Telluride Film Festival Celebrates 50th

By Paul O’Rourke

There’s always an uplifting yet anticipatory spirit that accompanies the opening of the Telluride Film Festival (TFF). But this year, in addition to the expectation and excitement created by the secret program, passholders also felt the uneasy and yet to be fully understood presence of the SAG-AFTRA strike and the sad shadow cast by the recent passings of festival co-founders Bill Pence and Tom Luddy.

 We can only envision Tom working his magical rolodex as only he could, bringing dissimilar cinematic personalities from disparate parts of the world together for a Telluride meeting. Think: Tom introducing Werner Herzog to Jack Nicholson in 1975. And Bill, we can just see him on his bike, prowling the festival’s numerous and wonderfully designed venues, making sure the sound, projection, and temperature in each is, well, perfect. Bill coined the phrase, “The passholder is King,” after all. The 50th SHOW was dedicated to Founders Tom Luddy (1943-2023), Bill Pence (1940-2022), James Card (1915-2000), and Stella Pence.

 Mindful of the presence of five decades of festival history, on a beautiful full-moon Wednesday night, several hundred film and music fans—the TFF has always been a multi-faceted artistic event—took in Martin Scorsese’s recent digital restoration of the iconic The Last Waltz at the Abel Gance Outdoor Cinema in Elk’s Park. It was the perfect film in the perfect venue to open the curtain on TFF #50.

Here are some of the great films from day one of the festival:

motorcycle group on the road

The Bikeriders

When I think of motorcycle movies, I think Easy Rider (1969). When I think motorcycle gang movies, I think ofThe Wild One (1953). I was a little fearful that director Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders, might not live up to either. But, as it is with many assumptions, I was mistaken; in the course of an early scene, none other than Marlon Brando appears on screen answering the famous “What are you rebelling against?” question with his more famous response: “Whadya got?”

The Bikeriders is less a film about a motorcycle gang (it’s actually a “motorcycle club”), in this case the Vandals from Chicago, and more about what it means to be a member of the club. And to bring us into that culture, Nichols gives us Kathy (Jodie Comer), the female narrator and filter through which we come to understand a little better about the club and its hyper-masculinity—and what makes Johnny (Tom Hardy, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 2011) and Benny (Austin Butler, Elvis, 2022) tick.

 “All the guys in this club,” Kathy tells the camera (I am loosely transcribing what I remember hearing), “are the way they are because they don’t like rules. And once they get into the club, all they do is make rules.”

It was the rules, a code of brotherhood and loyalty, that bonded them, for a time, but in the end, the rules—or the breaking of them—were what brought Johnny, Benny, and the club down. But this movie is so much bigger and better than a “biker flick.” The cinematography and the soundtrack are excellent. Hardy and Butler give engaging and visceral performances, and Comer as Kathy, according to Ken Burns in his interview with Nichols, “is a revelation.”

Bikeriders doesn’t go out in a blaze of grizzly highway glory but leaves us with a satisfied smile on our appreciative faces. See this movie!

The Holdovers

Director and long-time Telluride program contributor, guest director, and friend, Alexander Payne (Nebraska, 2013) does people fighting and eventually overcoming their own inner demons very well. The Holdovers is a story about a stodgy classics professor (Paul Giamatti) forced to spend Christmas break at his New England boys’ boarding school with the irascible, sometimes impudent, but immensely intelligent student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) and the school’s chef Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dolemoite is My Name, 2019), whose contribution to the two-week drama is a great deal more significant than her excellent fare from her sparsely stocked holiday kitchen.

Despite her own very personal issues, Mary is the emotional and psychological strength in this three-person drama, as Professor Paul and Angus are busy battling one another and themselves. Giamatti—reunited with Payne after twenty years since Sideways—was, as we’ve come to expect, his eloquent and physically expressive self. We are naturally drawn to Randolph, as Mary, with her easy and confidently comic rhythm and her reliably likable character. But it’s Angus—it is Sessa’s first time in front of the camera—who gets the professor and the chef to take an unsanctioned trip to Boston, thus setting the stage for how this enormously feel-good film leaves us, well, feeling good.

Saltburn

Saltburn is a huge, ornate, lavishly decorated English estate, inhabited by a rather unique, if not bizarre, but entertaining cast of characters. There is Felix (Jacob Elordi): everything you’d imagine a rich, spoiled, self-centered, and classically handsome college boy would be. And there is Oliver (The Killing of the Sacred Deer, 2017), Felix’s classmate, who is neither overly good-looking nor rich, but outwardly shy, innocent, and clumsy, although he is intelligent enough to earn a scholarship to Oxford. Felix’s mother (Rosamond Pike), his father (Richard E. Grant) and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) are parodies of the idle rich; they’re intelligent and inane, beautiful yet somehow disgusting all at once.

The movie Saltburn—at its world premiere in Telluride—is a very deliberate (well-written, produced, and directed by Emerald Fennell) comment on the foibles and peccadillos of the upper crust. Be careful; Saltburn is not all that it seems to be. Is Oliver’s obvious infatuation—bordering on obsession—with Felix innocent? Is it real? In fact, as the film progresses we can’t be entirely certain of very much, save what this sometimes dark though often hilarious psycho-thriller informs us at its uproarious conclusion as Oliver dances his way through Saltburn’s numerous hallways.

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