The Telluride Film Festival is one giant Facebook where film lovers from all over the world bond with total strangers and friends from past festivals and share opinions on this year’s films, their previous Telluride film festival experiences, and lots more. The 36th annual festival, over Labor Day weekend, was my 12th visit to this gorgeous box canyon 10,000 feet up in the Colorado Rockies.
Unlike other film festivals, Telluride is low-key, devoted to the film lover more than to the industry “biggies.” Michael Hoffman, director of one of this year’s major hits, “The Last Station,” says that he’s been to film festivals all over the world and that everyone had told him that Telluride is the best. “This is my first time here, and they were certainly right.” he says. Another visiting director said that he could “hear the hearts beating for movies.”
This is a place where people come for total immersion in cinema — to be transported to other worlds, sometimes as many as five different worlds in a single day. While some visitors relax a bit and enjoy the spectacular hiking, mountain biking, and fine dining that abound, others, like me, are dedicated to taking in as many programs as possible. Of course, it’s impossible to see everything. There are world premieres, sneak previews, showings of old and newly discovered “lost” films that have been restored, documentaries, prize winners from Cannes, and other examples of the cinematic art. Many Oscar winners have first seen the light of day here.
There are also seminars and panel discussions featuring actors, film-makers and critics. And invited celebrities come to the mountain each year to introduce their new films and often to be honored with the Telluride Silver Medallion during a tribute that includes retrospectives of their work.
The three sneak previews this year were Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney; Werner Herzog’s “My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done,” and “Paranormal Activity,” directed by Oren Pell. I heard only praise for Reitman’s film, which the director told the audience he’d completed just three days before the festival. Clooney plays a professional hatchetman who travels the country firing people and loves being up in the air. His dream is to hit 10 million frequent flyer miles. He is anti-commitment, anti-permanence, anti-connection — until he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), the sexy female version of himself, at a bar in his hotel. The two embark on a see-you-when-we-can-coordinate-our-schedules affair and then the plot thickens. En route there are a lot of laughs and satire galore and never a dull moment. This is one I recommend to everyone.
A few themes were obvious this year. I’m glad to say that abusive husbands were not seen on screen after last year’s abundance of that ilk from several countries. There were the literary films, the Russian films, the jazz productions and, to me, the celebrations of dysfunction and corruption.
“An Education” is this year’s “Juno.” Watch for Carey Mulligan; you’ll be hearing a lot about this 24-year-old who is reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. Mulligan plays a 16-year-old vivacious intellectual teenager who knows what she wants. Like Juno, she takes control of her own future and, despite mistakes en route — which were by the way, lots of fun and enriching on their own — and despite her conservative, stodgy cheapskate father (Alfred Molina) manages, as Juno did, to take her life in her own hands and fulfill her dream. Mulligan’s character, an English schoolgirl studying to go to Oxford, is waylaid after she meets a handsome charmer (Peter Sarsgaard) who shows her the high life in England and Paris. But she finds her way again after learning some difficult truths.
My favorites — and from word of mouth during the weekend, most people’s favorites — were: “An Education,” “Up in the Air,” “The Last Station,” “The Jazz Baroness,” and “A Room and a Half.” Others worthy of praise were “Farewell,” a cold war thriller being compared to “The Lives of Others,” and “Samson and Delilah,” about two young aboriginals who surmount utter deprivation to find their own kind of love. I missed “The Prophet,” for which I heard much praise, along with admission that it was “a tough movie.” That story unfolds in a Kafkaesque French prison, with various ethnic gangs and mobs living through brutal conflict, and depicts how one illiterate Arab finally survives the horrors.
Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” about the poet John Keats at 25 (Ben Whishaw) and his love, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) was beautifully pictorial, with colorful visions of flowering fields, snowy pastures, and gorgeous costumes, which Brawne, a skilled seamstress, created for herself.
“A Room and a Half,” a memory film about the life of the Nobel Prize-winning Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, ostensibly deals with Brodsky’s life and exile, but grandfatherly director Andrey Khrzhanovsky told the audience that it is a portrait of the Soviet system and the lives of the everyman during the period of the poet’s lifetime. The film is a meditation about the motherland — about friends, parents, life and death. The director said he was inspired by Brodsky’s autobiography. “He was a humanist, poet, philosopher. He’s a universal man, and this is a portrait of a time and a country,” Khrzhanovsky said.
Helen Mirren received high praise among the filmgoers for “The Last Station,” about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s last year. Director Michael Hoffman said that this is a film about the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without it. Mirren’s role as Sophia, the writer’s wife of almost 50 years, is a veritable display of every acting technique ever taught. As a Countess who enjoyed the perks of aristocracy and wanted her children to inherit them, she was intolerant of her husband’s egalitarian views and especially antagonistic to Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), a true follower of the novelist. The film was a favorite for almost everyone who saw it and Mirren’s performance was discussed everywhere in town as worthy of an Oscar. Christopher Plummer, 79, plays Tolstoy at 82 and does it magnificently.
Mirren also appears in another of my favorites, “The Jazz Baroness,” where she narrates the story of Rothchild heiress Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a great aunt of filmmaker Hannah Rothchild, also a member of the illustrious family. The filmmaker discovered the Baroness when she was examining a family tree. Pannonica left her wealthy husband and five children in the 1950s after hearing one recording by Thelonius Monk and moved to New York to become part of the jazz scene. For 28 years, the Baroness and Monk were together and she stood by him during his manic depressive episodes and other psychological difficulties. Her Bentley was a familiar sight parked outside Greenwich Village nightclubs and her hotel apartment with its large Steinway was a popular gathering place for luminaries like Charlie Parker and other famous musicians.
Hannah Rothchild, who was a young documentary filmmaker when she started this project, tracked down her great aunt when she was 84 and managed to spend some time with her in New York before she died four years later. Filmed completely on her own as a home movie, Rothchild says, “with today’s technology, geniuses can transform your home movies.” She says she was interested in why someone would leave a background like her great aunt’s. The film intersperses scenes of Monk’s southern slave background with the elegance of the British heiress’ lavish surroundings.
Several films had mixed or negative reception. Some enjoyed “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” directed by Telluride regular Werner Herzog. Budt espite the swift pace and brilliant acting by Nicolas Cage, who was there to introduce the film, I found this one a celebration of corruption. Cage enthusiastically plays a derelict druggie cop whose deals with criminals keep him supplied.
I did not hear a good word for Werner Herzog’s “My Son My Son What Have Ye Done,” produced by David Lynch, about an actor who takes a performance too far and actually kills his mother and takes hostages on stage. And I’m writing off Todd Solondz’s (“Happiness,” “Palindrome”) “Life During Wartime,” a celebration of dysfunction that would make any messed up family look like the Brady Bunch. Even though the movie was fun and funny at times, the entire sick concept seemed to me a waste of good talent — Charlotte Rampling, Ally Sheedy, Renee Taylor, Allison Janney, and Michael Lerner.
I usually skip the panel discussions and interviews and concentrate on seeing films but I couldn’t resist Saturday afternoon’s “conversation” between Telluride regular Laura Linney, and Helen Mirren. Mirren talked about their art. “As you get older,” Mirren says, “you learn to use your instincts. Studying and analyzing a role doesn’t help. You need to know your craft so well that you don’t think about the technical aspects. My greatest teachers are babies and dogs because they are so natural.” Winner of an Oscar for her role in “The Queen,” Mirren says, “sometimes people get too big when they win. It’s wonderful but it doesn’t matter.” She called “The Last Station” “a gift to me. The minute I read the script I knew I had to do it. But every four years I go back to do theater.” She recently starred as Phaedre on the London stage.
After “The Queen” Mirren says she was invited to Buckingham Palace. “But I couldn’t go because of scheduling problems.” Another time, she was invited to stay over at the Palace. And again, she had to decline. Finally, she says, she had tea with the Queen when both were in Alaska. “When I received the invitation,” Mirren says, “I thought there’d be a large group of people. But it was only Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and their main equerry, the horse man.”
After his honors, actor Viggo Mortensen introduced the new post-apocalypse movie, “The Road,” in which Mortensen fights to survive in a grim landscape while trying to keep his young son alive and human. I didn’t go to this one after I’d heard that Variety called it “The Road to Nowhere.”
Margarethe von Trotta, the German director and actress, received the Silver Medallion for her life work and introduced her new film, “Vision,” the story of the 12th-century Benedictine sister, Hildegard von Bingen, a visionary who defied the authorities to found her own abbey, and was a composer, healer, and advocate of alternative medicine. German star Barbara Sukowa, who plays Hildegard, spoke at the tribute and was praised by von Trotta who says, “this is a film set on a tightrope, and she is a brilliant tightrope walker.
Anouk Aimee (“La Dolce Vita,” “A Man and a Woman”) was radiant as she received her tribute. Sparkling and exuberant, now in her 70s, Aimee says that now, after a career of 60 years, she would like to have two more fabulous roles to show off all that she has learned from her long career and from life. We were treated to a showing of “Aimee in Lola,” the 1961 French New Wave fairy tale about a gorgeous cabaret dancer. “There’s a lot of Lola in me,” Aimee told the audience. The star appeared again in a documentary about Fellini, “We Lived La Dolce Vita,” which featured interviews on its 50th anniversary with many of those who appeared in that milestone film. In the film, talking about what fun it was to work with the Italian director, are Marcello Mastroianni, 99-year-old Louise Ranier, Anita Eckberg, Lex Barker, and other stars, as well as many of the technical staff and bit players.
Ken Burns was there, as always. Last year he said to me, “Shat else is there to do on Labor Day weekend.” Burns was sitting next to me during one film that I’d have walked out on but wouldn’t dare to, “Gigante,” about a boorish guy, his crush, and his stalking. Yet some young people I spoke with liked this film, which won three prizes at the Berlin Film Festival.
“Samson and Delilah” is a tough story about two young aboriginals in Australia with empty lives and paint and gasoline sniffing habits. The art that Delilah and her grandmother create is sold for thousands of dollars in city galleries while they receive a pittance for their efforts. After her grandmother dies, the two leave their depressing habitat and go off on their own. The winner of the best first feature at Cannes, it was worth sitting through the difficult sad moments for the somewhat positive ending for the two characters.
People said that “Coco Before Chanel” was an entertaining but lightweight story about the famous designer’s early life. The French actress Audrey Tatou (“Amelie”) stars.
The only film I couldn’t fit in for which I heard universal praise was the world premiere of “London River,” which deals with the humanity after the terrifying aftermath of the 2005 London subway and bus bombings. I’ll be sure to see this one when it comes to Princeton.
Meanwhile, I’ve made my hotel reservation for next Labor Day.