The 42nd Telluride Film Festival is about to get underway in southwest Colorado. A box canyon provides a jaw-dropping setting for a fest jammed packed with premieres, retrospectives and classics over Labor Day weekend. This is my 10th year attending and my 9th year working for the festival. The production team works meticulously in the month before the showings to spring theaters out of the local schools, hockey rink, park, Masonic Temple and library. The intricate decoration and state of the art tech involved in the preparation lead the festival to be lovingly referred to as “SHOW.”
Telluride is a small and friendly town that provides an intimate arena for intense discussion about film. In recent years, higher profile selections in the program have gone on to Academy award winning renown. These movies have garnered Telluride attention on the film festival circuit but not changed the close-knit community who work to bring it to life or get to enjoy the genuine conversation about film that is normally excised from such an environment due to business dealings. The last 5 Best Picture winners (The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years A Slave and Birdman) all had their North American premieres here. Many of Telluride’s selections go directly on to the Toronto Film Festival just a few days later which has led to that festival’s bizarre attempt to corral and brand prestigious openings as their own. Toronto has backed down from some of its initial aggression towards Telluride for taking away its ability to say that films had their first showings there but still is relegating filmmakers who take their work to Telluride first to less prestigious venues and days in Toronto. Journalists on the outside looking in may contend that Telluride is simply crammed full of “oscar bait.” While recent years have seen an increase in the presence of big budget pictures, Telluride has stayed true to being highly curated for quality and maintaining a reverence for cinematic history above all else. They are not only committed to provocative narrative dramas with familiar faces but showcasing independent movies, restored silents that are set to live music, remote documentaries, and foreign films that often fly below the radar. Additionally, a careful selection of shorts, animation and student films pepper the all too brief festival.
While big films do hit Telluride, directors and writers are more likely to be spotted than actors. Only a handful of higher tier names show up on site as there are no red carpet premieres or press junkets. You’re more likely to find a star here if they are being honored for their work with a life achievement medallion or if they’re bringing a deeply personal project. Jon Stewart visited last year with his first foray into directing with Rosewater. Similarly, Reese Witherspoon showed up with Wild- a film financed by her own production company. Each year three or so artists are given medallions for their contributions to film. Although praise is showered upon the honorees, it’s a recognition that is hard won and comes with a chronicle of the full breadth of their work. Looking back on someone’s career, their first fumbles are often included alongside their accolades in the retrospective. The program is kept absolutely secret up until a couple of days before the festival so patrons must trust in Telluride’s reputation for variety and capacity for excellence.
What follows are predictions based on filmmakers’ past history with the festival and genre predilections. Silents, classics, and foreign film presentations are harder to predict, so they have been omitted.
Todd Haynes was last in town in 2007 with I’m Not There, the ambitious multi-narrative exploration of Bob Dylan’s life and work. Pairing again with the magnificent Cate Blanchett, the synopsis of Carol feels like a throwback to the oppressive circumstances of his lauded Far from Heaven. A romance between two women (Blanchett, Rooney Mara) that doesn’t stand a chance against the suffocating patriarchy of 1950s New York has already been met with resounding commendation for its performances following its Cannes premiere this last May.
Here we have a second attempt at examining the man, the myth and the monster behind radical, technological change in our time following the lame Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher. The cast and crew have certainly been upgraded with Aaron Sorkin as the scribe, Danny Boyle directing and Michael Fassbender taking on the challenging title role. Fassbender is no stranger to playing self-centered obsessives (Shame, Frank) and definitely looks as if he’s immersed himself into the callous visionary’s shoes. Sorkin’s mean and bullheaded prose might be the perfect fit for conveying the essence of Jobs. Boyle has a pleasant history with the festival starting with the rapturous opening of Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. He returned a couple years later with Aron Ralston’s harrowing story of survival in 127 Hours. His last movie Trance fell through the cracks of festivals and a wider release, but Jobs feels poised to be front and center when discussing the strength of the movies this Fall.
Alejandro González Iñárritu has previously brought Babel, Biutiful and last year’s Oscar for Best Picture to Telluride. A frequent pass holder even when his films aren’t a part of the program, Iñárritu arriving with his latest wouldn’t be a stretch in the least. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a pioneer out for revenge with a strong supporting cast including Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson. The Revenant’s trailer is dense with imagery of an unforgiving wilderness and a relentlessly brutal mindset.
Filmed in Scotland with Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in a toxic, bloodsoaked union- Macbeth seems to be steeped in a self-aware darkness. Dimly lit and caked in dirt, this adaptation may or may not fit in line with Telluride but there is a grim excitement present with the players and art design involved.
The Danish Girl
Tom Hooper first came to the festival with the popular The King’s Speech and then stepped away from the festival circuit with his blockbuster version of Les Miserables. Fresh off of The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne looks as though he’s taken on another challenging life story. Playing a transgender trailblazer, Redmayne’s performance at the heart of the movie looks at the very least absorbing and at most devastating.
Carey Mulligan’s roles are a frequent fixture at the fest (Shame, Never Let Me Go, An Education, Inside Llewyn Davis). The cast is a bit overloaded with Streep tacked onto to an already stellar ensemble. But the relevance of retelling the overlooked struggles of women working for their most basic rights feels vital to the present political climate and Mulligan has just the right independent spirit to deliver a strong performance that won’t be too sentimental or exploitative to the important subject at hand.