by Risa Nye
I approached this year’s festival with the same high level of enthusiasm I had last year. I vowed to be open to the unknown, the unexpected, and the unconventional. And in the four days I spent watching movies, I encountered all of the above.
Arriving a day early gave me time to adjust to the altitude, begin the essential hydration routine, and download the Telluride app that would be my go-to source of information about the daily schedule and the latest TBAs. I got a little frisson of satisfaction each time I awarded myself a star for attendance at another film. This year, I would collect fifteen stars: a decent number, but fewer than the four people who reported seeing seventeen films at the final screening. They held their hands high while the rest of us in the audience wondered how they’d managed to accomplish this feat.
My festival got off to a slow start. I got word of a special showing of a film Friday afternoon — a surprise — which proved to be a real surprise for me when I arrived at the Chuck Jones’ Cinema a few minutes too late to get a seat. As I learned from the sympathetic staff, the film being shown was He Named Me Malala. Although disappointed with getting shut out at my first screening, I figured I’d be able to catch this popular movie at a later time.
After missing Malala, I set my sights on Carol, which was shown following the tribute to Rooney Mara, who stars in this film along with Cate Blanchett. Although only thirty, Mara has amassed an impressive list of film credits, as we saw in the clips from (among others) Her, The Social Network, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
A far cry from her unforgettable performance as Lisbeth Salander, Mara plays Therese, a shop girl who becomes entangled in the complicated life of Blanchett’s elegant, sophisticated Carol. Carol is a wife (or, rather, ex-wife) and mother who bewitches the inexperienced Therese, and introduces her to a life she has never imagined—and a relationship that 1950s law and society viewed as dangerous and immoral. The central characters are both compelled to make sacrifices in order to be true to themselves. The film is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel about a lesbian love affair (written under a pseudonym), The Price of Salt.
Before the screening of Carol, both Mara and director Todd Haynes offered a gracious thank you to Sandy Powell (costume designer) and Ed Lachman (cinematographer) for their work on the film. The costumes the women wear—tailored, figure hugging, and fully accessorized— and the 1950s New York the camera recreates on film—are breathtakingly exquisite. The film world the characters live in is textured, nuanced and glamorous, but there is a dark, shaded side to it also, which we see later on. Mara makes her own magic on camera, but for a moment—with her dark bangs and eyebrows—I saw a young Audrey Hepburn.
I was talking to a friend right after seeing Carol and saying how much I liked Rooney Mara’s performance. I wondered if I’d recognize her on the street. At which point my friend leaned toward me and said, “She’s right behind you.” She was!
A movie I knew nothing about, Room, turned out to be one of my favorites this year. It’s almost impossible to write about this movie without giving something away. As director Lenny Abrahamson described it, the story is partly about “finding the normal in the bizarre.” Ma (Brie Larson) shares a small shed with her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Trembly). The legend she creates for him to explain their situation and the only world he knows is heartbreaking. In voiceover, we hear Jack’s understanding of his small world, where every object (Sink, Wardrobe, Toilet, Room) has a proper name and every day has its set routine. The film is divided into two parts, both accompanied by startling realities. In one prolonged, tension-filled scene, my heart was pounding and I gripped the arms of my chair. Fear, disbelief, doubt, frustration, redemption, and awe: it adds up to an unforgettable journey with Ma and Jack.
Young Trembly (who turned eight during the filming) is a wonder, with acting skills and emotional range beyond his years. During the brief discussion following the film, Jake was asked how it was to work with director Abrahamson. He cracked up the audience when he began by saying, “Well, I’ve worked with a lot of directors… and he’s a good one.” Brie Larson described the way she prepared for her role as a young captive mother who spent seven years confined in a small space: months without any sun exposure (while living in LA), and a diet that bordered on unhealthy, although she was tested and monitored throughout this period. She spoke about her protective relationship with Jacob, and how everyone involved with the film focused on his needs and his ability to perform his role. The mother/child relationship and its complications due to outside forces is a theme that began to materialize in other films as well.
Out of the small world of Room and into the slapstick world of Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy, with Serge Bromberg in charge: it’s the classic shift that happens all the time at Telluride. His program this year, Retour de Flamme, included the world premiere of the restored 1928 Laurel and Hardy comedy, The Battle of the Century. I don’t care how sophisticated a film audience is, if you can’t laugh at the biggest pie fight of all times, someone needs to check for a pulse. Along with the whipped cream and custard, the audience was treated to a look at the restoration process that brings lost masterpieces to life, allowing us to appreciate the genius of these early filmmakers—who can still make us laugh as hundreds of pies fly through the air and messily find their targets.
In 45 Years, we meet married couple Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) on the eve of the anniversary party they have planned for themselves. They seem comfortable and content with one another, patient (for the most part) with each other’s habits and quirks. A letter arrives for Geoff, which has him searching for a German dictionary so he can translate it. The news in this letter creates friction and uncertainty between Kate and Geoff, and we see how easily a solid marriage can become fractured by mistrust, jealousy, and doubt. These two acting pros give us honest performances that do not stoop to caricature the seventy-somethings they portray; Rampling can convey volumes with a raised eyebrow. The film illustrates how events—even decades-old events—can undermine the very foundation upon which a marriage is built and sustained for forty-five years.
Next up was Hitchcock/Truffaut, directed by critic and historian Kent Jones. With a few worthy talking heads (Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and David Fincher, among others), and actual recordings of the two directors, viewers are treated to the conversations that took place between Truffaut and one of his idols. (In 1966, Truffaut published a book-length interview with Hitchcock called Hitchcock/Truffaut.)
I found Jones’s film to be entertaining and informative—watching it felt a little like getting a seat at the table alongside the translator, as these two great men discuss all aspects of film-making, clearly enjoying each other’s company despite the vast age difference between them. At one point, Hitchcock mugs, and then “directs” Truffaut for the photographer on the set. The resulting photographs are priceless.
When I finally caught up with He Named Me Malala, I was prepared to be impressed with this brave and articulate young woman. The film was introduced by filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, and by Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s father—his pride in her accomplishments and her ability to overcome a grave injury were clearly evident in his short introduction. Throughout the film, Guggenheim utilizes animation to tell the story of Malala, the well-known young Pakistani woman, shot in the head by the Taliban, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, she travels the world delivering her message about the importance of education and girls’ rights.
The accompanying short was one of my favorites — Sanjay’s Super Team, created by Sanjay Patel for Pixar: a boy’s daydream about Hindu gods (turned into Marvel comics-worthy characters) fight off an evil demon in an action-packed seven-minute animated film.
At this point, I had adjusted to the Telluride rhythm of traipsing back and forth to each theatre, grabbing snacks, and making friends in line. And another thing I noticed: my nearly Pavlovian response to the Dolby count down at each screening. As the theater goes dark, and the images appear on the screen, I sit back, relax, and clear my mind of what came before, and prepare to experience the next film.
One day, I somehow wandered into the celebrity photo area by mistake. I thought I was in a line to get into a show, but there wasn’t a line really, and Michael Keaton (Spotlight) was standing a few feet away chatting to someone in an animated fashion. Cuban actor Jorge Perugorría (Viva), leaned over and asked, “Is that Kate Winslet?” I looked over my shoulder, and yes, it was. Even the stars get starstruck, I guess. A little bit later, I chatted with director Alexander Payne in the hotdog line: another Telluride moment.
The next two films I saw were Spotlight and Steve Jobs. I usually choose to see films that won’t be opening so soon, but I admit to being swept up in the excitement of seeing these at the festival. I also admit to being a sucker for a good investigation story, with a dedicated group of crack reporters digging and digging deeper until they find the smoking gun, or follow the money, or, in this case — in 2001 — confront the Catholic Archdiocese in Boston — and Spotlight more than fills the bill. The pressed khakis and starched shirts the reporters and editor of the Boston Globe wore seemed a little too unrumpled to be realistic, but that’s a small point. (Rachel McAdams looked sharp too, in a different way of course.) Based on a true story, writer-director Tom McCarthy (along with co-writer Josh Singer) take us along as the Globe finally and painstakingly brings the shocking story of sexual misconduct of local priests and the suffering victims’ plight out from under the veil of secrecy and institutional hypocrisy. Even if you know how this investigation played out, it’s still a fascinating look at the process, the conflicts, the cover-ups, and the guilt.
Steve Jobs is a film about a character we think we already know plenty about. In this film, accompanying a tribute to director Danny Boyle, we get an up-close look at the man and the drama behind the scenes before each of three historic Apple product launches. It’s no secret that Jobs left his mark in the tech world, and didn’t seem to mind burning bridges to get there. We see the way he uses people, discounts those who get in his way, and creates his own reality. Seth Rogen plays a strong and sympathetic Steve Wozniak, and Michael Fassbinder dominates every scene as Jobs—making people crazy with his demands, threatening and demeaning them at every turn. Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, long-suffering member of the Apple team, supports Jobs through all the ups and downs. It’s hard sometimes to understand why she does, but her loyalty is a big part of the story.
Themes started to emerge at this point: loyalty, shared reality, passion in spite of setbacks, secrets—soon to be joined by the sometimes complicated love that exists between brothers, and a deep respect for animals.
Rams, an Icelandic film by writer-directed Grímur Hákonarson, tells the story of two estranged brothers, engaged in a forty-year feud, who must finally come together to save their sheep. Maybe this doesn’t sound like the most gripping scenario, but it became another one of my favorites this year. These elderly, bearded, isolated, taciturn fellows — in their unraveled sweaters, holey shirts and separate living quarters — communicate only via handwritten messages delivered by a willing dog. Someone pointed out that the dog was the best communicator in the film, since the brothers refused to speak to one another and barely converse with the few other sheep farmers living in the same sparsely populated area in Iceland. When the sheep are discovered to have a highly contagious disease, the entire community must act. From this point, the story becomes almost tender, as the brothers realize their survival depends on cooperation and that they must end their feud to succeed. One of my favorite scenes shows Gummi, one of the brothers, alone on Christmas, dressed in his holiday best, cooking a sumptuous dinner that he serves and eats by himself. He’s even wrapped a present which he reaches for and begins to unwrap. I liked this film more than I would have expected, given the subject matter, and I continued to hear good things about it from other festival attendees who had been equally impressed with the emotions these two guys elicited, despite the sparse dialogue.
After the screening, the director was asked about the casting of both actors and sheep. Hákonarson remarked that the actors were easiest, because “there are not so many actors in Iceland.” Luckily, there was a dog trainer nearby, so casting the dog was not a problem. Finding likable sheep who the audience would bond with was a bigger challenge. He said he believed that the sheep are alive and well, which was good to know.
Two words about the next film I saw, Black Mass: Johnny Depp. Director Scott Cooper introduced this film about James “Whitey” Bulger by telling the audience his intention to show us a person who happened to be a criminal, as opposed to a criminal who happened to be a person. With his dead eyes and his frightening ability to offer forgiveness before murdering everyone who dares to cross him, Depp makes Bulger one of the creepiest, deadliest characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. In a story of misguided loyalty, violence, self-protection, brothers who take very different paths after growing up in South Boston, and a complete lack of morals on behalf of just about everyone, this true story was a real gut punch. Two more words, however: Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays Whitey’s successful politician brother, distanced publicly but not privately from his notorious thug of a sibling.
As sometimes happens, I was left scratching my head after a couple of my choices: Taxi, Jafar Panahi’s new film, and Tikkun, directed by Avashai Sivan. Before the screening began, Sivan cautioned us that “the film is slow, and it’s in black and white.” So I was sort of prepared for that, but was terribly unprepared in so many other ways. I later read about several other filmmakers who influenced Sivan, but was unfamiliar with their styles. Slow didn’t begin to describe the pace of this movie, and I found myself having internal dialogues about what I was seeing, which isn’t necessarily a good sign. There were also many nuances to the story of a young repressed yeshiva student that I didn’t have the background to understand. And this film is one reason why I refer to this year’s festival as “full frontal.” In one disturbingly graphic scene, several members of the audience walked out. And as for Taxi—again, I felt unprepared to appreciate Panahi’s struggle to make movies no matter what. He has been banned by the Iranian government from making films, but he continues to come up with clever ways to keep doing it. In this film, he has attached cameras to the inside of his car, poses as a taxi driver, and picks up several characters with whom he interacts. His passengers often know who he is and what he’s doing, and play along. I’ll admit it when I just don’t get it; this was one of those times. I did like the two ladies with the goldfish, though.
My last day was a movie grand slam: four films, beginning with the pitch-not-perfect French film Marguerite, and ending with a bang: Cocksucker Blues.
Where to begin with Marguerite? Not exactly a folie à deux, but a folie encouraged by a husband and her seemingly loyal butler who enable this would-be diva, a woman who is unable to hear her own terrible singing. The truth is hidden, glossed over and disavowed, which allows a couple of young men with questionable ethics to lure Marguerite into situations where she is blissfully unaware that she’s being ridiculed and humiliated. Catherine Frot is the tone-deaf diva, convinced that she has found her voice and should share it with the world. She creates a charming and vulnerable character who we cringe for whenever she bleats out a song in front of an appalled audience. Several of my favorite scenes involve the has-been opera singer (Michel Fau) who fills his purse as Marguerite’s hapless singing coach. It would spoil things to reveal any more of the story, which has elements of comedy and tragedy, but I guarantee you will not leave the movie humming anything Marguerite sings. On the other hand, you’ll be treated to a lovely rendition of Léo Delibes’ “The Flower Duet,” from the opera Lakmé, as performed by two women with angelic voices.
Next up was Suffragette, another film that had the town buzzing. As Meryl Streep mentioned during a panel discussion, it took 100 years to tell this story. And, as director Sarah Gavron added, it took six years for her and writer Abi Morgan to get the film made. The action takes place in 1900s London at a time when the women’s rights movement begins to veer away from the non-violent protests that lead nowhere with the British government. Carey Mulligan’s Maud becomes involved with the battle to get women the vote, and we watch as she makes the choice to go all in, even at the cost of being separated from her only son. With leaders Edith New (Helena Bonham Carter) and Emmeline Parkhurst (Meryl Streep), spurring them on, legions of women join in the struggle for equality. In several shocking scenes, the women are beaten bloody by police and roughly imprisoned. Finally, as the end credits roll, we learn how very slowly the laws actually changed as a result of the women who marched, threw rocks, and blew up postboxes. It’s a particularly good time to remember and honor the suffragettes who struggled and sacrificed to gain the vote for women.
The power of brotherly love, hiding the truth to protect the ones we love—or fear; loyalty taken to extremes; lies we tell ourselves, and the desire to find our true selves; sacrifices: a few of the themes that emerged from what I saw at the festival this year. And then there was that last movie…
When Robert Frank accompanied the Rolling Stones in 1972, he created a record of their US tour that exists today as more of a time capsule: of the band, the groupies, the backstage preparation and primping; the drugs, hotel room shenanigans, sex on the plane, the crowds, the hangers on, and all the rest. It’s jumpy, loud, crass, and exposes perhaps too much information (and skin, in a few instances) regarding everyone involved. There is a certain seediness about it all, even as the Stones perform tirelessly night after night in huge venues that are packed with fans.
Cocksucker Blues was one of six movies selected and introduced by Guest Director/author Rachel Kushner and it is a movie that can rarely be screened because of legal restrictions imposed by the Stones.
When the last Stones concert ended, so did my festival. As always, there were many films I missed, several I wasn’t prepared for, and some that will stay with me. A couple of other moments I’ll remember: another brilliant sunset for an audience of one, and the beautiful rainbow that curved behind the town when the rain stopped.
Lasting images, inside and out. Thank you, Telluride.
Download the Telluride Film Festival 2015 program book here.
For a high-resolution version of the poster designed by Laurent Durieux click the image. For more images go here.
The Making of Room.
Pie Fight moments from Battle of the Century.
Hitchcock/Truffaut director Kent Jones
He Called Me Malala
The first ten minutes of Cocksucker Blues
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.