The Telluride Film Festival has hosted many famous people over the past 38 years, including celebrated filmmakers and actors. But there’s something about George Clooney that makes women swoon and men want to hang out with him. He’s a Movie Star, and while he wears other hats (and wears them well) there’s no getting around his personal magnetism. He charmed everyone he met this past weekend, graciously posed for pictures, and reaffirmed his reputation as—
—an all-around good guy.
He also happens to be the star of an exceptionally fine film which made its world premiere at Telluride: The Descendants, directed and co-written by Alexander Payne. It won’t reach theaters until just before Thanksgiving, but I have no problem calling it one of the year’s best films—an encomium I doubt I’ll have to revoke at the end of December. After its first screening, when Todd McCarthy asked him about playing some highly emotional scenes, Clooney modestly replied that all he did was take his cues from Payne. The director in turn said he casts his movies well.
Like so many great films, this one is difficult to pigeonhole: it’s about a man facing a family crisis (as a husband and father) along with a daunting business decision that involves his many cousins, who all live in Hawaii. It’s sprawling and continually surprising, infused with high drama and well-calculated humor. In short, it’s about the absurdity and unpredictability of life. I loved it.
But then, this year’s festival was overflowing with excellent films—and as always, too little time to take them all in. Festival directors Julie Huntsinger, Tom Luddy, and Gary Meyer outdid themselves with a wide array of movies old and new. A number of them sounded harsh or punishing, but two reliable friends called Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness a masterpiece, so in spite of its tough subject matter and two-and-a-half-hour running time, I gave it a try. I’m so glad I did. A movie never seems long when it refuses to loosen its grip on you, and this is such a film. It dramatizes a real-life story about a Polish sewer inspector who helps a small group of Jews hide out during World War Two. David Shamoon based his screenplay on a book written by one of the survivors of the ordeal, and the result is quite extraordinary. I was choked up by the end and could barely stop crying.
Then I had what I can only call a Telluride experience. There was no time in the schedule for a formal q&a session, but Holland and Shamoon were standing outside the Nugget Theater on Colorado Avenue, receiving compliments and answering questions from anyone who cared to ask. I had an interesting conversation with Holland and asked if directing such high-end American television series as Treme and The Killing had any effect on her more personal film work. She told me that while she enjoyed the TV gigs, she feels she has to limit the number of episodes she does or “I will lose my fingerprints.” Spoken like a true artist. She also told me that along with her sister and daughter she launched a TV series in Poland, inspired by The West Wing. She is hoping to raise the level of Polish television and bring audiences along with her.
I was delighted to moderate a more official question-and-answer session with the wonderful Glenn Close and director Rodrigo Garcia, whose work I so admire, following a screening of their terrific new film Albert Nobbs. Close won an Obie award playing the title character—a woman who lives her life as a man, working as a Victorian hotel servant in Dublin—off-Broadway back in 1982, and has been actively trying to get this movie made for the past fifteen years. (She is a co-producer and co-screenwriter, and even contributed lyrics to a song sung over the closing credits by Sinéad O’Connor.) It was fascinating hearing their stories of near-misses and last-minute casting changes. My favorite: Orlando Bloom was set to play the young male lead, following The Lord of the Rings, and his involvement helped the producers secure financing. Then he had to drop out at the last minute because his wife was going to give birth to their first child, in Los Angeles, in the middle of their shooting in Dublin. So while he isn’t in the finished film, he helped get Albert Nobbs on its feet. (Aaron Johnson, star of Nowhere Boy and Kick-Ass, took his place in the picture.)
I also chatted with writer-director Michel Hazanavicius and costar Penelope Ann Miller following a showing of The Artist, the highly appealing black & white film that takes place in 1927 Hollywood. I can’t wait for my film-buff friends to see it when the Weinstein Company releases it in November. Hazanavicius used his clout from the box-office success of two OSS 117 comedies to make this dream project, and cast the star of those James Bond parodies, Jean Dujardin, in the lead. He has just the right look, attitude, and charisma to be persuasive as a 1920s star. In fact, he looks like a cross between John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks. This film was no mere stunt: Hazanavicius loves silent films and wanted to make a sincere homage, which is precisely what he’s done…with his wife, Bérénice Bejo, as his perky leading lady. When I asked Miller about embracing the style of silent film acting, she reminded me that she played Edna Purviance opposite Robert Downey, Jr. in Chaplin!
That splendid actress Tilda Swinton was given a Telluride tribute, and proved to be a delightful guest. She was featured in Lynne Ramsey’s controversial film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which provoked much discussion.
And Telluride did what it does best, under the heading of rediscovery, by introducing Americans to the unjustly forgotten Pierre Étaix. His films have been out of circulation for decades and are just now enjoying a revival in Europe, with the U.S. to follow. He embraces qualities of Charlie Chaplin and other great silent clowns in his work, but as a director and screenwriter (partnered with the great Jean-Claude Carrière, who went on to collaborate with Luis Buñuel) he is his own man. I had the privilege of previewing his entire body of work on dvd and writing program notes for his tribute, as well as introducing his two finest films, the 1962 short Happy Anniversary (which won an Oscar) and his 1965 feature Yoyo. I will be writing about him more extensively as those films become available in this country. Needless to say, it was a thrill to meet Étaix, who is a delight.
On Sunday morning I set my alarm to see Le Havre, a charming fable from Aki Kaurismäki that resembles nothing so much as a Frank Capra film—think Lady for a Day or its remake, Pocketful of Miracles—in which a handful of people come together to help an immigrant African boy, out of a sense of community, and just because they think it’s the right thing to do. (Kaurismäki also cast two French icons in small roles, Pierre Étaix and Jean-Pierre Léaud.) André Wilms, who plays the leading role of a genteel fellow who ekes out a living shining shoes, provided an engaging introduction. The feature was preceded by Carroll Ballard’s bracing cinema verité short from 1968, Rodeo, digitally rescued after many years of dormancy.
That night a packed crowd was treated to a program hosted by that unique archivist and showman, Serge Bromberg, highlighting rare and fascinating footage from the early 20th century—with the host himself providing piano accompaniment—and the U.S. premiere of the hand-colored restoration of George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), which features an atmospheric soundtrack by Air.
With the clock ticking and so many films to see, I’m glad I heard the growing buzz about two foreign films I managed to catch on Monday morning before departing Telluride. I’m happy to report that Sony Pictures Classics has acquired them both, so moviegoers everywhere will be able to see them, in the course of time.
I also enjoyed Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, from Israel, which won the Best Screenplay award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. This intriguing story works on both a cerebral and gut level, as it depicts the rivalry between a father and son who are both Talmudic scholars.
With so much to see, so many people to meet, and so many choices to make, one could chart an entirely different course at Telluride and wind up with a vastly dissimilar list of films and encounters. I can only relate my own.
I wish I could have seen more, but I felt extremely grateful to be there at all, given my recent eye surgery.
There was a rare, perhaps unprecedented, ventilation problem at the Galaxy Theater (in real life a gymnasium) that made it difficult to enjoy some of the screenings there. I think it hurt some films that have already gotten middling or negative reviews. No one can be faulted; it’s just the way things played out.
On the other hand, Telluride has led the way towards sanity with a green initiative one can only admire. The disbursement of refillable bottles, and free filtered-water stations around town, means that a literal mountain of empty plastic water bottles is a thing of the past. Separation of waste and compostable materials takes the program one step further. It’s heartening to see.
The friendliness, physical beauty, and shared love of film that permeate Telluride make it unique among festivals. My family and I eagerly await our next visit.