Every Labor Day weekend, cinephiles journey out to a small town nestled in a remote corner of southwest Colorado’s San Juan mountain range for the Telluride Film Festival. Production staff are hard at work building state-of-the-art theaters for more than a month before the event and readying for a sudden influx of dedicated filmgoers. Veteran pass holders, staff, and volunteers make the trip largely out of faith in the festival’s superb programming that’s famously kept completely secret up until the day before it begins. The shroud of mystery, the breathtaking scenery of a box canyon and the fact that there are no press lines, competitions, or paparazzi lend a sanctified awe to this complete cinematic immersion. Venturing deep into uncharted storytelling territory with old or new friends make the cost of getting out here and the intensive labor involved with putting it all together worth it each and every time.
My indefatigable love for the festival started when I was a Telluride Student Symposium kid back in 2006. Fifty students are picked each year to experience an intense, prearranged slate of films and meet with actors and filmmakers. My first jam-packed weekend was more than magical enough to make me a lifer and compel me to come back for the next 7 years to work in production, leading up the grand presentations. I know that I’ll always be back because the casual atmosphere, good people, and serious conversations about film perfectly encapsulate my idea of paradise.
The communal cinephilia is amplified this year with Telluride’s 40th anniversary. The festival will be even bigger than usual, with an entirely new theater springing up named after prolific director and longtime patron Werner Herzog.
Telluride is a festival that’s still largely removed from popular knowledge, but within the industry, it continues to gain traction as a preeminent predictor of films that go on to garner significant critical praise and impress during the awards season. Best Picture winners Slumdog Millionaire,The King’s Speech, The Artist and Argo have all premiered to Telluride audiences in the past 5 years. The bigger movies that have opened here are easy to anticipate, as most go on directly to the Toronto International Film Festival a few days later, but Telluride also screens rare prints of classic and forgotten films. Leo McCarey’s buried treasure Make Way for Tomorrow (released the same year that he won the Best Director Academy Award for The Awful Truth) and Marco Ferreri’s radically engrossing Dillinger is Dead were both quickly distributed, following screenings in Telluride, by the Criterion Collection. Adding depth and meaning to the new talent that emerges here is support from sponsor Turner Classic Movies and the presence of French film collector Serge Bromberg. TCM highlights restorations while Bromberg reveals his film finds from attics and basements, puts new music to the silent shorts, and proudly explicates about the gloriously dangerous nature of nitrate film. They provide important context as to why we must continue to hold public screenings of films and educate about cinema’s rich history.
New films shown in Telluride have to be North American premieres — no exceptions. Telluride pass holders are treated to the first showings of films that have only been seen before in European festivals (many come from Cannes) and have been submitted directly to this one. Sandwiched in between films are tributes to actors, directors, or industry professionals who are bestowed with special medallions for their achievements. Last year, actor Mads Mikkelsen (who came with The Hunt), actress Marion Cotillard (with Rust and Bone) and producer/director Roger Corman were all honored. In previous years, less widely known individuals have been brought to light, like Australian director Rolf de Heer, actor/director/French mime Pierre Étaix and a retrospective of the classic movie actress Jean Simmons (of Elmer Gantry) shortly before she passed away.
What follows is a dream slate of what might arrive mixed with common-sense picks based on the festival’s past affiliations with actors and directors.
12 Years a Slave
Synopsis: “In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.”
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: adaptation by John Ridley, based on a novel by Solomon Northup
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Michael Kenneth Williams
Since director Steve McQueen premiered his Hunger and Shame in Telluride, it’s a sure bet that 12 Years A Slave will show up. The emotional weight of the movie looks entirely different and easier to dissect than the visceral Hunger or the wrenching Shame. The straightforwardness of the plot and the bigger, flashier cast might propel it to be one of the Academy’s Best Picture contenders, but McQueen is likely to maintain his mastery and indie credibility. Hopefully, there will be more tension-filled time allotted to Ejiofor and Fassbender than there was between Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen in Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Synopsis: “A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.”
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Screenwriters: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
The Coen brothers don’t have much of a history with the festival, but because they are mysteriously skipping Toronto and have never been tributees, it looks promising that this will be their year to be in the spotlight. Their relaxed, quirky sense of humor would fit right into the freewheeling surroundings. It’s likely that Carey Mulligan will also be back in town because she previously traveled in with the premieres of An Education and Never Let Me Go.
Synopsis: “A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.”
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriters: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Cast: George Clooney, Sandra Bullock
Mr. Clooney was a tributee a couple years ago with The Descendants, so it isn’t a stretch that he’d make the trip again. The sparse plot and the pedigree of the director (who made the dark Children of Men as well as the bold Y Tu Mamá También) are just independent enough to be shown amongst all of the foreign films with lower profiles coming from Cannes.
Synopsis: “A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.”
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriters: Adaptation by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, based on the novel by Martin Sixsmith
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Frears’ sassy Tamara Drewe premiered in Telluride in 2010 and Philomena looks sweet and uplifting enough to be one of the lighter movies, of which there are few, in the festival. Almost anything would be an improvement over his last effort, the incredibly lame Lay the Favorite. It’s pleasant to see Steve Coogan appearing not to play his typically narcissistic stock character. Every so often, audiences glimpse that he’s capable of a character who is not completely self-absorbed, but he’s usually given little wiggle room to show what he’s truly clever enough to accomplish.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Synopsis: “A chronicle of Nelson Mandela’s life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.”
Director: Justin Chadwick
Screenwriter: William Nicholson
Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto
The quiet ferocity of Idris Elba’s talent should lend poignancy to the timing of this movie’s release, during the excessive reporting of Mandela’s poor health. Elba finally having an explosive movie role to launch his talent to worldwide acclaim could hopefully make a premiere in Telluride an important moment in his career. Chadwick’s The First Grader premiered here in 2010.
Synopsis: “Depressed single mom Adele and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.”
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriter: Adaptation by Jason Reitman, based on a novel by Joyce Maynard
Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Tobey Maguire, James Van Der Beek
Labor Day is too apt a title for the festival to pass on programming Reitman’s latest. Juno was propelled to fame with its rapturous premiere during Telluride 2007 and Up in the Air was similarly well-received. The description sounds far more dramatic than Reitman’s previous films, and with Winslet on board, it should be an uneasy but adventuresome watch.
Blue is the Warmest Color
Synopsis: “The story of a young lesbian couple’s beginning, middle and possible end.”
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Screenwriter: Adaptation by Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix, based on the comic by Julie Maroh
Cast: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos
The winner of Cannes’ Palme D’Or almost always shows up, like last year’s Amour or the nearly unbearable but essential 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Blue is the Warmest Color shouldn’t be an exception. The soft sensuality and tough love in the film make it look like a compelling premiere that will leave a bittersweet taste.
The Zero Theorem
Synopsis: “A computer hacker’s goal to discover the reason for human existence continually finds his work interrupted thanks to the Management; this time, they send a teenager and lusty love interest to distract him.”
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenwriter: Pat Rushin
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stomare, David Thewlis, Ben Whishaw
The brilliant Gilliam hasn’t been back to the festival for a long time, which makes a showing here especially far-fetched, but the 40th anniversary could draw him back. The Zero Theorem is only recently completed, so it may be outlandish to wish for a Telluride showing. This will hopefully be a return to Gilliam’s cohesively eccentric form after the relative letdowns of the jaw droppingly morose Tideland and the valiant but uneven The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
The Unknown Known
Synopsis: “Former United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, discusses his career in Washington D.C. from his days as a congressman in the early 1960s to planning the invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
Director: Errol Morris
Documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) often visits Telluride and it seems definite that he’ll stop by with his look at controversial former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Last year, he promoted The Act of Killing on which he and Werner Herzog served as executive producers. In 2010, his wacky Tabloid was a much-buzzed-about film in town.
– Lane Scarberry