Before the Winter Chill, a provocative chamber drama starring two of my favorite actors, Daniel Auteuil and Kristin Scott Thomas. Novelist Claudel brought his first film, I’ve Loved You So Much (also starring Scott Thomas) to Telluride five years ago, and it made a lasting impression. The new movie is also quite good, but it leaves many aspects of its characters’ backgrounds and motivations unstated. Longtime Telluride moderator Annette Insdorf had the nerve to ask Claudel about these matters—and, to my great surprise, he answered her in detail. Most writer-directors will say, “I leave it to you to decide,” or something like that, but not Claudel. I must say he gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of his film, but I don’t know how filmgoers who don’t get these answers will feel.
I can’t begin to recount every film or conversation of the elongated Telluride weekend—from introducing Penn and Teller’s quirky documentary Tim’s Vermeer to seeing the first portion of Agnieszka Holland’s riveting docudrama Burning Bush—but I hope you get the general idea. This is a movie lover’s paradise, held in a spectacular Rocky Mountain setting. It doesn’t get any better than that.