Telluride Film Festival: The Final Cut

By Paul O’Rourke

Ed. note: Telluride Magazine contributor Paul O’Rourke covered the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day Weekend. This is the third and final story in which he discusses the films presented.

The curtain came down on the 49th installment of the Telluride Film Festival (TFF) on Monday, September 5, and the production crews began the process of returning Telluride to its former self. It was good weekend; the weather was absolutely glorious, and so too was the festival program. There were few big surprises, at least none that I was aware of, just the anticipated and remarkable cinema, screened as it always is, in the congenial, intelligent, and laid back but festive atmosphere that has always been Telluride during Labor Day weekend.

As it happens each and every year I’ve attended the TFF, I didn’t see all of the films I wanted to see; there’s simply not enough hours in three and a half days to view forty-six individual programs, nine Backlot screenings, Filmmakers of Tomorrow, Special Screenings, the Guest Directors Selections, or even Serge Bromberg Presents. My daughter and I were standing in line at the Coffee Cowboy on Saturday morning when Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his wife stepped in behind us. We chatted for a moment about the festival and his film, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths; the title alone is reason to see it. Bardo was high on my list, but for a variety of reasons I didn’t get to see it. I will, someday soon.

One film that was on my list as soon as the program was announced on Thursday was The Wonder, for the simple reason that Sebastian Lelio was its director, the same man who gave us TFF favorites Gloriaand A Fantastic Woman. Lelio, who is Chilean, took on new ground by making The Wonder, set as it is in the 1860s and in famine-decimated Ireland, where Lib (Florence Pugh) has been contracted by the town fathers to solve the unusual problem of Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy), who has gone four months without eating and who, on the surface appears healthy and none the worse for her abstinence. Adapted from Emma Donahue’s novel, The Wonder is a Thomas Hardy-like gothic tale, suspenseful as well as poignant in exploring the fallacies and intolerance of religious extremism. That Anna’s great mystery was resolved in the way it was, left the audience feeling good about the ending and, perhaps, better about itself. Good films do that.

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Before its screening, French film director and writer, Mia Hansen-Løve (Bergman Island) explained to the audience at Le Pierre that there are films you want to write and those you must write. One Fine Morning is a film, she said, “I had to write.” We understand almost immediately, as the film opens, when Sandra (Lea Seydoux) must explain to her father (Pascal Greggory) how to open his own front door, from the inside, what problems she’s confronted with. Her dad’s diminishing physical and cognitive wellbeing aren’t all that Sandra has to deal with. She is a single mom with a very active and inquisitive daughter (Camille Leban Martins) and she finds herself in love with a married man, a friend of her deceased husband. How Sandra negotiates her turbulent and exhausting world so well is, perhaps, a reflection of Hansen-Løve’s personal story and why she does such a masterful job of showing us how this woman encounters and rises above her struggles. One Fine Morning, is, in the end, a sad but hopeful story, well told.

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When a director like Sam Mendes, with films like 1917, American Beauty, and The Road to Perdition on his resumé, enlists an Academy award-winning cinematographer like Roger Deakins, and shows up at a film festival with a film about a movie theater that stars Olivia Colman, well, you go see Empire Of Light, without thinking twice.

Located in a working-class seaside town in 1980s England, the Empire cinema is home to a remarkable cast of characters. Manager (Colin Firth), ticket seller and concessions manager (Colman), projectionist (Toby Jones), and ticket taker (Micheal Ward) show up for work each day and perform their respective tasks, but, of course, there’s much more. The interplay between a turbulent outside world and the characters is intertwined, quite expertly, with the interactions between the players themselves. The combination, as it develops in the film, is immensely enjoyable to watch; it’s uplifting, humorous, and heartrending.

But it is Olivia Colman’s riveting and sweeping performance, along with Toby Jones’ projectionist’s poetics that provide us the ultimate message from Empire Of Light: Cinema and how and where (big screen always) we take it in can change us, make us better, and importantly, can bring us together like nothing else can.

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It was fitting that TFF #49 was dedicated to Peter Bogdanovich, a longtime advisor, contributor, and friend of the festival, who passed away earlier this year. But it was equally appropriate that the weekend belonged to Werner Herzog. Werner first attended the festival in 1975 and was honored for his contributions to cinema. That was 47 years ago. Heck, Fitzcarraldo hadn’t been made yet. As we know, Werner continued to make contributions to cinema after 1975 and continues to influence the spirt as well as the content of the film festival. Oh, and by the way, Werner turned 80 on Monday, September 5. I saw two and tasted one birthday cake. Everywhere he went this past weekend, appreciation and adulation followed.

And as it befits one of the festival’s and the film universe’s great luminaries, Herzog had three films screened on Monday at the theatre named for him. The first, Radical Dreamer, is Thomas von Steinaecker’s biography of the great man, informing us of Werner’s first efforts, what made him tick and what angels or demons possessed him, for example, to insist on moving a 360-ton steamship over a mountain to, well, get to the other side, in Fitzcarraldo.

It’s Herzog’s constant search for new horizons and “ecstatic” truths that lead him to an ever-evolving array of settings and topics that challenge human endurance, most if not all of which ended up in films for audiences around the world to appreciate for their cinematic brilliance and integrity as well as their capacity to help us understand the world we live in.

The consensus among those who know him best is that you can’t really know all there is to know about the man. von Steinaecker’s film is a wonderful way to start to get to know Herzog. There’s just one Werner Herzog; and we’re so very glad about that.

Werner Herzog photo By Nicolas Genin

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Considering I didn’t catch all that was offered at TFF #49, I’m compelled nonetheless to assess what I did see. But go see them all and make up your own mind.

Best Actor:  Bill Nighy (LIVING)

Best Supporting Actor: Ben Whishaw (WOMEN TALKING)

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett (TAR) / Olivia Colman (EMPIRE OF LIGHT) (Note: I did have the great opportunity to chat with Cate for about five minutes; she’s wonderful and I’m leaning in that direction, but, man, Olivia was superb. I can’t make up my mind.)

Best Supporting Actress(es): the female ensemble cast of WOMEN TALKING

Best Director: Sam Mendes (EMPIRE OF LIGHT)

Best Films:

  1. EMPIRE OF LIGHT
  2. LIVING
  3. ARMAGEDDON TIME

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