While a few hundred cinephiles wandered around a small mountain town watching movies at the Telluride Film Festival, other people wrote them off for good. “Someday we may look at 2016 as the year the movies died,” wrote Boston Globe critic Ty Burr in an essay bemoaning a summer movie season filled with “pure product from an industry that has lost its ability to speak in any meaningful way to an audience.”
What’s that you say? Crappy blockbusters were especially crappy this year? Stop the presses! Of course, anyone paying attention to a more refined set of options such as the offerings at a program like Telluride would disagree. Burr makes the valid point that much of the more substantial storytelling has migrated to television. But this has been the state of things for a number of years now, and we’re still seeing a wide variety of options that belong in no other format than the one provided by the feature-length experience. While the “Suicide Squad” paradigm of awful studio product could indeed signal their fading relevance, that only serves to highlight the alternatives. Movies aren’t dying; they’re just getting smaller.
Take, for example, the breakout success in Telluride this week: Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” The immeasurably tender portrait of a young black man struggling with his repressed sexuality over the course of three decades, this lyrical achievement — from a longtime Telluride programmer and venue manager — would never work in episodic format. It uses the power of filmic storytelling in a targeted way that only works as a movie: It’s a narrative of small, expressionistic moments that combine into an emotional whole.
And it was “Moonlight” — not a big studio hopeful like Paramount’s well-crafted but dramatically inert sci-fi drama “Arrival” — that lit up Telluride with buzz about its artistic brilliance and awards season prospects. “The two-hour movie is becoming a relic,” Burr wrote, but that’s only true if you’re looking in the wrong places. I also took this year’s Telluride as a good indication of the way movies are evolving to meet the needs of changing viewing patterns. Setting aside studio titles like “Arrival” and Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” which only provide a perspective on the above-average studio filmmaking, other films provided a different perspective.
Netflix made a strong showing by getting into the Werner Herzog business. His digressive look at volcanoes around the world, “Into the Inferno,” finds the filmmaker and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer digging into both the scientific ramifications of these natural monstrosities as well as their spiritual ramifications. (See David Ehrlich’s review here.) It’s not the most cohesive Herzogian achievement — the film’s lengthy tangents in North Korea and a fossil hunting expedition in Ethiopia could sustain full-length projects on their own — but it provides a uniquely entertaining and unpredictable alternative to the rigid formula that mars so many nature documentaries. It’s a natural fit for the Netflix model of impulse viewing at home, allowing one of cinema’s most distinctive figures to find a conduit into 21st century habits.
Netflix also scored in the short film department with “The White Helmets,” the latest up-close look at survival tactics from “Virunga” director Orlando von Einsiedea. A tense, 40-minute portrait of a volunteer-run Syrian relief group that helps survivors in the aftermath of debilitating bombings in Aleppo. “The White Helmets” captures a major conflict in the midst of its development (at the time of this writing, the U.S. has begun talking with Russia about a ceasefire) and will make its way to Netflix in a manner of weeks.
The same goes for “The Ivory Game,” a bracing look at the way poaching and the Chinese black market have endangered elephants, which will find its initial exposure on the festival circuit before heading to homes around the world. For anyone uninterested in salvaging the theatrical marketplace, Netflix has already cracked the equation for the future of non-fiction storytelling.
“Manchester By the Sea”
Meanwhile, Amazon Studios brought its $10 million Sundance acquisition “Manchester By the Sea” to Telluride, where it found further acclaim and awards season momentum. A dreary two hour-plus story of healing old wounds in a small Massachusetts town, Kenneth Lonergan’s observant character study exists a world away from the thundering spectacles that have Burr fearing mass extinction. It’s also not the easiest sell. But Amazon has the resources to slowly release “Manchester” for the smaller set of audiences who may want to take a chance on it (partnering with Roadside Attractions for the theatrical release), even as it can count on the financial prospects of its digital release. These kind of movies can play on the big screen for those who want to see them that way, but they won’t get lost there.
A well-programmed film festival provides many reasons to feel hopeful about the movies. Telluride offering “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s lively homage to classic musicals, doesn’t push the genre in new directions, but it captures the struggle to make great art survive where it belongs. (Reflecting the industry’s desire to foreground that message, the movie received a warm endorsement from Tom Hanks over the weekend.) Ryan Gosling’s jazz purist, arguing for the experience of jagged-edged rhythms in claustrophobic venues, epitomizes the passion necessary to keep any kind of creative experience intact. The movie itself provides a reminder that cinema, with its complicated history, won’t go down so easily. Throughout the lineup, other offerings — such as the slapstick “Lost in Paris” and the elegant postwar romance “Frantz” — acknowledged the effectiveness of movies as an engaging storytelling device, building on the past to create more reasons to celebrate the future of the medium.
Gael Garcia Bernal in ‘Neruda’
But just because we have plenty of strong new movies doesn’t mean people will go. Each year, filmmakers, producers and distributors sound increasingly perplexed about whether they can sustain that equation. Prolific Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain, the subject of a tribute at this year’s festival, heads into the fall season with two new movies: “Neruda,” an entrancing look at Chile’s poetic voice of the people, and “Jackie,” a recreation of the aftermath of the JFK assassination featuring Natalie Portman as Jackie O. Though “Jackie” will need to find a distributor before its potential can be assessed, “Neruda” remains an open question.
“Neruda,” which premiered last May at Cannes, provides a vivid look at the senator and poet as he eludes authorities calling for the outspoken critic’s arrest; in later scenes, Larrain ventures into the essence of Neruda’s prose in extraordinary, unexpected ways. Released this fall by The Orchard, “Neruda” could find a supportive audience through positive word of mouth. But it’s not the easiest sell. During one of Telluride’s famous gondola rides, where riders exchange tips about the lineup, one couple was perplexed by the film’s subject. (Was Neruda an island? A fruit?) They struggled to decide if they should take a risk on the foreign subject in light of safer bets. If moviegoing faces a genuine threat, it’s an old one: The fear of trying something new.
But just because there’s a challenge in getting adventurous filmmaking seen in the venue where it belongs doesn’t mean the battle has been lost. The night before the festival, at a filmmaker welcome dinner in town, a producer currently working with several new companies noted that no streaming giant has found the ability to create a genuine phenomenon around a single movie. For now, at least, that power lies with the theatrical release alone. And it hasn’t been eclipsed by the rising influence of television.
“The best movies are fives times better than the best television,” proclaimed one distributor over the long Telluride weekend. “There’s no comparison.” I pressed further. What about all the proclamations about the rise of television? Why bother with movies when “Stranger Things” and “Transparent” are at your fingertips?
“Sure, the rank-and-file Netflix and Amazon series are probably better than a bunch of shitty movies,” came the reply. “There’s more pressure on your ideas than ever before.” So if movies must fight to prove their relevance, at least the battlefield gives quality the upper hand.