Once a year, in a faraway village high up in the Rocky Mountains, a privileged few are the first to witness some of indie cinema’s biggest titles. Stranger Than Paradise, Brokeback Mountain, and Blue Velvet all found their first audience here. It’s an alternate universe where A-listers walk among men. They bump into your dad in the lobby and lean against walls to look at their iPhones. Some don’t even wear makeup.
Of all the major film festivals, Telluride is the most unusual and the least well known. Without red carpets, paparazzi, or even prizes, publicity is not an object. Werner Herzog, who typically premieres at least one new film at the festival’s Werner Herzog theater, has said, “It’s a family reunion for those who love cinema.” Roger Ebert was famously quoted as saying, “it’s like Cannes died and went to heaven.”
Telluride is like a wealthy hippie. Tall white shamans sell jewelry in expensive boutiques. Mushroom and balloon festivals are held earlier in the year. Locals ride the free gondola to and from work. The airport runway dangles gut-wrenchingly close to a cliff.
This provides the context for the 4-day, 19-film marathon (a low count compared to last year). On most days audience members leave the theater past midnight and are seated again by 9AM. Despite tired eyes, the festival’s harvest generally proves worth indulging. This year’s movie crop was ripe and abundant, an oasis at the end of the summer drought.
The darling of the festival came from the festival’s own shorts curator Barry Jenkins. Moonlight, a masterful debut, offers a palpable experience of growing up gay in the hood, adding to the necessary crop of recent films exploring the diversity of inner-city blackness. The first of three acts calls on baptismal scenes, wrestling children, and a classical score to deliver a sequence recalling Terrence Malick. In the second and third acts, the film blooms into an increasingly intimate portrait of a young gay man’s taciturn transition to hardened adulthood. The audience, largely older and white, universally reported difficulty with the AAVE but adored the film nonetheless. Also noteworthy: this was probably the first American film I’ve ever seen that lacks the appearance of a single white figure.
Another crowd favorite came from the other side of the spectrum. The Pagnol Trilogy (Marius, Fanny & Cesar) kicked off the festival with 402 minutes of 1930’s dramedy. Tension runs high in a clever tale of a generation-spanning love triangle with a bastard baby. Chef Alice Waters introduced the film, explaining that both Chez Panisse and her daughter were named after characters in the films (“Panisse was the only one to make any money.”)
Herzog’s annual offering, Into the Inferno, surveys the jaw-dropping spectacle of our globe’s fiery open wounds and the cultures that surround them. “The volcano has no regard for scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles, and vapid humans,” he grumbles philosophically over breathtaking footage of cascading molten flame. This film comes in the same year as three other Herzog projects, a remarkable showing of vivacity for the 74-year-old master.
Maudie, Things to Come, and Lost in Paris round out my list of recommendations from the festival. The first: a grunting Ethan Hawke takes in a helpless, physically disabled housekeeper who becomes Canada’s most famous folk artist (“Do you like these paintings?”/“How am I supposed to know? Do I look like a woman?”). The second: Mia Hansen-Løve portrays a French intellectual wrestling with the disparity between her comfortable lifestyle and the theoretical radicalism of both a younger man and her younger life. The third: A charmingly goofy couple recalls Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton with laugh-out-loud slapstick.
Other films worth noting: La La Land, a Los Angeles love song in the tradition of classic musicals that succeeds despite mediocre music; and Una, a conversation between Rooney Mara’s titular character and a middle-aged man with whom she had affair as a pre-teen—an unconvincing effort epitomized by the snickers that followed Mara’s desperate plea: “Am I too old?”
Considering the exorbitant cost of accommodations, the festival is unfortunately accessible only to those with fat wallets or relatives that can host you nearby (thank you Seth & Chris!). However, you should be able to see the majority of these films on your local marquees before the end of the year. For those who were concerned, you can rest assured that there will be a reason to go to the movie theater again soon enough.
Theo used to work at Detroit Public TV but now he lives in Oakland with his parents. Not much else to know :/ theoschear.com