The 50th annual Telluride Film Festival had much to celebrate and showcase in cinema despite the lack of stars being front and center. The sleepy and beautiful rocky mountain transforms into the epicenter of cinephile and industry tastemakers getting away for a movie summer camp filled with packed screenings, engaging panels, and insightful conversations. Here are some of the highlights:
Empathetic storytelling and captivating art perfectly blend in JR’s Tenachapi, an impactful documentary that centers on a rehabilitation program in a California prison where the men tell their stories to French photographer/artist JR about their life sentences and participate in collaborative art projects. The inmates grasp what little humanity they have left in expressing themselves in art and interviews. The doc examines the US incarceration culture and whether society can forgive people. It has some insightful moments reflecting on their crime and time. The coolest moment involved pasting hundreds of paper strips on the ground with push brooms and wallpaper glue, which is a group photograph of the prisoners.
Telluride always has a polarizing generational dividing film from Uncut Gems to Bones & All. This year, it belonged to the Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to Promising Young Woman. The decadent romp is filled with 00s style and anchored by an unsettling and commanding Barry Keogen performance who commands the screen from delivering moody dialogue to full-throttle antics. Jacob Elordi will take his career to the next level after this role. The plot plays like a Millennial Talented Mr. Ripley, and the cast is electric, especially Rosamund Pike. The lavish house takes center stage, like its own character. It left audiences buzzing, putting the pieces together, everyone had an opinion, even if they had a negative reaction. This inspired great post-film conversations connecting minor details that blew up into bigger things. The wild third-act twists we should have seen coming still shocked me.
Telluride veteran Alexander Payne came with the world premiere of the melancholy The Holdovers, a scrappy Holiday tale with a delicate demeanor and serious undertones with both humor and heart. In one of his best roles, Paul Giamatti plays a surly professor assigned to stay on campus over Christmas break with a few students and grows closer with the troublemaker Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa) and with the school’s cook, who has just lost a son in Vietnam (a standout Da’Vine Joy Randolph). The grainy and goofy 70s vibe was on full display and was very much up my alley as one of my favorites, both intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying. This should play well during the fall festival and awards seasons.
The notion of complicity and evil was unleashed in Jonathan Glazer’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning Holocaust film, The Zone of Interest. Jarring foreign films like this plays well at the festival. The haunting and eerie film about a family living next door to Auschwitz utilizes slow pans and sound effects lingering from the concentration camp. The decay of morality is a stench in the air as much as the death next door, enhanced by Mica Levi’s pulsating score. The creepy birthday scene and the ashes buried in the garden’s dirt still linger in my mind days after watching it. His decade-long return was worth the wait as he created a World War 2 masterpiece that should be screened in film and history school classes for students. This would be more beneficial as a single-day watch for you to absorb the mood and themes.
Another Cannes award winner, the Palme d’Or winning Anatomy of a Fall, has genuine mainstream appeal and is a tense French courtroom drama thriller directed by Justine Triet. It stars Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann and also in the before-mentioned ‘Zone’) as a writer trying to prove her innocence in her husband’s dubious accidental death, and their blind child is the primary witness. One of the best scenes is the fight between the couple, revealing more about their complicated relationship and some twists involving the child’s perspective and their dog. (Animal lovers will be a little squeamish.) This was a breakout of the festival, selling out most of its venues that could be serious awards contenders.
When I found out that Nikolaj Arcel was reuniting with Mads Mikkelsen after their underrated Riders of Justice for The Promised Land, it was one of my most anticipated titles of the Telluride, especially since it was booked for both Venice and Toronto. Completing that trifecta is rare, but that means different programmers saw something in it. This handsomely mounted historical epic delivered as both a populist and refined filmmaking, resembling Ariel’s costume drama A Royal Affair. A common potato farmer is thrown into a land battle over his crops in an old-fashioned battle between good and evil that unfolds like a harsh and enthralling Danish western. This deserves more attention but will find its audience outside of the festival.
The Backlot programming provides some small gems that go unnoticed and are more likely not to be acquired or take the longest to finally be seen outside the festival. The lineup, which focuses on filmmakers, musicians, or authors to suit its setting in a library conference room, is a real treat to discover the culture of the past. Jonathan Parker’s Carol Doda Topless at the Condor was one such historical documentary about San Francisco’s counterculture scene that blended archival photos and amusing interviews. In the early 60s, Condor nightclub performer Carol Doda was the first woman to perform topless. Controversy, arrests, and enforcement ensued, and the documentary revealed all the titillating details with gleeful amusement before analyzing her exploitation.
Yorgos Lanthimos and producer Emma Stone made a bonkers and unforgettable Frankenstein-ian love story in the very popular, very horny (a theme this year), and much talked about Poor Things. This seemed divisive on paper, but everyone at least admired it, and it mostly earned across-the-board raves! I heard very few negative reactions. And no wonder. Stone has never been better in her best performance of her career in a zany role requiring so much verbal and physical work. The production design in every scene is creative perfection. Thematically, this is an art-house Barbie with even more to say about the autonomy of women’s bodies. Filled with many sex scenes, I hope cinephiles won’t be deterred by the on-screen antics of the impending discourse.
The surprising discovery of the festival was a captivating and haunting Andrew Scott in Andrew Haigh’s poignant and bold All of Us Strangers. The plot is a sort of ghost story with a son reconnecting with his deceased parents as he drifts through a gay romance in modern times while sending audiences to unexpected places. Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell, and Claire Foy deliver very good supporting work, but Andrew Scott stands out here compared to most other 2023 performances. The metaphysical drama that bends times was the big talk of the festival, emotionally resonating with people and having different interpretations depending on the person. One thing is for sure: It provoked positive responses from everyone I spoke to and inspired unique perspectives.
One of the best of the fest was an added secret screening of The Taste of Things, which plays like a scrumptious, 90s Miramax throwback. The yummy French historical romantic drama film directed by Tràn Anh Hùng starring Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel rightfully won the best directing award at Cannes. The 2.5-hour run time originally titled The Pot Au Feu flew by at a very brisk pace! Much of the time is spent watching gourmet chefs preparing and cooking delicious food, which immediately inspires cravings for audiences. The fancy and charming movie had its fans, though it played in small venues and was hard to see. I hope more people see this cinematic equivalent of comfort food. And The Great British Bake Off shows there is an audience for this one.
My frame of reference for Andy Kaufman is the Miloš Forman-directed biopic, Man on the Moon, with Jim Carrey, which was released when I was in high school, and I barely remember. Alex Braverman’s impressive directorial debut delivers a lively doc, Thank You Very Much, produced by the Safdie Brothers, with a zippy energy to make up for little new revelations into the life and career of the misunderstood comic genius. The rich footage from Kaufman’s fearless performances enhances the storytelling, as does Danny DeVito and Steve Martin, delivering fun-filled analyses about his legacy and influence. This is a good recap for a younger generation to learn about Andy, and older audiences won’t mind reflecting on the legendary comic. I could see Sony Classics, Max, or Apple acquiring this undistributed doc.
I recently watched Chico and Rita earlier this year to prepare for Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal’s They Shot the Piano Player after its acquisition news from Cannes. Jeff Goldblum is the lead and narrates the breezy, if thin, story about a New York music journalist investigating the mysterious disappearance of young Brazilian piano virtuoso Tenorio Jr. However, I didn’t come for the plot. Its vivid animation garnered my attention, put a smile on my face, and transported me to a different world. The jazz music and vibrant animation soothed my soul during its entire runtime. That’s all I needed. This was screening as a part of the Tony Luddy tribute of a few short films.
A big surprise from the festival (since a few people I trust didn’t care for it) was Christy Hall‘s directional debut, Daddio. Strong performances from Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn were engaging and moved the dialogue-driven plot right along, even if they were in a car stuck in traffic for most of its running time. The movie is ultimately about processing grief and finding meaningful connections in unexpected places. I was drawn to the character and dialogue as it held my attention. With the ongoing strikes affecting production for the upcoming future, more movies will resemble this micro-budget star-driven drama. Expect to see these types of movies at the 2024 film festivals, which became a fitting final movie for the 2023 edition of the festival.
The Telluride Film Festival this year had lovely selections to discuss with attendees, and I am looking for eager movie audiences to finally watch the titles.