Telluride Dispatch 1: Wild, The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, and others...


The 41st edition of the exquisitely programmed and atmospherically laid-back Telluride Film Festival is in full swing, and has already wrapped up its first day. This year, the festival goes back to its usual four-day duration -- after an added day of screenings last year in celebration of its 40th anniversary. 

I arrived my second year in Telluride Thursday afternoon and spent most of my time enjoying the breathtaking scenery while marinating in anticipation of a great festival ahead, until an impromptu gathering at the New Sheridan Bar -put together by Film Society's Eugene Hernandez- brought together many of the attending press, publicists as well as film industry moguls. One can even say that was the unofficial kick-off to the festival, especially when Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard, in what he described as his newly-instated tradition, bought everyone a round of shots. He raised his glass "To Telluride". We concurred. 

One striking fact is that excitement seems to get to everybody when it comes to this particular festival; from almost-newbies like me to attendees of many, many years. Several "what are you most excited to see?" questions were flying around at The Sheridan Thursday night. And the wonderful thing was that answers were wildly varied...from Venice-hailer Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu), to Ethan Hawke's Seymour: An Introduction, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, Bennet Miller's Foxcatcher and the DCP restoration of Apocalypse Now.

This year's program is challenging; both in its richness and contrastingly short span. (In fact, In Contention's Kris Tapley -who's a Telluride regular- says this might just be the best line up he's seen in years.) Tough decisions need to be made. One can't possibly see all the "biggies", revivals, sidebars and anniversary screenings (such as this morning's sold-out Apocalypse Now at the Werner Herzog.) But this isn't necessarily bad news, as the festival programmers Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger precisely want it this way, as they also voiced during Friday afternoon's press conference, pushing for the festival's perhaps "smaller" and quieter fare. "The program is why you're here, we hope," said Huntsinger, also stressing that they ignore the "Oscar Narrative" completely, and instead focus on putting together a program that brings the best to the attendees year after year. "We sincerely want to show you the best and whatever happens after is a consequence of that," noted Huntsinger. "We narrow it down to 25 new movies and a lot of times, that means having to say no." And in conjunction to this comment, the programmers mentioned some of the under-known fare of this year's must-sees: "Check out Dancing Arabs (Eran Riklis), 50 Year Argument (Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi), Madame Bovary (Sophie Barthes), The Decent One (Vanessa Lapa), for instance," advised the programmers. 

There is of course a pink elephant in the room this year: the Telluride vs. Toronto smack-down that has been amplified once Toronto, after an ongoing frustration with Telluride for "stealing their thunder", announced a few months back that if studios want a prime spot during the festival's first four days, they need to make their movies "true premieres" (unlike last year's 12 Years A Slave, for instance,which sneaked in Telluride ahead of its scheduled Toronto premiere only a week or so later.) "We wish them the best," simply said the programmers. "We hope they have a great festival. We here love filmmakers. We have The Weinstein Co, Fox Searchlight, Roadside, Wild Bunch, Sony Pictures Classics here. And we are glad you guys are here and we hope to see you next year."

Once the press conference wrapped up, I rushed to the gondola to Mountain Village, in order to get there on time for a special patron & press screening of Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. Based on the book by and true life story of Cheryl Strayed (who was in attendance at the screening, along with the director Vallée (of Dallas Buyers Club) and the film's stars Witherspoon and Dern), Wild chronicles a young woman's conquest of a 1000+ mile solo hike in the wilderness in order to recover from past mistakes and get in touch with her true self. The concept might sound a tad cheesy at first, but this film is not to be confused by Eat Pray Love- which was basically a glorified vacation/self-help book/flick. Wild is a surprisingly quiet film (more in the tradition of John Curran's meditative Tracks), featuring compelling work from both Dern and Witherspoon (there is already early buzz building for the duo's likely Oscar nominations.) Throughout Wild, Cheryl Strayed walks in a woman's shoes through life and wilderness, both literally and metaphorically. Thus, Wild first and foremost reads as a story of female resilience and unsurprisingly, the film works its best magic when staying close to this narrative. Yet, there is something that holds back Wild from being a truly transporting experience. The film's shaky structurally, and I found the editing -while poignantly done at times conveying Cheryl's inner thoughts and struggles through flashbacks- somewhat distracting. And I am not convinced if Laura Dern's character was a fully realized one, even through she delivers great work with the material handed to her.

The festival's first true sensation was undoubtedly Morten Tyldum's Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley-starrer The Imitation Game. In attendance at the screening were Harvey Weinstein (looking particularly proud and pleased post-screening, following the rapturous response), Annapurna's Megan Ellison, and The Imitation Game team consisting of its producers, director Morten Tyldum and debuting screenwriter Graham Moore. Telling the true story of Alan Turing, the brilliant, gay mathematician who led a team of scientists in decoding the infamous Nazi Enigma machine during World War II, The Imitation Game plays as a true powerhouse, with a towering performance from Benedict Cumberbatch displaying a grand range of his acting skills in nailing his character. At once a significant period drama, The Imitation Game chronicles Turing's story with the combination of a polished, Hollywood-ized touch and a sincere focus on character. Turing's struggles and eventual suicide caused by the British government's criminal insistence to "cure his homosexuality" in the later chapters of the film, are told profoundly, sans melodramatic excess, with the accompaniment of Alexandre Desplat's beautiful score. One can get her hands slapped quickly for over-using the "O" word around here, but it won't come as a surprise to anyone if Academy falls for this title that basically includes some of Oscars' favorite topics and elements (World War II, biopic of a genius, true story...), as well as the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley (who probably delivers one of her career's best works as a genius young woman who's a part of the Enigma team that decodes the machine.) 

Friday also played host to Jon Stewart's directorial debut Rosewater and the Cannes-hailer Foxcatcher, directed by Capote's Bennett Miller. I caught the latter (saving the former for early Saturday am), which was introduced by director Miller and two of his leading actors Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. A remarkably slow burning crime drama (another true story) with a firmly-controlled undercurrent of tension throughout, Foxcatcher, more than anything, is a showcase of the work of its three leads (Carell, Tatum and Mark Ruffalo). All three actors nail characters new to their respective careers (especially Carell's physical and artistic transformation is unrecognizable) under the direction of Miller, who once again proves himself to be an actor's director. The film is intentionally cold, and the story (of the late 80s Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz who was sponsored by the heir of the Du Pont family) is increasingly nerve-racking and cumulatively on-edge. Foxcatcher is undoubtedly one of those films that will reveal itself further in a repeat viewing.

Going into its second day, Telluride Film Festival has now announced two solid sneaks: Andrea Di Stefano's Escobar: Paradise Lost and Errol Morris' The Clarity of Peace. But today's most-anticipated screening is Iñárritu's black comedy Birdman, hoping to take Telluride by as big a storm as it did Venice earlier this week.