Offering just two dozen new feature films over five days, the Telluride Film Festival is a carefully curated event. Which is another way of saying that its programmers have idiosyncratic taste. Fest heads Tom Luddy, Gary Meyer and Julie Huntsinger clearly have favorite filmmakers who seem to return to the festival with each new movie. But that's part of the festival's charm.
To find the small crop of new films that will screen, each year Telluride's leaders -- and their array of advisers -- scour festivals, drawing heavily from Cannes and then hand-picking a small roster of brand new movies that screen either the same week they are also in Venice or just ahead of the Toronto and New York fests.
Whether screening movies that are brand-new or showcasing favorites from the festival circuit, the annual Telluride lineup offers a compact weekend preview of some of the best to come from the fall movie season.
Piecing together a Telluride Film Festival screening schedule is a constant task throughout the brief weekend festival. It's always in flux. Long lines can form unexpectedly, forcing an alternate choice. TBA slots are filled at the last minute with a surprise sneak preview or planners add one more showing of a popular film from the previous day.
Of the dozen movies I saw in Telluride this weekend, the last one I saw was the best. Late Monday night I squeezed into to the tiny Nugget theater for the final TBA showing of "Incendies," a film that folks were buzzing about in line all weekend. What's so exciting is that I not only saw an incredible new film, but have been introduced to an established director whose work I'm anxious to explore.
Quebec filmmaker Denis Villenueve has been making movies for years and is popular in Telluride. His new film, "Incendies," unfolds like a great novel. It's a true page-turner that explores a brother and sister who, in the wake of their mother's death, embark on a revelatory journey to the Middle East to unearth their family tree. It's a journey marked by tenderness and horror as the siblings follow the roots of their family to unexpected (and at times unbelievable) places.
"'Incendies' is a painfully topical and relevant work," wrote Villenueve, in notes on his movie in Telluride's 'Film Watch' program. "With a mixture of sadness and happiness, I'm able to see profound meaning in it that helps me maintain a glimmer of hope. How can we break the cycle of anger that has sparked endless violence? How can we make peace among feuding peoples, inhabitants of a region, or relatives?"
Brand new on the festival circuit, "Incendies" remains without U.S. distribution. A standing ovation in Venice and strong reactions in Telluride ahead of its Toronto debut next week will surely change that. The parlor game in Telluride among industry insiders was whether Sony Classics or IFC would make the deal. But, might some other company step up to the plate to release this film that is sure to stick with those who see it?
Hardly subtle, Darren Aronofsky films often provoke. His latest, "Black Swan," is no exception. For some 10 years the American director pursued an adaptation of "Swan Lake." His take transposes the dance's storyline to that of an obsessed young woman whose sole life ambition is to play the lead stage role, starring as two diametrically opposed characters, one black and one white. But, her nightmares infect her dream as opening night approaches.
Black and white, often reflected in mirrors, mark scene after scene in Aronofsky's latest, which he says is a companion piece to his previous film, "The Wrestler." Natalie Portman, 20 pounds lighter for the part, plays the agitated dancer who is driven by a desire for perfection in a fading art form. Among her antagonists are three over-the-top women, played by Barbara Hershey (controlling mom), Winona Ryder (fading star) and Mila Kunis (ambitious understudy), not to mention a very hard to please dance company head (Vincent Cassel).
Sound and image collide wonderfully in "Black Swan." The continuously moving handheld camera work (cinematography by Matthew Libatique) matched with swelling music from Tchaikovsky and a complementary original score (by Clint Mansell).
Aronofsky's gritty and sometimes in-your-face approach may not be for everyone. This is not a quiet observational character study, but it was a hell of a ride. "Go in expecting Ken Russell," advised one Telluride attendee. I'd offer that the film is something closer to Lee Daniels' "Precious" than Frederick Wiseman's "La Danse."
A top exec from a rival distributor told me that the film was playing better with European film critics than American ones, while others said that the film would turn off older audiences and Academy members. For what it's worth, I sat next to an older Telluride tourist who loved the movie and later witnessed firsthand some very high profile members of the Academy praising the picture.
Calling "Black Swan," "virtuosic filmmaking," Shane Danielsen at the Venice fest soaked it all in, raving, "The result was overblown, melodramatic, faintly ludicrous – and as such, perfectly congruent with the milieu it was depicting."
At a Fox Searchlight dinner on Sunday night inside Telluride's popular Chop House, Aronofsky talked about opening the Venice fest just days before. Earlier in the day he'd characterized the Italian response with an odd quip, jokingly apologizing to the Telluride audience for what they were about to experience.
"I'm very sorry for what is about to happen," Aronofsky told the crowd, "I didn't know I was doing it."
At dinner the previous night, IFC celebrated its own festival slate at a joint IFC Films/Sundance Channel gathering that was among the highlights of the festival. Grouped at tables around the 221 Oak St. restaurant were small groups of folks that included Alexander Payne, Philip Lopate, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Thierry Fremaux, Todd McCarthy, Bertrand Tavernier, Lesley Manville, and of course, Olivier Assayas and "Carlos" star Edgar Ramirez.
Particularly worth watching for its lead performance, "Carlos" is the six-hour story of a renowned international terrorist, told in three separate films spanning decades. All three movies played numerous times throughout the weekend ahead of the film's trips to the Toronto and New York Film Festivals in the coming weeks.
Profiled by indieWIRE back in Cannes, Ramirez reflected on the portrait of the sexy terrorist, explaining that the story is about "how an individual interest and ego and fame prevail." He continued, "In any human process we can’t escape from the vanity, the power and the ego. Not even in acting."
IFC's Ryan Werner stood up to make a toast at the dinner, calling "Carlos," "Assayas' masterpiece."
Earlier in the evening, at a smaller dinner hosted by Sony Pictures Classics, a pair of other personal favorites were showcased. I sat alongside Paris-based producer Jake Eberts who ushered Sylvain Chomet's "The Illusionist" to the big screen.
Very little is spoken in "The Illusionist," but a lot is said. Eberts said that is the beauty of the movie.
At a nearby table, "Inside Job" director Charles Ferguson held court.
Talking heads have rarely told a more harrowing story as they do in his latest documentary, the follow-up to his "No End In Sight." Dense and detailed, Charles Ferguson's doc provokes sadness and madness in moviegoers as it examines the roots of the persistent international economic crisis.
Buzz for other new movies was strong. Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" generated a lot of buzz ahead of this week's Toronto debut, as did Errol Morris' "Tabloid."
But, beyond "Incendies" and "Black Swan," it was Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech" that seemed to stir a lot of folks. Its star Colin Firth was honored by the festival and additional screenings were added to accommodate demand, including a free outdoor showing as the festival came to a close on Monday night.