Telluride 37: 15 reviews in 2000 words!

I’ve just returned from the 37th annual Telluride Film Festival, held high in the Colorado mountains Sept 3-6th, and damn it was another good year.  As a volunteer usher at the Chuck Jones Cinema for the third year in a row, I once again had a backstage pass to see some of the larger films that premiered and screened at the fest; in this post I’ll give ultrashort reviews of every film I saw, and try to recount a bit of the experience of being there as well, with links updated to more substantial reviews as I write them. 

Managing to see 15 out of about 50 total programs across the 4 days, I spent 46.5 hours of the festival’s 79 hours in the theater, barely managing to see my friends and squeeze a scant 5 hours of sleep a night between screenings.  Every year I forget how stressful this schedule is, somehow thinking I’m going to have time to write and relax a bit like a real vacation.  But no.  For the whole weekend, I’m sitting in a darkened room, mesmerized, fighting off sleep with caffeine and a notepad – and I couldn’t be happier.

The lineup was very strong this year, with two 10-ton sneak-peak gorilla films pounding out instant buzz along the extremely long Palm and Galaxy theater lines (those being The Black Swan and 127 Hours), and a very strong cast of about a half dozen supporting, important indie pictures (Tamara Drewe, King’s Speech, Chico and Rita, The Way Back, Of Gods and Men, The Illusionist).  The only  disappointing aspect to this year’s lineup was a lack of diversity in the films’ subject matter and approach, the curation displaying a rather tiresome fixation on stories of desperation and tragedy at the expense of some kind of uplifting, imaginative, buoyant fixtures to propel the mood of the weekend forward, as we’ve seen in previous years.  I come to Telluride ready to be depressed, patient, and uncomfortable; this year, in particular, it just felt relentless.  A friend dubbed it the “Festival of No Happy Endings,” which is actually pretty accurate.

The 15 programs I saw:

  • Chico and Rita
  • Great Expectations (shorts)
  • Tamara Drewe
  • King’s Speech
  • The Way Back
  • Student Prints (shorts)
  • Never Let Me Go
  • If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle
  • Inside Job
  • Of Gods and Men
  • The FIrst Grader
  • 127 Hours
  • Biutiful
  • Tabloid
  • Black Swan

Chico and Rita – A love story spanning the last half of the 20th century, situated in the 50’s Cuban jazz explosion, telling the story of a pair of ill-fated musicians who influenced the course of popular culture with their art, and love.  Incredible, expressive animation boldly renders the story, although at times I felt it distracted, making the characters faces fluid and jazzy, yet simultaneously illegible and uncanny.  The lead characters also felt needlessly vapid at crucial moments. (6.5/10)

Great Expectations – a really disappointing selection of films this year from long-time curator Godfrey Reggio (of Koyaanisqatsi fame).  Come to Me, a Polish nonsense love story, fails to achieve any kind of convincing relationship between its two misguided protagonists (4/10).  Fatenah, the ballyhooed first 3D animated Palestinian film, tells the bizarrely uninteresting story of a young woman’s struggles to get medical treatment for a breast tumor in the repressive, multicultural world of the Gaza Strip – unfortunately, its unique visual voice doesn’t save the predictable, depressing story (6/10).  Poster Girl, the best of the 3 shorts, is a raw, engaging, relentlessly depressing portait of a young woman once venerated by the military, only to be forgotten and red-taped by the veteran affairs office upon returning from the Iraq war with extreme, debilitating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (7.5/10).

Tamara Drewe – An exuberant, hilarious comedy set in the promiscuous English countryside.  The complex story keeps a close-knit society bubbling with intrigue and comicly failed communication.  Bawdy and goofy, it’s a side-splitting romp you’ll want to watch with your parents. (8.5/10)

The King’s Speech – A polished, enjoyable period piece, following the travails of a British noble catapulted into the political spotlight despite crippling speech problems.  The story is odd, the characters very well acted, and the rich production certainly entertaining.  Somehow, I felt some kind of spark was missing somewhere along the way.  Occupying the same cultural-filmic space as An Education, follow this one for eventual Oscar nods. (7/10)

The Way Back – One word summary: grueling.  Peter Weir’s epic survival tale chronicles the journey of a handfull of Stalin’s political prisoners fleeing from a Siberian camp in the harsh winter with almost no resources, no friends, and no hope.  The film beautifully recreates amazing, impassive landscapes, as the crew drag themselves across unimaginably unforgiving environments.  Long, and difficult to watch, but a nearly flawless film. (8.5/10)

Student Prints – Highlights: Off Season – the most terrifying short I’ve ever seen.  Understated, but brilliant (9/10). On Leave – offscreen military trauma follows a young man home, destroying his relationships and possibly his humanity.  Powerful and, in TFF fashion, happy-ending-free (7/10).  God of Love – a goofy, hilariously self-reflexive first film featuring the filmmaker cast as a real-life Cupid in the making, but with human flaws and desires still intact, he is no cherub (7/10).  Woman in Purple – another gritty, depressing story of a child’s purity ruined by parental dereltiction (see also: Biutiful, If I Want to Whistle I Whistle). (6.5/10)  The Queen: an obnoxious, simplistic, gay-themed fantasy that manages to be offensive in its cuteness.  This one needed a bit more time in the oven. (5/10)

Never Let Me Go – My least favorite film of the festival.  After director Mark Romanek‘s brilliant freshman feature, One Hour Photo, I was expecting big things.  What I got instead was an absurd, pointless (although gorgeous) waste of time.  A simply endless parade of cliches, a poorly executed transition from novel to film, vapid characters, abrupt and unconvincing changes in time, and most of all, an exorbitantly unbelieveable plot, destroy any potential signifigance this very well-acted, well-produced, film aspired to. (3/10)

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle – A young Romanian prisoner attempts to survive the last few days of his incarceration, but a tangled web of prison life, parental abuse, unrequited love, and a culture infused with violence trap Silviu in an oppressive system he can’t conform to.  With no options left, and no hope in sight, he breaks, violently exploding against the prison compound.  Powerful performances and gritty, exciting, hand-held cinematography capture the young man’s descent into tragedy; however, the irregular pacing and Silviu’s confounding inability to communicate detracted from the award-winning potential lurking under the surface.  (6.5/10)

Inside Job – Covering much of the same subject matter as Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, director Carles Ferguson (No End In Sight) explores the causes and personalities involved in the recent worldwide conomic collapse with rigorous interviews and a clever abillty to trace the money trail, subtly painting a picture of an America out of control, corrupted by corporate influences and greed so rampant and unaccountable, I’m thinking of expatriating.  A maddening, economic horror story that drew the most audible audience response of any film at the festival.  (9/10)

Of Gods and Men – This historical piece from the recent past vibrantly recounts the struggles of a peaceful monastery in civil war-torn Algeria.  The men of faith attempt to resist both the violent rebels who come to them for aid, and simultaneously to resist their prejudices and fears, pledged as they are to help all men in time of need, and committed as they are to the path God had put before them in Algeria.  Caught in a political middle ground between the average citizens they aim to help, the police who protect (but also bully) them, and the unpredictable, dangerous rebels, the monks’ faith and will to survive are put to the test.  Unfortunately, A repetitive moral dialogue is the only thing keeping this going at certain points, and it often bores.  (7/10)

The First Grader – A very straightforward recounting of Kenya’s oldest elementary schooler, 84-year old Maruge.  Despite his pure heart, honest desire to learn, and ability to speak as a child to the other children, political forces come to see his presence as a threat, and an international controversy erupts, catapulting Maruge, and the teacher who puts herself on the line for his rights, into the spotlight, bringing with it a bevy of misguided efforts to close their school.  Actress Naomie Harris is brilliant, and Maruge’s character is a joy to watch. (7.5/10)

127 Hours – The first huge surprise TBA (To Be Announced) film of the festival.  Danny Boyle premiered his acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire in the exact same theater and time slot two years ago, and similarly, had arrived at Telluride after locking the edit only 3 days before.  Again, he told the audience that they were the first test case, and that he did plan to make small changes before the film’s theatrical release.  News like this is absolute joy to a film nerd’s ears: not only do we get to see a film that won’t come out for months before anyone else, we’re seeing a version of it that likely no one else will ever see, a kind of Telluride-only cut.  The film was buzzy all weekend, and it already has a reputation which I’m sure will propel it to huge acclaim this awards season (2 people actually fainted in the first screenings of the film).  While the cinematography, acting, and directing are as close to perfection as pop culture gets, the biggest complaint I heard was the austere, literal translation of the book, although I found Boyle’s creativity with montage and inventive cinematography thoroughly engaging. Not, however, a film I’m desperate to see again right away. (8.5/10)

Biutiful – Another in a long line of soul-crushingly depressing Telluride selections.  Javier Bardem is yet again a tour de force, as the stony-faced, black-market criminal scraping a meagre, yet emotionally rich existance with his two kids, bipolar wife, a day job that keeps him in constant physical and moral peril, and a lethal disease slowly consuming his unpleasantly discoloring body.  As his health, family, and morality degenerate, he manages to maintain scraps of dignity and humanity in the face of overwhelming misfortune.  Iñárritu has once again managed to make Spanish culture appear both fantastically vibrant, and ruthlessly pernicious.  A truly amazing soundtrack!  (8/10)

TabloidErrol Morris takes a sharp turn into comedy, with this nuanced, ultimately loving portrait of tabloid sensation Joyce McKinney, who was twice the subject of national attention with her bizarre behavior.  The accused kidnapper and rapist of an upstanding Mormon man, McKinney recounts her side of the story, responding at once to Morris and the insatiable media of her past, with a hilariously endearing innocence and willful rejection of reality that is simply fascinating to watch.  As her lies and stories spiral from implausible to downright batty, Morris questions the nature of self-representation, and notions of narrative truth, a tension which underpins the best of his documentaries.  As the multifaceted tapestry spun by a handful of conflicting narratives coalesces, with a string of absolutely hilarious moments tieing together personal memory and news stories, what emerges is the narcissistic nature of media culture itself, as each interviewee is revealed subtly to have his own vested interests and less than scrupulous morality at work.  (8.5/10)

Black Swan – the best film of the festival.  If Telluride distributed awards, Natalie Portman would win best actress (possibly tied with Joyce McKinney, if we expanded the notion of actress a bit), Aronofsky would win best director, and Black Swan would undoubtedly win best picture. Black Swan is a timeless, mythic story that becomes something shocking, riveting, horrifying, and impossibly beautiful, in Aronofsky’s hands.  Every detail, every word, every expression on Portman’s delicate, emotive face, is cinematic perfection.  I can barely wait until December to see it again in the theaters; I may fly to Toronto this weekend just to get another fix.  (10/10).

Sadly, there are some important gaps in my coverage.  I was not able to attend a single film of the incredible-looking series put together by guest director Michael Ondaatje, any of the always-inspiring talks with invited celebrities, nor the group discussions at the Labor Day Picnic.  These are pretty big oversights, but the very nature of the festival, which always has about 6 of its 9 theaters active simultaneously from 8AM-midnight, it’s impossible to do and see everything.  Even though the town’s only about 1 mile long, that walking distance, and the need to arrive early to get into many of the smaller venues, makes staying at one location almost always more effective than switching from theater to theater.  Waking, eating, socializing – these are all opportunity costs to be minimized as much as possible by the true film nerd.

Look for longer reviews of the most important films soon.

Feel free to comment and disagree with me.  I’m especially interested in hearing more opinions of Never Let Me Go.  Were you at Telluride?  What did you like?

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