At this year’s Telluride Film Festival, the only real grousing came from the awards season pundits.
The 39th edition of the mountainside Colorado festival, which concluded on Monday, has been valued in recent years for providing the first public look at a number of fall season releases being positioned for accolades from the Oscars and Golden Globes. Over the last two years, those titles have included “The Descendants” and “Black Swan,” both released by Fox Searchlight, a typical awards-friendly distributor that had no movies in the latest lineup.
Audiences didn’t seem to mind a festival that eschewed the marketplace pressures of fall season prestige in favor of handpicked quality from the festival circuit — meaning the whole festival circuit, including both favorites from earlier this year at Cannes as well as a number of movies soon to have their official premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival. While Telluride may not have offered a sneak peek at several major awards contenders, it certainly offered a sneak peek at a lot of other new movies. The festival opened by announcing its 40th anniversary next year; the typically dense three-day event will add a fourth day, which is likely to excite the casual moviegoing Midwesterners as much as the professionals. They have reason to hope for better luck next year.
Even still, those hungry for Oscar bait certainly got their fix with the sneak peek screening of Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” which first showed at the beginning of the festival on Friday afternoon. A definite crowdpleaser about the little-known attempt by a CIA agent (played by Affleck himself) to smuggle a group of American operatives out of Iran in 1979 by disguising them as a film crew, “Argo” got the buzz machine going early.
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The movie arrived courtesy of distributor Warner Bros., whose gamble to sneak the film to Telluride ahead of its official TIFF premiere paid off: Affleck, who honed his directing skills through the tried-and-true process of genre filmmaking ahead of this effort, delivered a classic form of political entertainment that audiences tend to embrace at this time of the year. While no groundbreaking masterpiece, as one prominent distributor emphatically described the movie several times, “it’s old school.”
Beyond its Oscar prospects, “Argo” also fit into a trend at the festival this year as it was one of several movies set in the Middle East (a connection that led to a panel on the topic hosted by scholar Annette Insdorf and featuring Affleck). Arriving at Telluride shortly after its Venice premiere, “Wadjda” generated plenty of hype for the story behind its production. The first Saudi Arabian feature directed by a woman, the movie was made for a reasonable budget within the country’s borders — no easy feat for any filmmaker — and focuses on the plight of a young woman coping with typical adolescent problems. Many viewers spoke energetically about director Haifaa Mansour’s ability to present the familiar story in a context they had never seen before. That’s probably enough to help it land a midsize distributor in the near future. In the meantime, it arrives at TIFF soon enough.
In a less upbeat vein, Ziad Doueiri’s Lebanese film “The Attack” (another entry in the TIFF program) garnered attention for exploring the impact of terrorism on an individual life. The story finds an Arab doctor coping with the death of his wife at the hands of a suicide bomber and gradually figuring out that she may have been the one who detonated the bomb. Audiences found the movie upsetting but many came away praising its tense scenario.
Rounding out the Middle Eastern offerings, “The Gatekeepers” stunned festivalgoers with a shockingly candid look at the motives driving Shin Bet, Israel’s clandestine security service. Director Dror Moreh’s study of the organization’s belligerent tactics and the downward spiral of destruction that came out of them benefits greatly from access: Exclusively drawing from the candid testimonies of former Shin Bet heads, “The Gatekeepers” assembles a history of Israeli combat through the voice of its own people.
Next page: How Sony Pictures Classics dominated the festival. Plus: What was for sale?
A likely Oscar contender for the Best Documentary slot, “The Gatekeepers” was among a rich slate of films brought to the festival by distributor Sony Pictures Classics. Co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard are longtime Telluride devotees and often use the festival to heighten awareness for a number of their biggest prospects. Other SPC titles well-received by Telluride audiences included Michael Haneke’s devastating Palme d’Or winner “Amour” and another contender from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone.” While some critics (myself included) find “Rust and Bone” to be little more than a slick, well-acted romance from a director capable of bigger things (see: “A Prophet”), those qualities were certainly enough to make many Telluride attendees salivate, especially since star Marion Cotillard showed up for a tribute.
While SPC has high hopes for those movies this fall, it also revealed a couple of titles it plans to hold until next year. Pablo Larraín’s acclaimed period drama “No,” which revolves around the 1988 referendum that ended Pinochet’s reign over Chile, drew positive reactions for its keen use of digital video and an intense turn by star Gael Garcia Bernal. Less warmly received but nevertheless a major point of interest, Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price” found the formerly neorealist filmmaker brooding his scope to explore small town Iowa corruption among the corn fields. Despite committed turns by Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron as a father-son duo, the movie faced a mixed reception largely due to its on-the-nose plotting and creaky pace. Nevertheless, it should continue to generate interest at TIFF due to the focus of attention being placed on the admittedly strong performances instead of Bahrani’s earlier films.
Among U.S. distributors, SPC may have had the biggest footprint in town, but not the only one. Magnolia Pictures came to Telluride with a pair of dramas starring Mads Mikkelsen, the subject of another tribute. Both “The Hunt,” where Mikkelsen plays a teacher accused of pedophilia, and the Danish period piece “The Royal Affair,” where he’s a doctor who has an affair with the Queen, brought the kind of sophisticated fare that Telluride audiences desire above all else.
Other distributors with prominent titles included Focus Features, which unveiled the Bill Murray vehicle “Hyde Park on Hudson,” in which the actor plays FDR on the brink of forging the nation’s special relationship with Britain. While audiences found Murray’s turn strong enough to keep the movie watchable, its light approach to a major historical moment left many wanting more. Regardless, it has probably found enough momentum to keep its lead actors (including Laura Linney as the president’s temporary love interest) in the awards race. Also arriving with only one film in town: IFC Films, which brought the Ken Burns documentary “Central Park Five,” and Adopt Films, the company started by veteran Jeff Lipsky that has the Berlin competitor “Barbara.” The latest effort from Christian Petzold, this moody tale of an East German doctor (Nina Hoss) eager to escape to the West while held down by a lingering affair, was recently submitted as Germany’s entry for the Academy Awards. If the Telluride response is any indication, it has major prospects.
Despite many of the movies that did have theatrical releases set in stone, a lot of the highlights from Telluride came from movies that remain unsold. The best of them, Sarah Polley’s intimate family documentary “Stories We Tell,” follows the actress-filmmaker on her quest to discover the true identity of her father. Entertaining and heartfelt, “Stories We Tell” charmed audiences and kept them talking about its numerous surprises throughout the festival.
Similarly, Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” which he co-wrote with star Greta Gerwig, presents an enjoyable slice-of-life look at a young woman trying to stabilize her economically-challenged life in New York City and attempting to maintain her old friendship with a college pal (Mickey Sumner). Certainly Baumbach’s most upbeat movie to date, the story’s complex tone led many to suggest it was the director’s best effort to date. I find that to be something of an overstatement. “Frances Ha” is a terrifically breezy look at uncertain twentysomethings, but its wandering structure lessens its potential for a lasting effect.
“Frances Ha” wasn’t the only acquisition title about young women growing up and losing touch. Sally Potter’s gorgeous “Ginger & Rosa,” a British period piece about a pair of pre-teens at the dawn of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, marked the director’s most tender, accessible achievement as well as a breakthrough performance for Elle Fanning, who has never appeared so fragile in her earlier roles. Some audiences felt that “Ginger and Rosa” only appealed to viewers familiar with the plights of adolescent girls; never one myself, I can only say that “Ginger & Rosa” impacted me by making the travails of Fanning’s character as her best friend (Alice Englert) falls into a relationship with Ginger’s father into a profoundly touching experience.
“Ginger & Rosa” didn’t win over everybody, but other acquisition titles had a harder time. “The Iceman,” a gritty crime drama starring Michael Shannon on autopilot as a real life serial killer from the 1960’s, naturally garnered acclaim for its top performance but otherwise turned people off. Likewise, Michael Winterbottom’s “Everyday” was generally deemed uneven. The Marilyn Monroe documentary “Love, Marilyn” found some acclaim but also threw off a number of viewers for its distracting use of celebrities to recite Monroe’s diaries on camera. Another noteworthy documentary, “The Act of Killing,” divided audiences with its unsettling portrait of Indonesian gangsters responsible for killing countless accused communists in the 1960’s. Some people found Joshua Oppenheimer’s portrait too kind to its evil subjects while others called it the most harrowing viewing experience of their lives. A mixed reaction, in this case, was a good one: The movie got people talking.
Perhaps as a testament to the audience it attracts, even movies not playing Telluride figured into discussions at the festival, none more prominently than “The Master.” Many expected Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology drama to arrive at the festival, but word on the street was that the programmers chose not to show it because sneak screenings around the country had relegated the movie to old news. Telluride conflicts with Venice, where the movie had its official world premiere a few days ago. For those us stuck in North America, this one, it seems, will have to wait for TIFF.