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Snapshots Of Telluride At 40

Snapshots Of Telluride At 40

On the
opening night of my first Telluride Film Festival, in 1979, co-founder Bill
Pence stood on the stage of the historic 1913 Sheridan Opera House and told us
that if we could see all the films we wanted to he would consider the festival
a failure. Although Bill and his wife Stella have passed the baton to Gary
Meyer, Julie Huntsinger, and fellow founder Tom Luddy, that mission statement
has remained intact: Telluride is an embarrassment of riches, more than ever as
it celebrated its 40th year by adding an additional day to the Labor
Day Weekend festivities.

While it’s
tempting to avoid the big-name movies that will open theatrically in a matter
of weeks, it’s undeniably exciting to see them before anyone else, especially when
the filmmakers are present. I try to balance my menu by seeing at least a few
obscurities and revivals; no two attendees are likely to have the same
moviegoing diary. For instance, I missed such high-profile debuts as Jason
Reitman’s Labor Day, Steven McQueen’s
12 Years a Slave, and Errol Morris’
latest documentary, The Unknown Known—all
of which I’m anxious to see.

Of the
high-profile “sneak previews” this weekend, I was most excited about Gravity, which did not disappoint.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in this dazzling outer-space saga
directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who wrote the screenplay with his son Jónás. I was
lucky enough to lead a discussion with the collaborators following its first
showing, but we only got to scratch the surface of how they conceived and
executed this elaborate production—which took four and a half years to
complete. Jónás introduced the film by saying that they wanted to give us a
thrill-ride experience, but afterwards both father and son admitted that they
also saw the story in metaphoric terms about survival and rebirth. That’s
precisely why it works so well: it’s tremendous entertainment with meat on its
bones. (I got to experience it at Telluride’s newest venue, the Werner Herzog
Cinema, where it was screened in 3-D at 48 frames per second by two
synchronized projectors, which put twice the normal amount of light on the
screen. When the festival is over, this outstanding theater reclaims its true
identity as a skating rink.)

curtain-raiser for Gravity was another
knockout, an innovative new 3-D Mickey Mouse short called Get a Horse! After it was first unveiled at the Annecy Animation Film Festival last spring, friends assured me that I would enjoy it most if I knew
almost nothing about it beforehand. They were right. You’ll get to see it when
it plays with the Disney feature Frozen
this November. It was a pleasure to meet the short’s talented and enthusiastic
director, Lauren MacMullan, a relative newcomer to Disney who was working on the
story team for Wreck-It Ralph when
she got the chance to pitch her idea for this cartoon. Lauren joined
animator/entrepreneur Bill Plympton and me for a casual conversation about the
state of the art in the lobby of the Chuck Jones Cinema on Sunday night. (Chuck
was a longtime supporter of Telluride who designed some of its earliest
posters; his daughter Linda continues the tradition.)

Bill’s latest
short, Drunker than a Skunk, which he
animated by himself with a ball-point pen, proved to be an apt accompaniment to
Alexander Payne’s new feature Nebraska,
a beautifully nuanced character study in glorious black & white. Bruce Dern
gives an award-worthy performance as a taciturn, senile Midwesterner whose
sympathetic son (Will Forte) accompanies him on an odyssey that some would call
a fool’s errand. Although Payne didn’t write the screenplay (Bob Nelson did) it
still has his fingerprints all over it and makes a strong companion piece to About Schmidt. Dern is obviously proud
of his work in the film, and lived up to his reputation as a first-class
raconteur when I interviewed him on Friday before a rapt audience at the local

one’s choices, Telluride offers the chance to discover films and learn from
their filmmakers—not only at q&a sessions but in informal conversations anywhere
you chance to encounter them. After watching Yuval Adler’s compelling Israeli
drama Bethlehem the director (who
also co-wrote the screenplay with an Arab journalist) held court on the lawn
outside the Masons Hall Cinema for a handful of eager audience members.

Many of my
most rewarding experiences this year came from listening to the filmmakers
speak about their work. Asghar Farhadi, who blew us all away two years ago with
A Separation, was forthcoming about
his excellent new movie The Past, a
haunting story of relationships plagued by misunderstandings. Tracks director John Curran was joined
by two producers, his talented composer Garth Stevenson, his leading actress
Mia Wasikowska, and the woman she portrays onscreen, Robyn Davidson. (Most of
the audience’s questions were directed at Davidson, who made a 2,000 mile trek
across the Australian desert with a dog and three camels as her companions. I
was glad to learn that the Weinstein Company has acquired this stimulating and
highly entertaining movie.)

The most
unusual discussion I witnessed followed a showing of Philippe Claudel’s Before the Winter Chill, a provocative
chamber drama starring two of my favorite actors, Daniel Auteuil and Kristin
Scott Thomas. Novelist Claudel brought his first film, I’ve Loved You So Much (also starring Scott Thomas) to Telluride
five years ago, and it made a lasting impression. The new movie is also quite
good, but it leaves many aspects of its characters’ backgrounds and motivations
unstated. Longtime Telluride moderator Annette Insdorf had the nerve to ask
Claudel about these matters—and, to my great surprise, he answered her in
detail. Most writer-directors will say, “I leave it to you to decide,” or
something like that, but not Claudel. I must say he gave me a deeper
understanding and appreciation of his film, but I don’t know how filmgoers who
don’t get these answers will feel.

I can’t begin
to recount every film or conversation of the elongated Telluride weekend—from
introducing Penn and Teller’s quirky documentary Tim’s Vermeer to seeing the first portion of Agnieszka Holland’s
riveting docudrama Burning Bush—but I
hope you get the general idea. This is a movie lover’s paradise, held in a
spectacular Rocky Mountain setting. It doesn’t get any better than that.


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