On each of my 13 previous visits to the Telluride Film Festival, one surprise sneak preview was the talk of the town. Past surprises include “Up in the Air,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and “Juno.” But this year, the festival’s 38th, at least eight movies garnered universal praise up on the mountain over Labor Day weekend. On most favorites lists, including my own, are: “The Descendents,” “The Artist,” “Albert Nobbs,” “In Darkness,” “A Separation,” “A Dangerous Method,” “Footnote,” and “Kid on a Bike.” “We Need to Talk About Kevin” was the subject of abundant conversation and much controversy, as was “Shame.”

After seeing 16 movies in three and a half days, two themes stood out for me: difficult family relationships; and darkness and despair with not always hopeful resolution.

These are films that will haunt you and upset your equilibrium, make you think, make you feel, and awaken your senses and your mind, with a few laughs for comic relief, but not many. This is, after all, the world we live in today, one of family, humanity, many unanswered questions, some darkness, and survival. While several of the films and their stars were award-winners at recent festivals in Venice, Berlin, and Cannes, many films this year at Telluride were being screened for the first time.

The program is heavily guarded until the festival begins and code names are used for the guest honorees who this year were George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, and Pierre Etaix (who has been called the French Buster Keaton). Along with new reels, the program featured painstakingly restored old films, several new documentaries, and darkly twisted films that explore the human spirit.

It is difficult for me to see films here at home after experiencing sound and projection that push the technology envelope as gymnasiums and school auditoriums on the Telluride “campus” are converted each year into state-of-the-art movie palaces. Monday night, Labor Day, the breaking down begins, and Tuesday morning the schools are ready for their students.

“In Darkness” was perhaps the most painful, difficult two-and-a-half hours I’ve experienced in a movie theater. This Holocaust story never before told on the screen opens new windows into a horrific era. Filmed underground, partially in the real sewers of Lodz, we meet a band of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland who survive for 14 months in an unthinkable environment of rats, filth, floods, and other horrors. This becomes possible through a business deal with a Polish sewer inspector, which melts into something deeper as human connections develop. Poland has already entered the film in the 2012 Oscar category for foreign films, and audiences felt it a sure winner. “This is about things we already knew and things we will never know. We still haven’t resolved the main mystery,” said director Agnieszka Holland (“The Wire,” “Treme”) at the screening. “Where was man? Where was God? ‘In Darkness’ tries to answer some of those questions.”

The program description for “The Descendents” describes this George Clooney vehicle as “a portrait of marriage, family, and community suffused with humor and tragedy and wrapped in a warm human glow.” Some are calling it an American masterpiece. Matt King (Clooney), an heir of a prominent landowning family, is a disconnected father whose life is suddenly thrown off course when his wife is critically injured in a boating accident, and he finds himself totally responsible for his two young daughters. The movie gives Clooney a seldom seen opportunity to show an expanded range of emotions depicting the vulnerability and angst of Matt’s experience.

This is the first film to show Hawaii as other than a tourist destination, said director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”), and it features community and society on different levels. The score is “100 percent Hawaiian music,” Payne said. An intriguing sub-plot deals with a land deal by the wealthy King family whose forebears accumulated the wealth the new generation now enjoys.

“A Separation,” from Iran, deals with a multitude of separations: that of a well-educated bourgeois secular couple as well as the poor devout woman who comes to care for the husband’s ill father; gender inequality; and the tension between spiritual and secular, modern and traditional. The film takes us through a Kafkaesque labyrinth of the legal system and introduces the Islamic helpline, which the devout caretaker calls for advice on handling the physical needs of the elderly male with dementia whom she has been hired to care for. Although the film won awards for best actor and actress in Berlin as well as a Golden Bear award, director Asghar Farhadi urged the audience to “forget what country the film is from and forget that it won awards.”

‘The Kid with a Bike” is 11-year-old Cyril, abandoned by his parents and living in a children’s home. When he runs away he finds answers — and relationship — but there is danger along the way, and his adventures give this film more action than the previous works of its directors, Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (“The Child”). This drama won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and although filmed in the Dardennes’ frequent location, the Belgian seaport town of Seraing, it is universal in its depiction of parents, children, and moral responsibility.

‘Footnote” is another family drama, this one from Israel, with satire that could ring a bell for academics closer to home. The father-son relationship here is of two Talmudic scholars at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where exalted scholarly ideals coexist with backstabbing and jealousy. Winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes, this is a painfully funny intellectual tragicomedy showing a realistic picture of Jewish family life as well as the polarization of the small scholarly world the father and son inhabit. Eliezer, the father, reminded me of Casaubon, the pedantic scholar in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” who worked for decades on his research without ever publishing anything.

“Albert Nobbs” stars Glenn Close as an Irish woman of few means and a traumatic past who disguises herself as a man to escape the strictures of a Victorian society that finds little use for women. As a reserved, fastidious hotel butler, she smothers her real identity until surprising human connections open the possibilities that could be hers. Janet McTeer and Mia Wasikowska give outstanding supporting performances in this alternately comic and heartbreaking portrait of solidarity among women in the classist, sexist society of 19th century Dublin.

Michael Fassbender plays two roles in this year’s festival offerings that could not be more different, and I have to wonder what this duo did to his own psyche. In “A Dangerous Method,” he is the psychoanalyst Carl Jung and in “Shame,” he plays Brandon, a 30-year-old sex addict with no restraint. One attendee who had seen the latter film advised: “You better have sex before you see this because you’ll never want to afterwards.” And another warned viewers to allow time for a shower after the show. Carey Mulligan, one of my favorite young actresses (“An Education”), plays the wayward sister whose drastic acts have no effect on Brandon’s obsession. This is the latest offering of British artist-turned-filmmaker, Steve McQueen. (“Hunger”).

Starring with Fassbender’s Jung in “A Dangerous Method” is Viggo Mortensen as Freud, in this story about the early days of psychoanalysis. Kiera Knightley is Jung’s wealthy Russian Jewish patient, Sabina Spielrein, who is diagnosed with acute hysteria. Knightley is mesmerizing as she grows from spastic violence to a beautiful young woman who becomes Jung’s assistant and then his lover and eventually, a leader in the field on her own right. The film deals also with the relationship and eventual break between Freud and Jung and the precarious marriage of Jung as he takes Spielrein as a mistress. David Cronenberg directs this adult psychological drama.

On the lighter side, I highly recommend “The Artist.” A silent movie made in 2011, you might ask? Well, this winner of the Palme d’or at Cannes is a brilliant original in a class of its own. It is the story of a middle-aged matinee idol of the silents who, after a life of riches and adoration, finds himself obsolete with the advent of talkies. Watch for Berenice Bejo, the wide-eyed ingenue who steals the film. Her exquisite flapper costumes of the 1920s are fun as are the Hollywood homes and autos of that era. An older John Goodman plays the studio head who feels compelled to move on. There is great tap dancing, a poignant love story, a brilliantly talented dog, and at the same time, the history of the advent of talkies. Jean Dujardin won Best Actor at Cannes for his starring role here.

And while there is no talking, the live orchestra is in the movie instead of on the stage. The story reminded me of “Mack and Mabel,” the Broadway musical of the ’70s about prominent silent producer Mack Sennet and his wife, the silent film star Mabel Normand.

“Butter,” a sneak preview, might be the lightest film I saw all weekend. This quirky comedy is a semi political satire in which Jennifer Garner plays a conservative Iowan with a screw loose who lashes out at the liberal media and claims that God speaks to her. The background is a butter sculpting contest at a state fair and the character could be a Michele Bachman nclone, except that the film was shot one and a half years ago, before Bachmann was on the political scene.

As previously noted, there was plenty of discussion about “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” In this “bad seed” story, Tilda Swinton is the long suffering mother of a son whom she cannot reach, despite heroic efforts. Based on the book of the same name by Lionel Shriver, the film is powerful and gut wrenching and director Lynne Ramsay has provided an astonishing range of dazzling images. To many at Telluride, including me, the film is not based in any reality but is, instead, an allegory about evil. While Eva, the mom, a former successful travel writer, is living in an expensive suburban home and has one on-screen phone conversation with her own mother, she is trapped in total isolation with no support system, no household help or child care, and a husband who is not on her side. Swinton’s performance is wrenching, her emotional devastation painful — but there was no therapy for the dysfunctional offspring, no escape from his presence. I’d have sent Kevin to boarding school long before his devastating acts occurred. Perhaps we need to look at Kevin as a depiction of pure evil.

Of course, there was more on the program but no one can see everything. I missed only two that were on my list: “Le Havre” and “Island President,” both of which I will see at some future date without a full day’s travel by car to the station, train to the airport, two planes, and a van. A slew of wonderful documentaries also didn’t fit my schedule, and I’ll recommend several to Susan Conlon, the Princeton Library documentary film coordinator.

For the entire program, go to www.telluridefilmfestival.org.

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