There's a camaraderie that makes the Telluride Film Festival like few others you'll ever attend. Sitting alone at a picnic table while taking in a beautiful Colorado landscape the other morning, I was approached by Jon Busch. The Telluride tech director was looking for a place to eat his colorful plate of brunch. Within minutes we were having a terrific chat about the history of the festival. He's been attending since year two and now, after 37 festivals, he's retiring.
What is it about this festival, I wondered aloud during our chat. A few thousand folks travel hours, sometimes via harrowing flights or long winding mountain roads.
"It's a festival for people who love movies," Busch said simply. A few other solo folks parked next to us with their own plates of locally sourced fruits, greens and meats and the conversation expanded. Before too long we'd opened our pocket schedules to compare notes and plan a weekend of moviegoing.
"People form new relationships in the Telluride lines," former festival co-director Bill Pence told me back in 2004 when I attended the festival for the first time, "People say, one of the things they like most is talking about the films."
Talk fuels the Telluride Film Festival: What did you see? What did you like? What should I skip?
New and old films alike compete for attention on eight screens from about 8:30AM until well after midnight for three and a half days each Labor Day weekend. Some will go on to win Academy Awards, while others may be as many as 100 years old by a filmmaker no one has ever heard of.
Of the more than 15 films I saw in Telluride, here are the five that really stuck with me this weekend.
Of the big names in Telluride this year, George Clooney was clearly one to watch. Even without a film in the festival his friend Alexander Payne has been coming to this festival in recent years. But this weekend they were here together to unveil "The Descendants," a movie that is sure to gain major momentum when it screens for hundreds of journalists and movie fans at the Toronto film fest this coming weekend.
Clooney, an honoree at this year's fest, stars as a Hawaiian businessman whose wife has just had a terrible jet ski accident. With his wife in a coma, he's left to reconnect with his two daughters. Eliciting laughter and tears alike, the storyline follows the trio as they learn more about mom's life while coming to terms with her diminishing chances of survival. Aimed at a wide audience, "The Descendants" strikes the right balance in its portrayal of a contemporary American family facing both internal and external challenges. George Clooney anchors the film and Shailene Woodley shines as his eldest daughter. All weekend, festival goers wondered why it took seven years for Alexander Payne to make another movie after "Sideways."
"I would like to be making more films more quickly," he laughed, during a Saturday morning Q & A. "I wish I'd been a Warner Bros director in the ', '40s or '50s," Payne quipped, adding later, "I'm interested in making movies that are about our own lives."
"Goodbye First Love"
The same can probably be said for French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love, as is underscored by her new film, "Goodbye First Love."
But, don't introduce her as Olivier Assayas girlfriend. Sure, they're a couple but it's really not fair to her as a director.
WIth her third film under her belt, Hansen-Love is setting out on her own path as a filmmaker. "Goodbye First Love" delivered on the buzz generated during last month's Locarno festival. Tracking a young and beautiful French couple as they connect and reconnect over the course of nearly a decade, Hansen-Love offers rich examination of a terrific and tortured relationship.
The film follows their seemingly never ending youthful romance that matures and remains just as potent as when it began.
"I'm trying to do very personal films," Mia Hansen-Love told a Telluride crowd the other day. While the movie may not be a portrait of specific people in her own life, she admitted, "It has to do with the feelings."
Charming and inquisitive during one-on-one conversations throughout the weekend, Hansen-Love laughed at the idea that she's still introduced at Mrs. Olivier Assayas, as she was at a screening in Telluride. But, she seems too excited to share her new film to let the link bother her.
"This is one thing I can be proud of in my life," she said of the film, before pausing. She added that she was even more proud to have survived the scary small plane flight into Telluride's mountain airport.
Seriously, though. Hansen-Love asked anyone who would listen, "Is there another way to get in or out of this town?"
Another story of young and challenged love, this one set in Chile, seemed to stir a bit of a generational divide among some festival attendees in Telluride. Christian Jimenez's adaptation of Alejandro Zambra novel is a look at a pair of 20-somethings, bound by their love of books, who fall for each other and then drift apart.
I saw the movie and immediately fell for it in Cannes and was invited to conduct a Q & A with Jimenez and actor Diego Noguera here in Telluride. It's a movie about words, Jimenez reiterated during our chat this weekend. Remember that song by Depeche Mode, "Enjoy The Silence," he asked the audience? This is the opposite, he explained, "Words are meaningful and not forgettable." Some in the crowd got the reference, others didn't.
Even more clearly, back in Cannes, Jimenez told me that with "Bonsai" he's exploring a sense of loneliness that is something not only he can relate to personally, but is unique to a generation of Chileans.
"It has to do with a certain kind of loneliness that was (specific) to our generation," Jimenez told me during a podcast interview in Cannes. "People of our generation in Chile experienced a certain kind of loneliness that was new, it was not just new to us but it was new to our society in a way. It was something that our parents could not help us deal with because they did not go through it."
Strand plans to release the movie next year. Up next it's heading to Toronto and then San Sebastian.
There's also a distinct sense of loneliness at the core of "Shame," the explicit new movie by "Hunger" diretor Steve McQueen. Michael Fassbender stars as a sex addict in modern day New York City and the movie pulls no punches in its depiction of his character's secret life. McQueen uses long takes and swelling music to punctuate Fassbender's descent into dark areas of the city and his own life.
Fassbender is drawing praise in Venice where the film premiered about an hour ahead of its Telluride screening. Buyers are reportedly bidding to acquire the provocative new film.
Because he's in Venice, Steve McQueen sent along a taped message to Telluride. "'Shame' is indicative of so much of what's going on right now," he explained in the brief introduction, adding that the film should be familiar and recognizable. "It is about how we communicate today."
The Manhattan seen in Steve McQueen's "Shame" is more menacing and mysterious than the island gets credit for these days. A rich single white man has moved into a gleaming Midtown high rise and displaced old sleaze for new. Carey Mulligan stars as the lead character's tormented sister and the two siblings are headed towards their breaking points in the West 30s.
When Mulligan sings an extended rendition of "New York, New York," the NYC anthem made famous by Frank Sinatra, the film literally stops, offering a viewer the chance to take stock of the city and these people's troubled lives. And maybe it's fact that I saw the film just one week before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but it's hard not to reflect on life in the city today and how much has changed.
"The Turin Horse"
On the opening afternoon of the Telluride Film Festival, some attendees (patrons, press and friends of the event) were offered a choice, a surprise advance screening of Payne's "The Descendants" (one day ahead of its scheduled fest showing) or a showing of what may be Bela Tarr last film, "The Turin Horse."
Knowing I'd get to the Alexander Payne movie the next morning, I opted for Tarr "Horse." As I wrote in a brief blog post over the weekend, the film is a slow, 2 1/2 hour, black-and-white movie by a master of challenging cinema.
Introducing the movie, the fest’s Jason Silverman warned the audience that after seeing “The Turin Horse,” they’d view the rest of the Telluride Film Festival through an entirely new set of eyes. Up to the challenge, just a couple of people walked out during the film.
Save for the howling sound of a treacherous wind, the “The Turin Horse” (Hungary’s contender for the foreign language Oscar) is essentially a silent movie. It unfolds over six days inside a modest rural farm house that protects a monstrous carriage driver and his dutiful daughter from what is described as “an apocalyptic windstorm.”
The script for for Tarr Berlin Silver Bear winner (co-directed with Agnes Hranitzky), was 35 pages long and 10 of those were about wind, explained one of the film's producers just ahead of the screening.
“The Turin Horse” will test cinematic patience and, for some, challenge the way you define movies.
At dinner last night, a couple of friends were telling me about a family that attended the Telluride Film Festival this year. In town from Philadelphia, two parents brought their 15-year old-son to the festival for his birthday. Hearing that the kid has an affinity for Bela Tarr -- he was apparently thrilled to see "The Turin Horse" here this weekend -- gave me a glimmer of hope even as it reminded me that the tug-of-war between and art and commercial cinema is quite pronounced right now. Look no further than Telluride for that proof.
Or look back at a recent debate. Earlier this summer, a New York Times Magazine column sparked heated exchange about eating your 'cultural vegetables'. That is, watching movies that may be good for you even if you don't really enjoy them. Grit your teeth and swallow that art film when you'd rather be watching a movie that's a bit more satisfying?
Over the course of just a few days, Telluride reminds us that so-called cultural vegetables are satisfying. And they can enrich our experience watching fast-food films.
As Telluride veteran Jon Busch told me at brunch, this is a fest for movie lovers. That's what makes it so exciting and lends an almost cult-like fondness for this festival among its fans.
"Movies may be the only art form whose core audience is widely believed to be actively hostile to ambition, difficulty or anything that seems to demand too much work on their part," AO Scott wrote over the summer, responding to the NY Times Magazine column. He was at the fest this year with his own son. "In other words, there is, at every level of the culture — among studio executives, entertainment reporters, fans and quite a few critics — a lingering bias against the notion that movies should aspire to the highest levels of artistic accomplishment."
[Eugene Hernandez, Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is a co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of indieWIRE.]