If there’s a better film festival in the universe than Telluride, it’s likely to be found on another planet as Telluride is the picture-perfect mix of high art, pop culture and rarely seen gems from the last century of cinema. And how can you not love a film festival that begins with an Iranian, a Tawainese and a French film and ends with the 1933 “King Kong”…outdoors on the big screen?
Despite the seemingly unceasing rain, this year’s festival, set in the bucolic surroundings of this former mining town ensconced in a small valley in the San Jacinto mountains, was marked by nearly universal sunny dispositions among the attendees who felt this year’s programming rebounded from last year’s myriad disappointments. Marred only by the rain, a screw-up regarding W2’s for the beautiful Chuck Jones theater which gave cheap seat holders (those with Acme passes) an advantage in getting seats over regular passholders that was quickly remedied, and the surprisingly underwhelming addition of a new theater, The Palm, which replaced the far more satisfying Max (which had been modeled in the vein of an old Egyptian-style movie palace). The Palm, despite its acceptable projection and sound, was rather austere and lacked the character and warmth of its progenitors (the Strand and the aforementioned Max which were created on the floor of the local high school gymnasium), and looked like a suburban Hilton lobby (or bad Star Trek set) with some impaired sightlines.
Unlike other festivals, Telluride never announces its schedule until the beginning of the weekend (thanks to an early cluster f**k with Jeanne Moreau in the festival’s third year where she opted for dental surgery over her announced appearance at the fest) when the line-up is unveiled and rarely disappoints. This year was no exception, boasting an eclectic array of films despite an oftentimes vexxing schedule which made it impossible to see many of this year’s must-see films.
The tributes this year were a mixed bag marked by a well-deserved tribute to the beautiful Charlotte Rampling whose feteing was well-deserved. Mickey Rooney, on the other hand, was an odd choice and he made few friends amongst the festival attendees with his rude behavior and dismissive attitude to volunteers and attendees alike. MC’s needed a cane to get the loquacious soft-shoer off stage and he managed to even talk over Peter Bognovich which is a feat in itself. The Dardennes were also honored and their film, “The Child,” was well-received.
Receiving a Silver Medallion from fest organizer’s Bill Pence and Tom Luddy were the Criterion Collection and Janus Films. While it was a thrill to see them receive this well-deserved honor, the presentation was brief and didn’t truly do service to the honorees. A short overview of Criterion titles was shown, but missing were any Q&A’s with Criterion’s principals (even in the intimate courthouse environs where many smaller events take place) nor the unspooling of the best of the label’s now-out-of-print laserdisc commentaries which would have been more than welcome as its own special event.
Among the festival’s most acclaimed and crowd pleasing movies were the upcoming Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk The Line,” (***1/2), which despite its fairly traditional docu-drama structure, was beautifully shot and superbly acted by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Filmmaker James Mangold and producer Kathy Conrad were on hand, which was one of the more entertaining Q&A sessions of this year’s festival, as moderated by Leonard Maltin whose MC’ing duties were adeptly handled as always. Despite my antipathy towards country music, I found the Cash/Carter romance charming and you’ll certainly be hearing a lot more about these two come Oscar time. It’s a career high for Witherspoon who gives her most accomplished and impressive performance to date and Phoenix seemingly channels the spirit of the late Cash in a star-making performance.
“Capote,” (***) starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the titular Truman Capote was less successful although marked by an equally powerful lead performance by Hoffman. The film, a look at Capote’s experience writing “In Cold Blood,” was thoroughly engaging, but lacked the depth and insight one expected into its demanding subject matter.
One of my favorite films of this year’s festival was Martin Scorsese’s brilliant four hour documentary about Bob Dylan, “No Way Home” (****), which had its world premiere at Telluride. It’s clear from watching the copious interviews with Dylan that he revels in perpetuating the enigmatic reputation that surrounds him and a preponderance of phenomenal concert footage along with some revelatory interviews from his fellow musicians, managers and fans, most notably Joan Baez, make this a documentary not to be missed. It was electric, no pun intended.
Horror master Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of David Mamet’s “Edmond” (**) boasted a stellar cast including Bill Macy, but was dark, unpleasant and pointless, and will likely encounter trouble in securing a distributor for this bleak subject matter which lacks the punch and poignancy of later Mamet works. Equally underwhelming was “The Bee Season,” (*1/2) from directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel who first stunned Telluride audiences with their beautiful black and white debut feature “Suture” over a decade ago. Unfortunately, “Bee Season,” despite gorgeous lensing and strong performances from its young cast led by Flora Cross, is a completely unsatisfying mess, a family drama with spiritual underpinnings in which Richard Gere becomes obsessed with the mystical teachings of kaballah which he believes can unlock the secrets of the universe, and a waste of some great talent. Box-office returns for the film being released by Fox Searchlight are likely to be anemic, at best.
Also marked by two great performances along with a scene stealing turn by the vivacious Olivia Wilde, was “Conversations with Other Women,” (**1/2) which engendered mixed reactions from the crowd. Many loved its intimate, whimsical romance and potent lead performers, Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter, whereas others, including myself, thought its precious conceit of shooting the entire movie in split-screen was unwarranted and the film felt like a warmed over Off-Broadway play — despite the endearing performances from its two stars and amusing, albeit slight, script. Other than Brian DePalma, not many filmmakers can get away with the dated use of this nearly obsolete gimmick.
As always, some of the fest’s biggest highlights were its silent films and this year was no exception. “A Cottage on Dartmoor” (***1/2), directed by Brit helmer Anthony Asquith in 1929 felt exceptionally contemporary in its execution and was accompanied by Stephen Horne’s dazzling live piano accompaniment. If it was disappointing, it was only because it paled in comparison to last year’s unspooling of the Hitchcock classic, “Blackmail.” Equally remarkable was Merian C. Cooper’s “Chang” (***1/2), an extraordinary example of the nature drama that was prevalent at the time it was made back in 1927 when air travel was only in its infancy. Exceptionally accomplished and riveting, “Chang” paved the way for the screening of the brilliant documentary from Kevin Brownlow about Cooper, “I’m King Kong” (****), which will air on TCM next month and should not be missed. Also not to be missed was an encore presentation of my favorite endearingly egotistical and erudite film scholar and filmmaker extraordinaire, Peter Bogdonovich, who once again paid tribute to some of the world’s greatest directors in his “Sacred Monsters” lecture. Although virtually the same presentation as last years, Bogdonovich is truly a master showman and comes armed with enough witty, insightful anecdotes and impersonations of Hawks, Hitchcock, Welles, Ford, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, that he could have easily filled five hours instead of one for which I would have gladly sat enraptured by his tales of Old Hollywood.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be Telluride without the unearthing of a rare gem. Previous years have included such films as “The Hard Way,” “Seven Men From Now,” “The Last Command,” “Point Blank” and “T-Men.” This year it was “The Passenger” (**1/2) from Michaelangelo Antonioni, which failed to live up to its reputation as a classic lost film unlike Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows,” which was embraced by festival goers, much as “Le Samourai” was when it was re-discovered at Telluride several years back marking the beginning of a Melville renaissance which included last year’s welcome re-release of Le Circle Rouge.
However, what clearly broke out as the festival’s most universally lauded film, was “Brokeback Mountain.” I didn’t see it because I’m not interested in westerns without cowboys and six-guns that aren’t directed by either John Ford or John Sturges or anyone else named John – not to mention they wouldn’t let my wife (who, incidentally, I met at the festival four years ago) into the press screening. Nonetheless, I heard it was great from nearly everyone I spoke with and should likely have a date with a man named Oscar later this year.
Other well-praised films included Liev Schreiber’s directorial debut, “Everything Is Illuminated,” “Paradise Now,” recently acquired by Warner Independent which tells the story of two suicide bombers and is sure to be controversial upon its release later this fall. “Be With Me,” which was considered visually sumptuous and a true sleeper at the festival as was the Holocaust drama, “Fateless,” all which I missed due to scheduling snafus and/or lack of interest.
On the other hand, Andy Garcia’s directorial debut, “The Lost City” was widely perceived as being too long and ponderous and seemed to disappoint most of those who saw it. Receiving a mixed reaction, but more positive than negative was Neil Jordan’s latest, “Breakfast on Pluto” which I’m looking forward to seeing when it opens later this month.
This year, Telluride banned the use of cell phones and PDA’s (no, not public displays of affection, that’s still allowed) by repeatedly dubbing their festival venues Sacred Spaces which was slight overkill if you ask me. Simply saying no cell phones and Blackberry’s would have really been sufficient without the New Age mumbo jumbo, frankly. And if they truly were Sacred Spaces, perhaps the venue volunteers would not have allowed the deep pocketed patrons to bring their screaming infants into screenings which is far more annoying than cell phones.
That said, it was another wonderful year for the world’s pre-eminent film festival, which may lack the Entertainment Tonight and Us Weekly coverage of Toronto and its ilk, but is far more likely to satisfy of the appetite of true movie connoisseurs than any other festival on earth. Within its old mining town environs, Telluride is Sundance meets Deadwood – without the cocksuckers – and for any fan of cinema, it’s a festival not to be missed and treasured for what every loyal passholder hopes will be many decades to come.
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MARK A. ALTMAN is the co-publisher of CFQ/Cinefantastique, the leading magazine devoted to genre film and television, and the writer/producer of the critically acclaimed romantic comedy Free Enterprise, starring William Shatner and Eric McCormack, and the upcoming Room 6 with Christine Taylor and Jerry O’Connell, The Darkroom with Shawn Pyfrom, Greg Grunberg and Lucy Lawless and House of the Dead 2 from Lions Gate Films.