Jill ranks the films she saw at the Telluride Film Festival

If it seems to exist on a higher plane, this is not just a matter of altitude. Mostly it is the kind of place where, for one long weekend, all anyone wants to talk about is movies. There are no prizes, and therefore no juries; no market, no press screenings, no red carpets or paparazzi photo calls. The ethos is open and egalitarian. –A.O. Scott, The New York Times

There’s no way to see all the films you want to see at the Telluride Film Festival. Once you’ve accepted that, you’ll find that what you do see–is often more enriching or more thought-provoking than what you may have chosen on your own. After attending for five years, I’ve learned to seek out the smaller films and hope to catch some of the studio films at later festivals or when they come to the theaters. Sometimes though, it’s just a matter of what film is playing in the theater you’ve ushering at…or the next available screening that’ll fit into your schedule…or the one film where you might not have to wait too long in the rain. C’est la vie!

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I was lucky to see 12 films out of the 37 in the Main Program. I’ve listed them in order of my enjoyment level. Please remember that I didn’t see First Man, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Destroyer…or the smaller films I wished I’d seen like Shoplifters, The Biggest Little Farm, Girl, The White Crow and Fistful of Dirt.

  1. Roma: Alfonso Cuaron (writer, director, cinematographer) I was fortunate to see two beautiful black & white films enveloped in non-stop smoking and wonderful music back-to-back; Cold War and Roma. It’s rare that I submit to an almost 2 1/2 hour film without feeling that there should’ve been an intermission or some serious editing. I was so immersed in this story of a young Mexican woman caring for an upper middle-class family and anticipating the unfolding turmoil about to descend upon them all. This was a true labor of love from Alfonso Cuaron; a tribute to the woman who raised him as well an odd to his biological mother trying to find her place in the world.
  2. Cold War: Pawel Pawlikowski (writer, director, Oscar-winner for Ida) This was the most beautifully-shot film I saw at the festival. A tragic love story set in Poland and Paris, we watch as the couple perform folk music under a political watchdog, traveling to Russia. Years later, they’re reunited in a life of jazz and booze. But the reality of life with someone who’s had to compromise too many times leads to a tragic return to Poland. Love can triumph over politics but can it survive the loss of your soul?
  3. Ghost Fleet: Shannon Service, Jeffrey Waldron: Documenting the horrifying reality of men imprisoned on fishing boats in the Indonesian sea, this film was a revelation to me. Focusing on the brave team lead by Patima Tungpuchayakul traveling to surrounding islands to rescue men who’ve fled slavery in the seafood trade, there’s a tension and tenderness to the footage. The horrors that these men face is compounded by the shame they feel about not wanting to return home, penniless and broken. Truly an amazing, inspiring film.
  4. Trail By Fire: Ed Zwick: 12 years on death row for a Texas man who’s low-class hard-living ways have blinded the legal system to his innocence and genuine love for his children. Jack O’Connell is mesmerizing in his performance of a man losing his soul but finding some meaning in his connection with Elizabeth Gilbert (played with great depth by Laura Dern). She starts a crusade to overturn his death sentence. A moving true story to make us rethink the death penalty.
  5. Boy Erased: Joel Edgerton (director, script, co-star): Lucas Hedges is a soulful young man trying to reconcile his same sex attraction with his family’s Baptist faith. When his preacher father (Russell Crowe) sends him to a religious conversion center, we meet the clients, many forced into treatment by their parents. Based on the autobiography of Garrad Conley, the painful revelations and vicious abuse heaped on the teens rings true. Joel Edgerton plays a masterful misguided leader who doesn’t just believe in praying away the gay; but also, beating out the devil of same sex sin. Nicole Kidman, the loving mother who comes to realize her son deserves understanding instead of punishment, is a welcome relief to the trauma. The closing scene between father and son is truly touching.
  6. The Favourite: Yorgos Lanthimos: I must confess to not being a fan of director Lanthimos’ work but this film was wicked and odd and sometimes wonderful. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne of the 18th Century British court as a simpering, needy bully. Her companion, Rachel Weisz as Lady Marborough, keeps the Queen in check with flattery and sexual companionship. When her poor cousin shows up in court (the versatile Emma Stone), her position as “favourite” is threatened. Gorgeous costumes, some scathing lines and wacky antics kept me amused. The cinematography (low-light, fish-eye, wide-angles) was distracting but the long takes of Olivia Colman’s mournful face held me in thrall.
  7. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache: Pamela E. Green: Bravo to this intrepid woman, Pamela E. Green! Upon seeing a documentary about early filmmakers, she wondered why she’d never heard of Alice Guy-Blache. When she discovered that not only her pioneering role in cinema, but also her films were not recognized by history or her peers, Green started this passion project. Connecting long-lost family members, discovering treasure troves of archival footage and recordings, Green seeks to restore Alice Guy-Blache to her rightful place as the first narrative filmmaker; and the first woman filmmaker! This is a fun fast-paced documentary that should be a must-see for any film lover.
  8. The Old Man & The Gun: David Lowery: A delightful film about an unrepentant bank robber and jail breaker played by the legend Robert Redford. The charm of this film is in the relationship between the thief and his comrades-in-arms (Danny Glover and Tom Waits), the detective who doesn’t want to catch him (Casey Affleck) and the woman who falls for his charms (the delightful Sissy Spacek). The real kick is that this is based on a true story. The sad news is that this is Robert Redford’s last role…what a great swan song.
  9. The Front Runner: Jason Reitman: Gary Hart, played with a nice head of hair by Hugh Jackman, gets his comeuppance in this political drama about the power of the media. Vera Farmiga portrays the much-wronged wife who must deal with the media circus and the sensationalism that can destroy a career and sideline not only a man’s run for office but also a nation’s chances for a flawed leader who may have made a big difference in politics.
  10. Eldorado: Markus Imhoof: Swiss filmmaker Imhoof interweaves his childhood relationship with an Italian refugee, a child sheltered by is family in World War II with a look at the overwhelming plight of refugees from Africa. His argument; that these immigrants are supplying low-paid labor to harvest food that is then subsidized and undercuts the economy in their own countries. A tragic cycle of economic slavery and hardship.
  11. Christian Wahnschaffe, Part 1 & 2: Danish silent filmmaker Urban Gad: Restored prints from 1920, this drama of class struggle with religious allegory was accompanied by Stephen Horne playing piano, flute, accordion with various thumping and strumming to great effect. A fascinating look at well-realized story where the acting, though broad, is still emotional.
  12. Graves Without A Name: Rithy Panh: The noted Cambodian filmmaker has created a tone poem to remember the thousands of lives brutally and agonizingly ended in the genocide there. Beautiful images of white paper prayer flags fluttering in the wind and carved faces to represent ghosts of those lost float in the water or appear in the tree’s bark. They represent those bodies lost in mass graves or never recovered as they were left to decompose on the land. A meditation on death and remembrance in a cyclical telling over 2 hours.

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