High On Movies At Telluride

This year’s poster image was created by Oscar-winning Pixar artist Ralph Eggleston, whose many credits include production design for Finding Nemo and WALL•E.

I attended my first Telluride Film Festival way back in 1979, and while much has changed since then—including the town itself, which has become a ski resort and year-round festival haven—the annual Labor Day weekend event remains as exciting and exhilarating as ever. While introducing his new film Biutiful this year, Alejandro González Iñárritu said it stood as “resistance against the culture of stupidity that surrounds us.” That’s why so many world-class filmmakers want to bring their latest work to this beautiful Rocky Mountain village. The 2010 roster included Bertrand Tavernier, Danny Boyle, Errol Morris, Peter Weir, Stephen Frears, Olivier Assayas, Darren Aronofsky, and Mike Leigh, to drop just a few famous names. At one time or another each of them was an up-and-comer, and many of them got a crucial boost among critics and cinephiles at this influential festival.

What’s more, Telluride also salutes the—

From backstage at the Sheridan Opera House I shot this image of Peter Weir being presented his Silver Medallion by Laura Linney. It may not be a great picture but it’s a unique vantage point!

—past with archival screenings and silent films accompanied by live music. This year’s guest director, novelist Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) chose a diverse slate of personal favorites includingThe Hustler, John Huston’s Fat City (accompanied by a discussion with the man who wrote the source novel, Leonard Gardner), and Jan Troell’s little-seen Here’s Your Life, just restored by the Swedish Film Institute. Last year’s guest director, Alexander Payne, was so taken with his experience that he returned this time as an attendee.

Telluride’s Silver Medallion was presented to a varied group of recipients this year: the luminous Claudia Cardinale, the passionate Peter Weir, the gifted Colin Firth, and the inestimable UCLA Film and Television Archive, as a thank-you for its incredible work preserving our film heritage.

La bella Claudia Cardinale accepts a standing ovation from the Telluride audience.

Despite all of my superlatives, I must also admit that Telluride is frustrating to navigate because directors Gary Meyer, Tom Luddy, and Julie Huntsinger make it impossible to attend more than a fraction of the events and screenings one would like to. I spoke to a colleague who logged an astonishing 16 films in his three and a half days there; I saw a little more than half that amount, and wish I could have devoured many more.

Because there are as many as eight things happening at the same time, a person can choose any number of routes: to explore the most obscure films from around the world, hoping to make a discovery, or getting in on the first screenings of eagerly anticipated movies that will open this fall, or eschewing all contemporary titles for a rich menu of classics and forgotten gems.

Two great figures in contemporary animation, Pixar’s Ralph Eggleston and that most independent of filmmakers Bill Plympton, pose in front of the Sheridan Opera House.

As usual I tried to do a little of all three, but I must admit I succumbed to temptation and caught a number of high-profile premieres. While it’s true that I would see these same pictures here at home in the course of time, there’s nothing quite like being present for their U.S. unveiling and hearing the filmmakers discuss their work. (I’ll never forget being present for the first showing of Slumdog Millionaire two years ago—or any number of other gems over the years, from Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants to Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies.)

I was privileged to interview Peter Weir on opening night at the Sheridan Opera House, the 1913 jewel-box of a theater that’s one of the festival’s primary venues. He is an unusually articulate man, a delight to talk to, and I blithely ignored my first cut-off signal because he was just so interesting. He says he goes into a kind of trance when he directs, which is why he’s always looking forward to doing it again—not only to try to do better work than he did the last time, but because there is no experience to compare with filmmaking. About an hour after the tribute came to a close I saw his newest film, The Way Back, which is finally set to be released in early 2011. It is an epic-scale saga about a group of prisoners who escape from a Siberian work camp and make their way on foot over thousands of miles to freedom. Weir explained that it was made on a remarkably small budget, which doesn’t show. It’s a flawed film but it has magnificent passages and uniformly fine performances by Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, and Saorise Ronan, among others.

Danny Boyle had such a great experience at Telluride with Slumdog Millionaire that he hand-carried his print of 127 Hours from the Venice Film Festival to present its U.S. premiere. It’s quite good, though Slumdog is a tough act to follow.

I also conducted a q&a session after the debut screening of Never Let Me Go, Alex Garland’s adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo). Its stars, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, were also present, and this film proves that Mulligan was no one-hit-wonder with An Education. She has a remarkable poise and maturity that helps anchor this highly emotional drama with a science-fiction edge.

I heard from a number of people who didn’t care for the film, but that’s also a vital part of the Telluride experience: everyone has an opinion. Wherever you go around town, especially if you take a gondola ride up to Mountain Village and its Chuck Jones Cinema, you’re bound to get into a conversation about what everyone has liked and disliked. It’s rare that any film draws a unanimous opinion pro or con, although this year I heard nothing but good things about The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, and directed by Tom Hooper. Alas, I never got to see it (although my wife did, and loved it)…but it’s now high on my priority list for the fall.

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan was hailed as “brilliant” by many people and was enthusiastically greeted at its debut screening—but not by yours truly. At one point during this feverish ballet melodrama my daughter and I turned to each other and evoked the look of the audience watching “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers. Would I have been so gobsmacked if I’d seen the trailer and had some idea of how wild it would be? I might have had more warning, but I still don’t think I would have swallowed this female fantasy of mutilation, masturbation and unending nightmares.

The main street of Telluride, Colorado is a National Historic District, so it remains unchanged over the years—and it’s gorgeous.

My two favorites of the festival were Mike Leigh’s Another Year and Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier. I have a vivid recollection of seeing my first Leigh film at Telluride, an 18-minute gem called The Short & Curlies, in 1987. I had no idea who made it but I was immediately struck by its kitchen-sink candor and affection for its everyday characters. Leigh was unable to attend the festival this year as he is making a short subject for the London Olympics, but was represented by one of his actors, the wonderful Lesley Manville. She plays one of the central figures in Another Year, along with such other Leigh regulars as Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen.

Telluride mainstay Werner Herzog, who directed Cardinale in his brilliant Fitzcarraldo, presents her with a bouquet and her silver medallion.

As he so often does, Leigh manages to combine humor and heartbreaking poignancy in this story, which focuses on a happily married couple and their dysfunctional friends. Manville is exceptionally good as a woman who is an emotional wreck, although her longtime friends are patient with her—as is Leigh, who never goes for cheap laughs and treats all his characters with great compassion. The final scene of Another Year is one I will long remember.

The Princess of Montpensier is a 16th century period piece, but Tavernier’s stated goal was to create a film that felt vivid and immediate, with no distance between the modern-day viewer and the people onscreen. He has succeeded. From the visceral opening moments, in the midst of a bloody, muddy battle—filmed with sweeping camera movement—I was hooked. His young cast is impeccable, and Lambert Wilson gives a majestic performance as the nobleman who decides that he can no longer justify the savagery of war.

Two great French directors, Olivier Assayas and Bertrand Tavernier, at the opening night filmmakers’ reception.

My family and I come home from Telluride exhausted but happy, adding another year’s worth of memories to our diaries. I got to meet Claudia Cardinale, who fueled an adolescent crush many years ago, and chat with filmmakers and storytellers who have made a difference in my life. All that in the midst of physical beauty that is almost beyond description…who could ask for anything more?

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May 2024