Telluride Dispatch #3: Four takeaways from the four days in the Rockies…


Every good thing has to come to an end eventually. The 41st edition of Telluride Film Festival breezed through its final day yesterday, on Labor Day Monday. The Telluride program, as I have mentioned in one of my previous dispatches, is a challenge to tackle. The number of TBAs on the festival booklet increases every day, and Monday consists almost entirely of TBAs, which are only announced the night before. That said, it’s impossible to think ahead and plan healthily. You need to go with your gut and your own priorities.

Dancing Arabs

Having tackled most of the “biggies” during the first two days of the festival, I decided to dedicate Monday mostly to smaller films (except for Tommy Lee Jones’ Hilary Swank-starrer The Homesman), which included Eran Riklis’ sweetly moving and understatedly heartbreaking coming of age tale Dancing Arabs and Damian Szifrón’s shockingly hilarious Wild Tales. I somehow also managed to attend the annual Labor Day picnic and closed the festival at the tiny Backlot screening room, with Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht’s tender documentary How to Smell a Rose, portraying the legendary documentary filmmaker Ricky Leacock. How to Smell a Rose was preceded by Christian Bruno’s Ed and Pauline, a documentary short on Pauline Kael and Ed Landsberg’s Berkeley repertory cinema. The on-screen celebration of love of film and storytelling made it a perfect end to my Telluride screenings, which reached to 14 features and 6 shorts on its final day.

At the intimate dinner Monday night, generously hosted by The Film Society of Lincoln Center, everyone was eager to find out each other’s favorite (and least favorite) films and to exchange thoughts on the four remarkable days we just left behind. I thought about my own takeaways based on observations (and some in-queue eavesdropping) and without further ado, here they are:

Wild Tales

1. Make way for the sleeper hit of Telluride: Wild Tales.

You may or may not have heard of Damian Szifrón’s Cannes-hailer Wild Tales yet (brought to Telluride by Sony Pictures Classics), but trust me, you will soon. A collection of six short stories on revenge and at times Curb Your Enthusiasm/Larry David-esque trivial disagreements blown out of proportion, the Argentinian film Wild Tales simply became a sleeper hit everyone had to see. Thompson on Hollywood’s Anne Thompson said she recommended the movie to festival-goers every chance she got. Well, that clearly worked, and snowballed with people loving what they saw. So much that the overwhelming interest in Wild Tales caused a slight shift in Monday's TBA schedule, kicking Birdman out of The Palm Theater's evening screening slot for an added screening of Damian Szifrón's film. Wild Tales is outrageously and sometimes uncomfortably funny. All six of the stories are cleverly-plotted, cleanly told and instantly engrossing. Perhaps it’s not the best film of the festival, yet it was probably among the most entertaining couple of hours I had at Telluride. With Wild Tales, Sony Classics could easily have a crowd-pleasing foreign language awards contender in its hands.
The Imitation Game - Birdman

2. Awards season, whether we like it or not, is underway.

One doesn’t go to festivals to discover the next Oscar winner. And true, the festival directors –during Friday’s press conference- noted that they ignore the “Oscar Launch-pad” label completely, but the fact remains that the whispers of “Oscar” can be heard from day-one and become more and more audible at Telluride with each passing day. 12 Years A Slave, Argo, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire…many of the eventual Best Picture winners of recent years have all screened at Telluride for the first time before getting cut open and grotesquely disemboweled in an exhaustive six-month long process called the awards race machine. This year, three potential contenders got screened at Telluride for the first time (note that Birdman opened Venice Film Festival first, and titles such as The Homesman, Mr. Turner and Foxcatcher are all Cannes premieres): Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, Jean-Marc Valleé’s Wild and Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. As far as a Best Picture-nod goes (or "The Picture that works for The Academy Best", more accurately put), the first two seem to be longer shots currently. The reception of Rosewaterwas lukewarm at best; and Wild, while being generally liked, was getting more of the attention for Best Actress (Reese Witherspoon) and Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern) races. Hence, the clear lead of the first-timers was The Imitation Game. A strong, appealing, based-on-a-true-story biopic, the WW2 backdrop, a crisp look and engaging pace, The Imitation Game isn't only a solid and polished film, but it's also made of the stuff -like A Beautiful Mind and The King's Speech- The Academy demographic tends to go for. Furthermore, the word on the street and in the gondolas was overwhelmingly pro-The Imitation Game as a festival-goer favorite (even though it's not a unanimous critical hit). To me, the awards narrative that came out of Telluride is currently pointing toward a Birdman (Fox Searchlight) vs. The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Co) dynamic, the former being a critical hit (though not unanimous, as some negative word started dropping slowly but surely). Birdman is not a traditional Academy film. It doesn't revolve around an array of likable characters with societal or historical importance. It's also not a screener-friendly film. So it will be interesting to watch these films settle further in the race, especially once the Toronto and New York Film Festival hits start revealing themselves. That said, there are still a lot of titles remain to be seen and this is solely based on early instincts and observations. Things will surely change, many times, in the upcoming months.

3. While there wasn’t an abundance of female-driven stories or women directors, a number of remarkable female characters stood out.

I do not let it affect my excitement or anticipation, but whenever the line up of a festival I'm following is announced, I can't help but browse the names and descriptions to see which of the films are made by women or have stories that portray women as their own characters, and not just as someone's love interest or mother. This year, I was sorry to see only two of Telluride's previously-announced 25 new features were directed by women: Sophie Barthes' Madame Bovary and Vanessa Lapa's The Decent One. And I am not sure if we saw an abundance of female-led stories either, however Telluride still introduced us to some females that are noteworthy and inspirational. In Tommy Lee Jones' sweeping Western The Homesman -which is adapted from Glendon Swarthout's novel-, Hilary Swank (who was honored at this year's festival with a special tribute), plays a pioneer woman who agrees to travel with three domestically abused and mentally unstable women from Nebraska to Iowa. Swank's self-sufficient and financially independent character Mary Bee Cuddy lives alone, and fearlessly ignores the challenges her gender throws at her in her time. Even when she seeks a man to marry, she makes the move and the proposal, driven only by logic, displaying a kind of strength and resilience decades ahead of her time.

Similarly ahead of her time is Joan Clarke of The Imitation Game, played by a soaring Keira Knightley. A supporting character to the film she may be, but she is critical to the plot and plays a brilliant code-breaker in a male dominated world, not afraid to challenge her male counterparts and societal norms that technically doesn't allow her to pursue her chosen field. A woman defined by her profession as opposed to looks or love interests? Imagine that! I am not sure if either of these films technically pass the Bechdel Test -which requires two women to talk to each other about something other than a man- (I need to re-watch them to know for sure), but if they don't, this only shows the test's limitations and that one should always take the outcome with a grain of salt.

I have talked about Wild's Reese Witherspoon (playing Sheryl Strayed) and Madame Bovary's Mia Wasikowska (playing the titular character) in my previous dispatches already, but they very much belong to the group of women that seek an alternative to their otherwise trapped lives.

4. Four Days are just not enough.

I hope I am not being greedy or out of line here, but…what a difference, a day makes! True, I have been doing this for two years only and the festival has been running for forty one, but having been introduced to Telluride for the first time last year, with an added day to celebrate its 40thanniversary, I was simply spoiled with a more leisurely pace. Movies –new and old-, daily panels moderated by Annette Insdorf, outdoor screenings and company of journalists, critics and fellow-bloggers all add up to the Telluride experience, and the added day made sampling of all aspects of the festival possible. Now that I’m introduced to the “real”, more hurried festival (which is still laid back and pressure-free, in fairness), I find myself craving that additional day. And based on the conversations I had in queues with patrons and festival attendees, it doesn’t sound like I am alone in my craving. A fifth day could have meant catching up with the panels I was sorry to miss, and seeing a few more of the word of mouth hits, such as The Salt of the Earth, which portrays the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado (co-directed by Wim Wenders and the photographer’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado), Gabe Polsky’s Red Army and Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes. I will just hope we don’t have to wait until the festival’s 50th anniversary to win another bonus day.