The Telluride Film Festival is the only event I know where I could come away raving about a 1929 silent-film discovery and getting a tantalizing taste of the fall movie season. Festival directors Julie Huntsinger and Tom Luddy offer a feast of riches that no one can possibly digest in its entirety. As much as I love this weekend it is fraught with frustrating choices (a first-world problem, I know). I would have loved to take in more of the hot new movies; it’s exciting to see them fresh and hear their creators speak. It’s that heady blend of past and present that attracts the world’s leading directors, journalists, and movie lovers to this beautiful Rocky Mountain town year after year.
This year, my family and I found ourselves more overwhelmed than usual. My Anglophile wife Alice couldn’t wait to see Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. I was equally excited about the movie Alexander Payne has been trying to make for years. My daughter and son-in-law were eager to see Guillermo del Toro’s latest creation, introduced by the maestro himself—and I was right in line with them. This was my son-in-law Scott’s first time at the festival and we enjoyed initiating him into our longtime habits—like grabbing hot dogs on the run in order to make a screening on time and not starve. As a career film critic, I have learned that man cannot survive on popcorn alone. I’m happy to say that although we split up at various times, we all came away happy and satisfied.
I have great admiration for Alexander Payne and he never lets me down. He’s been working on Downsizing with his writing partner Jim Taylor for many years and it was well worth the wait. Matt Damon stars in this ingenious, unpredictable tale that starts out as a comedy spiked with social satire, then takes a serious turn in a futuristic mode. I loved going on this genre-bending journey. If it’s sold to audiences as a flat-out comedy they may be rattled but anyone who appreciates originality and a sharp observation of our society will not be disappointed.
Guillermo del Toro is one of the most eloquent and passionate movie lovers I’ve ever met. Hearing him discuss his long-gestating fairy tale The Shape of Water made the experience that much more special. He traces its origins to the day he, as a six-year-old Mexican boy, saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon and watched in wide-eyed wonder as the Gill-Man swam around an unsuspecting Julie Adams. It has taken him decades to craft his own fairy tale, as he describes it. It is set in 1962, which he considers the last year America still had hope for the future—before Camelot came crashing down. Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Octavia Spencer star in this richly-detailed, almost indescribable fantasy-romance. My family and I found it positively thrilling and can’t wait to see it again. (When there wasn’t time for a formal question-and-answer session after a screening, Guillermo held court outdoors on an impromptu basis. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years at this festival.)
I was fortunate enough to interview Christian Bale following a tribute to the actor, and I got to see a side of him he normally keeps private: a doting dad and devoted husband. He plays such intense characters on screen I didn’t know what to expect in person. As it turns out, he is likably self-effacing, with a smile on his face, and says, “I never had any training. I went to a couple a weekends at the YMCA in London and didn’t do very well. They actually used a clip of me to show the other people what not to do. So I don’t have any technique that I fall back on… I usually have a conviction that if I don’t work harder than the next person, then I’m gonna lose my job.” He kept the audience at Chuck Jones Cinema laughing as we reviewed his remarkable career. Who would have expected that?
Right now he has gained weight and is sporting an unusual haircut and bleached eyebrows to play Dick Cheney. It is yet another of his amazing physical transformations. (Having just seen an excerpt from The Machinist, for which he famously lost a frightening amount of weight, he admits, “I look back on it now and go, ‘Oh my God, that was crazy.”) Our conversation was all too brief but enjoyable.
Telluride premiered his latest collaboration with writer-director Scott Cooper, following Out of the Furnace, a tough Western allegory called Hostiles. As usual, it’s hard to take your eyes off of Bale, whose face manages to convey more than pages of dialogue possibly could.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s always tough to turn down a showing of a hot new movie, but I didn’t want to miss the presentations of two rare silent films this year. I was in good company: many of the top filmmakers who frequent this festival were also in the audience. They, too, couldn’t resist. The National Film Archive in Prague recently restored Carl Junghans’ Such is Life (1929), written and directed by a man whose career never realized its potential in Europe or America. This brilliant portrait of the underclass, made by a Communist, needs few written titles to tell its simple story. In introducing the film, Facets Video founder Milos Stehlik said it predates Italian neorealism, and he’s right, if you add the fact that it is punctuated with wild, dizzying Eisenstein-like montages. I was blown away, and I hope this discovery gets the wide exposure it deserves, especially with the score Donald Sosin composed and played so beautifully at Telluride’s historical Sheridan Opera House.
Paolo Cherchi Usai introduced another silent feature as part of Telluride’s collaboration with the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Kean, or Disorder and Genius (1924) was directed by Alexandre Volkoff and stars the great Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine, who enjoyed great success in France during the 1920s. Based on a play by Alexandre Dumas, this story of the celebrated actor Edmund Kean is uneven but has great, memorable passages. Volkoff recreates Shakespearean scenes as they were originally performed at the Drury Lane Theatre. The highlight comes when Kean joins in a rousing peasant dance at a local pub, with the camera circling around with him. I always love seeing the The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, led by Rodney Sauer, but they outdid themselves in their accompaniment to this challenging movie, which concludes with the longest, slowest death scene ever committed to celluloid.
Tom Luddy dug out a little-known four-part British TV documentary from 1989 called Slim Gaillard’s Civilisation about proto-hipster Slim Gaillard that debuted on the BBC arts show Arena and even flew in its director, Alexander Wall, to take a long-delayed bow. Gaillard’s permanent claim to fame is that he wrote “Flat Foot Floogie (With a Floy Floy)” but as this unconventional portrait reveals, he had a rich and colorful life in and out of the jazz world. It’s the kind of offbeat discovery one might only find in Telluride.
There were many other prominent tributes and debuts at the festival, but these were my personal highlights. Many of my colleagues are on their way to Toronto, a much more expansive festival, but the compact nature of Telluride—and the magnificence of its setting—make it unique. We look forward to it all year long because of the experience, not just the films; after so many years we genuinely feel like we’re attending a family reunion. The staff and volunteers who run the festival are friendly and welcoming. We feel fortunate to be invited there.