The Telluride Film Festival had what some might describe as an “off year,” but it really depends on your perspective. What was clear, were some subtle-but-perceptible changes. The festival lead by Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger doubled-down on “serious” advocacy programming, going so far as to talk up smaller gems to the press, figuring that bigger prestige and studio pictures could do the talking for themselves. To that end, Telluride originally recoiled at surprises like “Argo” and “Frances Ha” — two films that weren’t announced, but appeared suddenly and secretly (to some extent anyhow) in the 2012 line-up.
In fact, other than some restorations announced after the fact, Telluride 2015 had zero surprise screenings — all the TBAs in the schedule were slots of already announced films aside from two restorations. Perhaps to demonstrate how serious the festival organizers were in trying to honor the spirit of TFF––films before awards season noise, something they clearly grapple with–– they gave their opening day patron screening (normally something they preserve for the “Argo,” “12 Years A Slave,” “Wild” and the would-be Oscar-contenders), to Fox Searchlight’s documentary “He Named Me Malala” (celebratory, but ultimately kind of dull).
Still, try as they could to keep the awards season discussion to a minimum and keep the focus on the films, some of contenders in their programming stuck out. Here are the five best films I saw; a recap because many of them have already been reviewed and discussed, and to keep it interesting (for myself), I’m also going to discuss their awards-season potential.
1. “45 Years”
What an exquisite and beautiful film, not to mention a huge leap for English filmmaker Andrew Haigh. His debut “Weekend” was good, but “45 Years,” is a stellar film about a sexagenarian couple about to celebrate their 45th year wedding anniversary when things begin to unravel and a secret from their past starts to drive a wedge between them. No, it’s not a thriller, but a deeply intimate film and a gorgeous reflection of the interior heartaches we cannot express. Beautifully shot (huge props to Lol Crawley for the best looking English countryside shots you’ll ever see) and oh-so-delicate, one could argue it even outdoes “Carol” at its exquisitely tender and fragile touch. Tom Courtenay is terrific in the film, but it’s ultimately Charlotte Rampling who devastates. Indie studio Sundance Selects doesn’t seem big enough to earn Rampling a nomination, until you remember they were able to achieve exactly that for Marion Cotillard last year with the Dardenne’s unflinchingly honest “Two Days, One Night.” How great would the 2015 season be if we could just hand Rampling the award now and forego the eventual squabbling. (Our review from Berlin.)
2. “Son Of Saul”
This is a stunning directorial debut for 38-year-old László Nemes. After you see the picture you can understand why there was so much drama at Cannes over “Son Of Saul” not winning the Palme d’Or top prize (it won the Grand Prix runner-up prize instead). A harrowing holocaust movie that brings to mind rats running the maze of Dante’s Inferno, the confidence on display in the claustrophobic, bravura filmmaking is off the charts. While it’s unrelentingly grim and bleak––essentially a kind of roving thriller about a man who wants to give a proper burial to his illegitimate son at all costs, including his own life––the movie ripped me apart by the time it reached its dynamic and poignant ending. Hungary has selected “Son of Saul” as its official entry in the Foreign Language Film category for the Academy Awards, and you can guarantee it will make the final five, if not win outright (and for the record, Sony Pictures Classics are shooting for a Best Picture nod as well). (Our review from Cannes.)
Todd Haynes’s drama is already beginning to suffer from too much hype. It’s a bit of a cold, emotionally aloof film––maybe too much so for the Academy, who could find it chilly––but it’s immaculately crafted on every single level. In a perfect world, all the artisans of the film are nominated, because its look, design, technique and craft is stupendous. Edward Lachman captures some of the most gorgeous images rendered on celluloid––shot in super 16MM no less––Sandy Powell’s costumes are breathtaking, the production design and art direction by Judy Becker and Jesse Rosenthal are masterful, and Carter Burwell’s score is properly crestfallen. And of course, the movie features two terrific leads in Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, as two tentative lovers with a gulf of expressive ache and longing between them. The slight knock on the film is maybe it’s just too perfect; not one hair is out of place and the spotlessness of the film may suck the oxygen out of it for some audiences. Regardless, it’s still unquestionably a captivating and lovely film, and no one loses when a film that excels on so many levels is applauded and awarded. (Our review from Cannes.)
4. “Steve Jobs”
There are certainly some critics in the “Steve Jobs” for and against camps, but more power to them I suppose. I unapologetically loved almost every minute of this incredibly propulsive, symphonic and unconventional biopic. What’s special about its dynamism is that kineticist filmmaker Danny Boyle usually coaxes acceleration through his films visually. Here, he cedes the authorship to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, which is a nice, surprising change of pace. It’s Sorkin’s film, which means rapid fire and assaultive dialogue, and Boyle largely serves that through vigorous editing, music and an orchestral-like swirl to this razor sharp drama about a man that helped transform our digital world. And then there’s of course the actors, Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeff Daniels and others, who make the material sing effortlessly. “Jobs” is of the greatest roller coaster rides you’ll take this year, and it also examines the binary notion of where and when genius develops. (Here’s my review.)
At first Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” seems like a solid thriller, but as the movie gains steam, it becomes a terrifically humanist picture about faith, the lack thereof, and the workmanlike pride of getting it right. Comparisons to “The Insider” and “All The President’s Men” seemed far-fetched at first, but as McCarthy and Josh Singer’s script begins to coil, it becomes an equally gripping exposé about process, investigation, and the guilt that amounts when horrible things happen during on your watch. There aren’t too many stand-out players in the movie (it’s an ensemble picture) but Michael Keaton still could earn himself another nom. It should be said that while their roles are fairly small, and maybe even too small for a Best Supporting nomination (depending on how the year shakes out anyhow), Stanley Tucci and Liev Schreiber are just outstanding in the film. (Here’s our review from Venice.)
The Rest/Films With Awards Season Potential
As suggested from Mark Harris, perhaps the greatest thing to come out of Telluride this year was the lack of superlative Oscar proclamations (in 2013 when “12 Years A Slave” first screened, pundits were declaring the Oscar race over). The awards season roar was dull, which is perhaps what Luddy and Huntsinger had hoped for.
A24’s “Room” made a big splash thanks to the tremendous performances of Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay, but some of the reaction on the film was mixed (I was one of them, but still largely positive). It’s going to be a crowded year, so it’ll be interesting to see if A24 can penetrate the Oscars. Indie Spirit Awards, Gothams, and others.
I’m really going to need to see Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts Of No Nation” again (here’s our Venice review). It’s a grim and brutal film that I feel somewhat ambivalent about. It’s terrific filmmaking, but I was so exhausted when I saw it; I felt pummeled by the movie experience. Normally, a film that has that kind of wallop is a good thing, and it probably still is, but I’m not sure I can say I loved being brutalized by it in the same way I was by “Son of Saul,” which had a similar affect on me, but with a different result. Idris Elba is great in it too, but if Netflix hopes the film will be a big Oscar contender, they’ve made their first critical error––the movie is too grim and dark for the Academy. If it does score nominations, I predict the movie will go the way of “Selma,” a congratulatory “good job” nod or two that pretty much goes nowhere.
“Black Mass” seems like a film that is going to award pundits their yearly dose of amnesia, in other words, a film that the Golden Globes and the Hollywood Foreign Press are going to eat up, but, it’s doubtful the movie is going to make much of a serious Oscar dent. Johnny Depp is certainly a thousand times better than he has been in his McFranchise work, but that’s not saying too much. Scott Cooper is director one can admire, but hardly really love. “Black Mass” looks great thanks to Masanobu Takayanagi, but it’s like a painting you can admire, though it does nothing for you emotionally or spiritually. (Here’s our Venice review which I completely agree with.)
How much does “Suffragette” want Oscar-nods? Well, Meryl Streep shows up for one small scene just to give the grandstanding speech you’ll be sure to see in some Academy reels. Directed with skillful craft by Sarah Gavron, and starring a very good Carey Mulligan, “Suffragette” is otherwise really conventional and by-the-book. I didn’t dislike it as much as Chris Willman did in his Playlist review from Telluride, but I felt deeply unmoved throughout. The problem was the very predictable script and the very familiar tone. Still, as unforgettable as it was, this is the type of film that is manna to Academy voters, so I’d expect it to score several nominations including Best Picture and Best Actress. But if it wins anything, I’d genuinely be really surprised.
Let’s get out of the way right now that “Anomalisa” is not an Oscar film at all and that’s completely ok. Charlie Kaufman’s first film in seven years, co-created with animator Duke Johnson, “Anomalisa” is a dark, absurdist treat about male existential crises, the crushing banality of life, the bizarre nature of business travel, and the strange social transaction that occurs. It’s intimate, erotic and nightmarish at times and it’s a hilarious hoot. Here’s my review.
I still need to review “He Named Me Malala” which I didn’t care for, and Charles Ferguson’s climate control doc “Time to Choose” which is an urgent call to arms. “Time to Choose” is very good as it mixes hope within its overwhelming statistics about where the planet it headed, but I worry that the layman might be scared off by its dense delivery of information. It’s still a very well-crafted doc that could turn up in the conversation at the end of the year too. I saw the Cuban drag queen/father and son drama “Viva” as well, but it’s underwhelming.
I immensely enjoyed Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi,” a playful and sly meta-political comedy (essentially) with a feeling closer to documentary. Banned from filmmaking for 20 years under Iran’s regime, the great contradiction is that the Iranian cultural minister congratulated Panahi when “Taxi” won the Golden Bear top prize in Berlin earlier this year. The even greater irony is though “banned” from filmmaking and once under house arrest, Panahi is now much more free and has actually given interviews in Iran. This hypocrisy and laziness of their own misguided laws is what Panahi explores in “Taxi.” It’s a dissident statement and indictment of Iran’s laws, but its done with great humor and whimsy. (Read Jessica’s review from Berlin here.)
Here’s what I saw with my personal grades.
“Anomalisa” [B+, read my review]
“Beasts of No Nation” [B]
“Black Mass” [B-]
“45 Years” [A]
“He Named Me Malala” [C+]
“Room” [B, read my review]
“Son of Saul” [A-]
“Steve Jobs” [B+/A-]
“Time to Choose” [B]
“Viva” [C+, read my review]