Given the fact that the annual Telluride Film Festival is set in a historic mining town, it should come as no small surprise that the fest organizers have once again unearthed some amazing gems from around the world for this year’s event celebrating the best world cinema has to offer.
For those of you not familiar with Telluride, which is nestled in the beauty of the San Jacinto mountains (not to mention nestled between Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals), Telluride is about a true passion for film whereas mot of the other high profile fests are about wheeling, dealing, pretense and platinum cards. Announcements warning patrons that they will be evicted from theatres if their cell phones ring during a screening are greeted by rapturous applause. In Telluride, nothing interferes with the love of film. Even the weather cooperated this year. After two months of daily downpours, the clouds parted and the sun beat down on the tiny mountain town for all four days of the festival. Of course, the beautiful weather and the bucolic scenery was not enough to keep filmgoers from immersing themselves in darkened theaters all weekend.
Despite the dearth of quality cinematic fare plaguing festival organizers this year, Telluride programmed an exceptionally strong selection of films. Unlike last year where brilliant retrospectives dominated under the self-absorbed, but utterly engaging guest director Peter Bogdonovich, Telluride 26 was filled with a bounty of new discoveries. Among them were Patrice Leconte’s suprising, witty and decidedly French “The Girl on The Bridge” starring the stunning Vanessa Paradis and featuring some gorgeous black and white cinematography. “I’ll Take You There” was a quirky and cute romantic comedy from actor turned auteur, Adrianne Shelley. Although slight at best, this amusing film is marked by several charming performances from thesps Ally Sheedy, Reg Rogers and the beautiful Lara Harris (banishing memories of her Roger Corman days from memory).
One of the fest’s true crowd pleasers was frosh director Pip Karmel’s “Me Myself I” in which Rachel Griffiths learns what life would have been like if she had sacrificed her career for a husband and kids. Although it’s an assured debut, the ending may be a little too pat for its own good – which will probably be the reason the film makes a killing at the box-office for distributor Sony Pictures Classics. Lion’s Gate’s “Jesus’ Son” played to a more decidedly mixed reaction although no one could criticize the brilliant performances of Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton and a scene-stealing Jack Black whose tour de force turn was never better than in a completely hilarious sequence in which Crudup’s befuddled protagonist takes a job as an E.R. attendant to support his pregnant girlfriend and unquenchable drug addiction. Director Allison Maclean’s sophomore effort is sure-footed, if a tad long and meandering. Somewhat more satisfying was the latest Dogma effort from Denmark, “Mifune,” another quirky tail of doomed romance which isn’t as darkly fatalistic as you would expect. Would direcgtor Soren Kragh-Jacobsen make another film under the stringent Dogma 95 rules. “Are you kidding?” he asked the audience rhetorically. We’ll take that as a no.
Not surprisingly, Telluride’s short films were among its most special treats. Fest staple, the Alloy Orchestra, ushered in a beautiful new theater, the Chuck Jones, accompanying a troika of silent films (played with vintage Warner Bros. cartoons). This year’s mute milestone was William Wyler’s “The Shakedown” shown with superb piano accompaniment. A delightful lark, the film could best be described as “Raging Bull” meets “Big Daddy.”
Woody Allen’s latest, “Sweet & Lowdown,” Telluride premiere scooped Venice and Toronto. An inconsequential, albeit clever, consistently amusing and entertaining trifle, from one of filmdom’s greatest and most talented directors. Sean Penn is brilliant in the role of the world’s second greatest jazz guitarist. A Bergman homage this ain’t — and while it’s not “Manhattan” or “Husbands & Wives,” this year’s Woody Allen Fall Project ranks right alongside “Broadway Danny Rose” and “Purple Rose of Cairo” as one of Allen’s more satisfying minor efforts.
Welcome oddities were Miramax’s dubbed version of Japanese mega-hit anime production, “Princess Mononoke.” While a tad preachy, the film’s lush visuals and engaging storyline made it a true Telluride treat. Comic book maestro Neil Gaiman’s English script was a clever, although occassionally pedantic, adaptation of the Japanese screenplay. The triumph of the film is in its depiction of shades of gray and moral ambiguity in the conflict between industry and the environment rather than the usual one dimensional battles of good and evil commonly associated with film’s of this ilk.
Unlike previous years where honorees in the annual Telluride tributes often left audiences podnering “What were they thinking,” all the festival fetes were well deserved in ’99. The U.K.’s Arena Films was represented by the dark, disturbing and completely absorbing “Wisconsin Death Trip” depicting the travails of a small Wisconsin town in the early 1890’s and in subtlely drawing a parallel to today made it clear that blaming the media for the ills of society is ludicrous given the violence and mayhem of a century prior in which we didn’t have these convenient scapegoats.
Other tributes included a well deserved salute to French actress Catherine Deneuve (who was asked some of the most insipid questions imaginable by this year’s guest director Peter Sellars; the opera maestro, not the brilliant, but deceased, actor. Sellars leaned forward earnestly and inquired of the beautiful blonde, “Catherine, you are fashion! How does it feel?” “What’s your favorite food?” “What gives you pleasure”) featuring an array of extremely well chosen clips. Less satisfying was the feting of the brilliant David Lynch. The clips from his body of work were not nearly as representative and well-chosen as Deneuve’s and, in his second appearance onstage, Lynch didn’t even bother to answer questions and left the stage with a polite thank you (it called to mind my memories of the Boston Film Festival premiere of “Blue Velvet” in which the oddball auteur simply said, “This movie changed my sex life forever,” and walked off-stage). However, the American premiere of Lynch’s “The Straight Story” was a pleasant surprise. A G-rated film about a farmer who travels cross state to visit with his estranged, ailing brother on a John Deer lawnmower is as much a “David Lynch” movie as anything in his canon of films. It is easily one of the best movies of the year and Lynch’s most satisfying film since “Blue Velvet.”
Also honored was Phillip Glass who performed live with the Kronos Quartet to Universal’s “Dracula” and while Glass’ music seemed somewhat ill-suited for this horror classic, the honoring of Glass, who has contributed so much to the art of film music was welcome (not to mention this was the first Telluride honoring of composer since Elmer Bernstein several years back).
If I have any quibble with this year’s festival, it’s a minor one. In the previous years, the festival often ended with a delightful thank you to the town of Telluride and it’s visitors in the form of a tip of the hat to its cinematic heroes. Whether it was a screening outdoors of Phillip Kaufman’s “The Wanderers,” John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven” against the backdrop of rolling hills or Francis Ford Copolla’s “Apocalypse Now,” the year “Heart of Darkness” premiered, they always came up with a clever coda. This year, in the serene mountain setting of Telluride, “Twin Peaks” or “Blue Velvet” would have provided the perfect capper (and the obvious choice) for a memorable weekend, but alas it was not to be.
So as the sun set on the last Telluride festival of the 20th century, it’s hard to really imagine any festival that has more consistently offered a more eclectic and exceptional collection of films. Along with its beautiful, tranquil setting and memorable venues, Telluride is truly the gem of the film festival circuit mixing the best in independent world cinema with the finest retrospectives from over a hundred years of film (after a screening of 1973’s “La Grande Bouffe” I vowed to never eat again!). Only don’t tell your friends. For those of us that are Telluride regulars and wait hours in line to get into our favorite films, the world’s best film festival deserves to remain a well kept secret.