Telluride Diary 2: 'Arrival', 'Moonlight', 'Una' and other noteworthy titles from a busy weekend


The weekend is over at the 43rd Telluride Film Festival and Kenneth Lonergan’s Sundance sensation Manchester by the Sea seems to be among the top of mind titles when you eavesdrop on the chatter in lines and during gondola rides. But ask Tom Hanks, and he will tell you –like he did at the Q&A of Sully over the weekend– that his favorite film of the festival is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. Praising its originality in an era where studios heavily invest in sequels and brand recognition, “I think a movie like La La Land would be anathema to the Studios,” Hanks said. “It’s not a sequel. No one knows the songs or the characters,” he continued, indicating this will also be a big test for audiences everywhere. “If they don’t embrace something as wonderful as this, then we are all doomed.”

From a big picture standpoint, Hanks might be right on the money about humanity’s prospects. But the intimate, secluded weekend in The Rockies was naturally far from that doomed future he feared. For starters, the festival has finally found that gem of a film, likely to mark this year’s Telluride narrative: Barry Jenkins’ mesmerizing achievement Moonlight, which earnestly charts the life and struggles of a gay black man and gives some Carol vibes in unexpected ways. The film premiered to a rapturous response on Friday, and has been receiving growing praise ever since. I attended its Saturday screening, which ended with a long standing ovation (the most enthusiastic and heartiest one I have experienced at this year’s festival) and an insightful Q&A. A regular Telluride staple through the hosting and programming work he does, writer/director Barry Jenkins said his film, which he defines as “a film of acceptance”, explores a new place of black masculinity. In Moonlight, we follow the outcast Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes in three different ages and chapters), as he gracefully grows into his identity in time despite his junkie, uninvolved mother Paula (Naomie Harris, marvelous) and the regular bullying he copes with at school. He receives his true parenting and life guidance from his neighbor Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe), the couple who raises him and gently steers him with wisdom, so Chiron can find his own voice freely. In one especially touching early scene, a young Chiron asks Juan the meaning of the word “faggot”. “It’s a word used to make gay people feel bad,” Juan says, with an astonishing amount of empathy and love. Not to give away spoilers, but the film’s final act where Chiron –now a well-built, handsome, tall man with golden teeth– reunites with his old and brief flame Kevin (André Holland) is unforgettable and gut wrenching. James Laxton’s cinematography gives the film its dreamy touch and his often times close framing connects the audience with Chiron’s journey at the most intimate imaginable level. During Moonlight distributor A24’s casual party later that night, Jenkins not only mingled and chatted with the crowd, but also enthusiastically promoted the “Calling Cards” Short Program that he curated in this year’s line up. With his Moonlight, A24—who successfully took Room to the Oscars last year—might have another winner on their hands.

The other noteworthy splash this weekend was made by the twelve UFOs that landed on various points of Earth in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which arrived in Telluride shortly after debuting in Venice. This is a brainy, placid and subtle sci-fi that favors anticipation over action in the style of Robert Zemeckis’ Contact and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Amy Adams (one of this year’s tributes) plays Dr. Louise Banks, a top linguistic expert tasked to study the language of the visiting aliens to discover their purpose, and carries the film on her strong shoulders with conviction. While she is the one with real answers, she has a scientist ally too: Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner. We meet with Louise through a series of seeming flashbacks where she births, raises and (spoiler alert) buries her daughter at a young age. Defined by this life experience, Louise carries her scars within and approaches her job with utmost dedication. Every action she takes to decipher the aliens’ language—the two they speak with most frequently charmingly named Abbott and Costello—reminds the viewer of the intricacies of human communication, the value of patience and all the ways we avoidably misunderstand each other. Arrival, scored to perfection by Jóhann Jóhannsson, isn’t an “aliens vs. humans” wartime story, but instead an ode to the unity of the universe, and the beauty of peacekeeping. Faithfully adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” by Eric Heisserer, this is a rare breed of sci-fi: one that doesn’t interpret the human experience as “insignificant” against the vast grandness of the universe, but that celebrates individual lives and small human moments, regardless of how perishable and trivial they may seem in larger context. In Arrival, sophisticatedly shot by Bradford Young with both intimacy and intimidation where needed (certain aerial shots are especially unnerving), time has a circular nature. This both enriches and slightly convolutes the film’s resolution. Yet, the point of it all isn’t to make heads or tails of where our journey as humans begins or ends. Cherishing the time we have on Earth, with those we love, is what Arrival ultimately treasures.

The Benedict Andrews-directed Una, sharply and icily led by an exquisite Rooney Mara, was another one of my favorites this weekend. Adapted by David Harrower from his stage play Blackbird (recently on Broadway with leads Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams), Una follows a childhood sexual abuse victim (Rooney Mara) as she shows up at the workplace of and confronts her abuser. The distressing, florescent-soaked film doesn’t abandon its stage roots—the exchanges between the two characters are just as loaded, forcefully projected and fiery—yet it also manages to feel cinematic with the introduction of a key secondary character (played by The Night Of’s Riz Ahmed) and the flashbacks that piece together Una’s back story. This is an impeccably structured film as well as a harrowing character study, that unmistakably stands by the victim and handles her complexities/wounded inner world with exceptional sensitivity. During the post-screening Q&A where both Andrews and Mara were in attendance, Mara told the story of how she got the part. “I was still doing Carol and I mentioned to Cate [Blanchett] that I would love to do Blackbird one day. Cate said, ‘Let me introduce you to my friend Benedict. He is working on an adaptation and dying to meet you.’” The head space of Una was a tough one to occupy for Mara, as she had to carry the complex nuances of her situation with her at all times. “When I saw the play, I somehow wanted them to be together, and then felt bad/guilty to think that,” she said. And that dilemma was the main draw for her.

The weekend’s other noteworthy offerings that I managed to catch were Gianfranco Rosi’s Berlinale-hailing multi-prize winning documentary Fire at Sea, Francois Ozon’s classy, expressive and gorgeously photographed drama Frantz (a remake of Ernst Lubitch’s Broken Lullaby), and Ryan Suffern’s Dos Erres/Guatemala massacre documentary Finding Oscar that sports a blend of styles around journalistic investigation and conventional nonfiction storytelling. Fire at Sea is one of the best documentaries we will get to see all year. Set on and around the Lampedusa Island situated between Africa and Sicily, Rosi juxtaposes the disarming joys of life through the day-to-day of 12-year-old Samuele (a loveable slingshot enthusiast) against devastating human tragedies that occur during Europe’s immigration crisis. His camera shows both unspeakably grim, human-rights-violating catastrophes and Samuele’s often funny adventures and misdeeds simultaneously, and forms an unlikely narrative of polar opposites.

Footnote director Joseph Cedar’s Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer was my weekend’s only disappointing viewing. This babbling Richard Gere-starrer about a neurotic, small-time dealmaker begs for a new title and overstays its welcome fast.

Oddly, the most stressful thing about the relaxed Telluride is how short its duration is. Even with its small-ish and highly selective program, 3.5 days mean having to skip some buzzy titles to make room for others and hoping the remaining TBAs favor your priorities and blind spots. I am hoping to get to The Eagle Huntress tomorrow finally, especially after sitting with director Otto Bell and the film’s fascinating subject Aisholpan (the Huntress herself) at Saturday’s Sony Pictures Classics dinner (hosted by Michael Barker and Tom Bernard), and spotting them around town with a pair of majestic eagles throughout the weekend. What many refer to as "a story of female empowerment" looks to be right in my wheelhouse. Also on the agenda is the surprise critical darling Bright Lights (Alexis Bloom, Fisher Stevens), a documentary on Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher. I will sadly be missing The Ivory Game, executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio (a fitting name attachment to this project, given DiCaprio’s constant environmental efforts.) The Ivory Game’s directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, whom I briefly chatted with at the Netflix party on Saturday, said they were looking for a powerful celebrity attachment like DiCaprio for some time. DiCaprio, I am told, showed interest and provided support quickly, and even offered notes on the film. This is surely one to put on the radar and catch in the upcoming months.

Now, on with the festival’s only remaining day.