Paul O’Rourke shares his insights about the most memorable films at this year’s Telluride Film Festival.
No Clear Favorite
“What have you seen so far?”—the most often-used conversation starter with an utter though like-minded stranger, while standing in line waiting to see your next film—is typically followed by, “What’s your favorite?” It’s a fun back-and-forth dialogue during days 1 and 2. But defining “favorite” at the end of 3½ days, when that question is posed again, requires a summation, a commitment to name the “one” film you think most deserving of that very subjective title. Of course, there’s no correct answer. But from this year’s festival I’d like to think there’s more than one winner; there’s no clear “favorite.”
There’s always buzz about the potential Academy Awards winners. Tom Hanks In Sully, Bryan Cranston in Wakefield, Amy Adams (the second Silver Medallion tribute recipient) in Arrival, maybe even Emma Stone in LaLa Land are names to consider for “Best Actor” nominations. Sully and LaLa Land, and perhaps Manchester by the Sea, with Casey Affleck (the first to receive a Silver Medallion tribute this year) are the big name movies that may get a nod for “Best Picture.” A list of very good films at this year’s festival just may, however, include one or more “sleepers” for academy consideration.
Una is provocative and dark, a story that absorbs the viewer into the real and psycho-life-altering and murky realms of child sexual abuse. The performances of Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn are superb, the dynamic tension between them appropriately uncomfortable.
Neruda, with Gael Garcia Bernal and Luis Gnecco in the title role, is brilliantly directed by Pablo Larrain (the third Silver Medallion recipient). This highly intelligent film is less about the charismatic and enigmatic Neruda than it is about the obsessive pursuit—both physical and spiritual—of the self-exiled leftist poet and politician (and what he means and stands for) by a state-sponsored detective (Bernal), the culmination of which is intriguing and if not emotionally satisfying.
Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) is Wakefield, a story about a middle-aged, middle-class, mid-level management suburban male in mid-life and mid-marriage crisis. Howard Wakefield abandons his wife (Jennifer Garner) and his two teenage daughters by, oddly enough, “hiding out” in the attic above his garage, thus, at least to his way of thinking, remaining connected with, albeit hidden from his family. Howard, realizing he really loves his wife (after he observes her with a former boyfriend), cleans up and shows up Christmas day. The film’s final scene capped by the words, “I’m home,” begs the inevitable question. Did she take him back? When asked, Director Robin Swicord (The Curious Life of Benjamin Button) responded as you might expect, “That’s for you to decide.” This entertaining and thoughtful film makes its way to Toronto next and will hopefully be in U.S. theaters soon.
Back Lot But Front Line Buzz
The Telluride Film Festival’s strength and appeal lies in its ability to showcase the broad spectrum of the year’s best films made by the planet’s best filmmakers. The fact a film made it to Telluride is all one needs to know that each is well worth viewing. This year’s “newcomers” and “delightful surprises” are meaningful contributions to the art form. And many were just plain fun to watch.
Barry Jenkins is no newcomer to Telluride. A festival volunteer for many years, he helped build the concession stand at the Palm Theatre where he presumably served popcorn for a few years. Extending the range of his participation, Jenkins this year presented his second feature film, Moonlight, a haunting and courageously told coming of age story of Chiron, as he tries to navigate through drug infested and poverty stricken Miami. Beyond the hard and desperate and unforgiving life he faced, Chiron’s story unfolds with grace and tenderness. Moonlight deserves to be viewed by a national audience; this film needs to be seen.
California Typewriter is one of those films for which Telluride is famous. Directed and filmed by Doug Nichol, the movie is as much a documentary about the looming loss of an iconic machine as it is a testimonial to those who refuse to let the typewriter go the way of the T-Rex. California Typewriter is actually the name of a typewriter repair and retail outlet (not far, ironically, from the festival’s administrative offices) in Berkeley. The store’s four principals were in attendance, pleased the growing publicity surrounding the film may have a lasting say in their own commercial future. Tom Hanks, John Mayer, David McCullough, and Sam Shepard extol the virtues of the machine and would, I imagine, encourage one and all to “rediscover” the pleasures of typewriting. As Tom Hanks said, “your email thank you will, at some point down the line, get deleted. Your typewritten note lives forever.”
Mical (Noa Koler) is going to get married. She sets the date, rents the wedding venue, and hires a caterer. The problem and the context for Through the Wall: she has 22 days to find the groom and, at the same time, fulfill her commitment to Orthodox Judaism. Israeli writer and director, Rama Burshtein (Fill the Void) takes us on a wacky series of painful and hilarious first dates in Mical’s desperate hunt for a husband. Koler’s Michal is an intelligent, extremely funny, often crazed and angry, and always a little off-the-wall heroine. The outcome of her quest is confirmation that the journey is often more important—and certainly more entertaining—than the destination.
German writer-director, Maren Ade, deserves immense praise for Toni Erdmann. To pigeonhole this film into any specific genre would be to do it an extreme injustice. The film’s principal protagonist, Winifried (Peter Simonischek), is divorced and aging; he’s just lost his best friend—Willi, his dog—and is estranged from his corporate hotshot daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller). The source of the familial alienation is explained easily by way of Winifried’s quirky, if not off-putting personality and sense of humor. Ines tells her father his life is a “fart cushion.” “That’s impossible, he responds, missing the metaphor, “I don’t own a fart cushion.” Of course, in the next scene, Winifried (aka Toni Erdmann) disguised—but completely recognizable—in an ill-fitting wig and false teeth, lowers himself, while Ines is speaking seriously with her boss, onto a fart cushion. So much for reconciliation, but Toni can’t help himself. I won’t even start with how a cheese grater plays a role in his attempts to reconnect with his daughter. To say that idiosyncrasy and outlandishness is the source of the film’s appeal may be an understatement, but it does keep the viewer entertained for a full two hours and forty-two minutes. If you want to experience some fun and redemption, go see Toni Erdmann.
If you hadn’t read or heard a word about it and had relied exclusively on the title to inform you, Lost in Paris may have been left off your list of films to see. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for word to get around: don’t miss this movie! In an amazingly well choreographed and beyond hilarious succession of coincidences, pratfalls and recurring encounters, the French/Belgian director-writer team of Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel tell the story of Fiona and Dom (apparently life as art was considered in naming their characters) as they twist and turn their way through Paris in search of Fiona’s aunt Martha. This nothing but fun and fantastic film may just come as close as any to claim the title as my “favorite” at this year’s festival. But then again there’s Sully and I didn’t get to see Bleed for This or Norman and yes, I mean no, I can’t really make up my mind.
When asked how he prepared for the scene where he (Sully) learns that every one of his 155 passengers had survived the emergency landing (it wasn’t a “crash” landing Sully explained to the National Transportation Safety Board) on the Hudson River, Hanks responded, “Well, that’s a very important point in the film. The proper emotion has to be there for that very big moment. It’s what I do and every actor does and hopes for. You just want to get it right.”
Sully got it right. So too, did this year’s films and every one of those thousands of people who contributed to the success of the Telluride Film Festival.