Labor Day weekend, 2017. Once again, into the San Juan mountains for several days of sitting in the dark watching movies. The 44th Telluride Film Festival began with the usual excitement and buzz, mixed with the uncertainty of what was to come. Some folks already had the inside scoop about screenings, but I went into my first movie with no prior knowledge—just the anticipation that this would be an experience unlike any other, including previous festivals at Telluride.
The first film I saw was Downsizing, directed by festival favorite Alexander Payne and starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, and Hong Chau, with brief appearances by Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris and Margo Martindale. Imagine, if instead of relocating to some distant planet, people voluntarily elected to be shrunken to the size of a Hershey bar. Those who are considering “going small” attend glitzy presentations that try to sell the positives: think of the implications on the environment and the world’s overpopulation!Once the decision is made, the would-be downsized need to get rid of all their possessions and say goodbye to friends and families. No further spoilers about the process, but seeing the once normal-size volunteers being slid off their gurneys with a spatula, like tiny human pancakes, is an image I cannot get out of my mind. After the initial adjustments to downsizing are established, the story takes off in several different directions.
The smaller world has the same old big world problems, it turns out—and we follow the main characters through some larger-than-life serious decisions. Is it a comedy, a preview of what may come, a satire, or some new hybrid that tackles the real issues that affect its pint-size characters? Viewers must decide for themselves.
Next up was Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, directed by Paul McGuigan, and starring Annette Bening and Jamie Bell, based on the memoir by Peter Turner. This is a story about the brief but glorious love affair between Oscar-winning film star Gloria Grahame and a much younger aspiring British actor (Bell as Turner). It’s a tour de force performance for Bening, with seamless flashbacks to the time when she and Bell first meet and become enchanted with each other. In the present, Grahame is deathly ill and reconnects with her young lover and his family. Bening and Bell, aided by Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Walters, do justice to the true story of this miss-matched pair who shared a passion-filled relationship that flared, flamed and simmered—but never died.
Changing gears, which is how we roll at this festival, I finished my first day with Darkest Hour, starring a transformed Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, directed by Anthony McCarten.
With Kristen Scott as his supportive and no-nonsense wife Clementine by his side, Churchill struggles mightily against opposition to his decisive course of action against Nazi Germany’s impending and seemingly inevitable takeover of Europe. Fight or surrender? What would England do? Even though we already know the answer, being able to experience the battles within and without as Churchill drinks, rages, despairs, rides the Underground and deftly reaches out to the people of England provides an unforgettable moment at the movies.
A new day, a new slate of films.
This day began with Lean on Pete, a stunning film starring Charlie Plummer as Charley Thompson, a lost boy who ends up on a hero’sjourney to find home. It’s a gripping and heart-breaking story, often featuring one-way conversations between this usually laconic young man and an aging racehorse named Lean on Pete. (A side note: This year’s festival was dedicated to the late Sam Shepard. Charlie Plummer reminded me of a young Shepard through the rhythm of his speech and his concise language.) From Steve Buscemi, as alternately patient and short-tempered Dell, Pete’s manager, and world-weary jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), Charley learns the harsh realities inevitable in the life of a racehorse. Among the moments that stood out for me, and there were many: along his journey, Charley takes a long look in the mirror, marking some new transition or event that will no doubt have a lasting impact on the rest of his life. The camera lingers here, and we see the way Charley evaluates himself and where he’s going.
Director Andrew Haigh and cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck capture the beauty and the dangers inherent in the landscape of the American Northwest.
Shifting gears once again, my next film was the much-anticipated (according to the buzz on the street) Lady Bird, a mother-daughter dance of love and fury excellently portrayed by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, with Tracy Letts as the daughter-whisperer buffer/intermediary. Thanks to the writer-director gifts of Greta Gerwig, this story rings true to anyone who has a daughter, is a daughter, or went to high school—with or without nuns. The action takes place in Sacramento, turning a nostalgic lens on the city of Gerwig’s youth. This was one of my favorites, for its unflinching look at the ways mothers and daughters alternately torment and love each other, often to the bewilderment and frustration of both.
Jamaica Man, Michael Weatherly’s documentary about the legendary British realtor and raconteur Nigel Pemberton, states at the outset that there will be “no plot, no character development,” and no effort to create any semblance of order to the string of colorful anecdotes told by his subject. Pemberton tells tales of love affairs, parties, whirlwind romance, wartime, violence, breakfast on the veranda, and celebrity encounters as he shows us around his lush, 450-acre Jamaican estate. He’s an entertaining fellow who has lived a life of passion and privilege, and still sees the possibilities that life has to offer. Pemberton and Weatherly took questions after the film, and it was clear that they both enjoyed and struggled through the process of making this unconventional film.
One of the unique features of Telluride are the panel discussions that take place outdoors at the Abel Gance Open Air Cinema, no tickets required. The one not to miss this year was called “Real-Life Wonder Women,” with a super-star group of panelists: Billie Jean King, Angelina Jolie, Alice Waters and Natalie Portman. Telluride perennial Peter Sellars was there to moderate and (occasionally) mansplain. (I wish the powers that be could’ve found another woman to lead the discussion and pose questions to these trailblazing women. It would have been much more appropriate.)
This panel of wonder women packed the park, the adjacent rooftop, and buildings across the street. Once the plastic bottles of water had been removed from the stage and replaced with glasses of water (Alice Waters insisted), the conversation began. I was most impressed with the energy and passion of Billie Jean King, who, at 73, hasn’t lost a step in her willingness to fight to empower women. She emphasized that the “Battle of the Sexes” (her famous tennis match with Bobby Riggs in 1973 and the subject of a new film) helped protect Title IX, and underscored the discrepancies in the prize money awarded to men and women at the time. She exhorted the audience several times: “Let’s get on it, kids! We’re not just helping women, we’re helping the world;” “Vote!”; C’mon—if you fail to plan, you plan to fail!”; and, to the young people in the audience: “Hang out with old people!”
Alice Waters (author of a new memoir, Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook) suggested that we need a “delicious revolution,” and that school lunch should be an academic subject. She pointed out that 85% of families don’t eat together anymore, missing out on the opportunity to teach children “human values,” and how to take care of the land where our food comes from. Both Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman spoke about their films (First They Killed My Father and Eating Animals, respectively). Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit either one of these films into my packed schedule, so had to make do with hearing about them at this panel. Jolie’s film is an adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir about her family and how it suffered at the murderous hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Portman produced a documentary about the industrial production of food, based on the book by Safran Foer.
After an hour or so in the beautiful outdoors, it was time to go back inside and watch a film. I’d heard on the first day that The Rider was possibly “the best film” of the festival. Having just attended my first rodeo recently, I had some sense of what I was about to see, but I underestimated the power of this simple story starring a cast of real-life cowboys—not professional actors. Before the film started, the cowboys took the stage. We were introduced to the cast and to director Chloé Zhao. Lane Scott, a bull rider who was severely injured after being thrown, was wheeled onstage by best friend, bronco rider and star cowboy Brady Jandreau. After the film was over, the cast and director reappeared and Brady spoke about his brain injury, how he trains horses, and how closely his relationship with his father resembles what we saw on the screen.
The story begins with a graphic scene involving Brady’s injured skull. We see him struggle to get back to the work he loves and is clearly good at: taming horses. It isn’t acting; it’s his life. How he goes about it—and how he lovingly attends to his brain-damaged friend Lane— is powerful and very moving. While Brady refers to himself as the horse trainer, director Zhao is acknowledged as “the actor trainer.” What she was able to do with these non-professional actors from South Dakota is nothing short of breathtaking. (I was so impressed with this film that I couldn’t help talking about it with people I met, including Ethan Hawke who shared a gondola ride with me one afternoon. When I described the scenes between Brady and Lane, he teared up a little.)
Veteran Telluride festival attendees know that the tributes are often the highlight of the show. I was determined to attend both highlights this year. The first tribute showcased the career of Christian Bale, beginning with his appearance in Empire of the Sun when he was only 13 years old. We loved the hairpiece scene from American Hustle and the bloody butchering scene from American Psycho. Bale is currently preparing for the role of Karl Rove, so he’s added a few pounds to his frame. (He did the “Batman voice,” for a quick second in response to a question by interviewer Leonard Maltin.) Bale’s film, directed by Scott Cooper (with whom I also shared a gondola ride one day), is Hostiles, which takes place in the wild west of 1892. Bale’s Captain Joe Blocker is charged with transporting an old enemy (Wes Studi as the proud and powerful Chief Yellow Hawk) and his family back to his tribal home so he may die in peace. Along the way, Bale and his company find a terrified and bereft mother and widow (Rosamond Pike), who joins the two wary factions—soldiers and Chief Yellow Hawk’s family—on their journey to Montana. The scenery is beautiful; the violence is horrible. This slowly paced western, short on dialogue but long on striking images, tells a tragic tale that ends, surprisingly, with hope and redemption.
I might have missed Love, Cecil if I hadn’t just talked to a friend about Gigi and My Fair Lady right before the festival. Cecil Beaton, the subject of this documentary by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, was a famous photographer, author, and the Oscar and Tony-award winning designer of those iconic films.
He painted, he hobnobbed, and he hung out with royals—as well as with artistic and rock’n’roll royalty. He had a thing for (and, apparently, with) Greta Garbo. As someone in the film noted about My Fair Lady: As soon as Eliza learns to speak proper English, the film belongs to Cecil Beaton.He is quoted as saying some deliciously catty things about Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Noel Coward. This film provided a highly entertaining look into the life and work of this multi-talented character.
Al Gore was in the house, or rather, at the Abel Gance Open Air Cinema on Sunday night. Again, the audience packed the place to hear the former Vice President introduce An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since An Inconvenient Truth tackled the subject of climate change. Gore is an energetic and passionate speaker, and his mission is even more important today as we watch with horror while the world experiences the increased wrath of Mother Nature. Scenes in the film showed Houston under water, even as the citizens of Texas face an even worse scenario after the recent hurricane. The scenes of world-wide devastation bring home Gore’s message that we should all be working hard to help save our planet. He is a tireless advocate for action, and even though he may have been preaching to the choir, the choir members present that night were energized and fired up.
The next day began with the second tribute, which showcased cinematographer Ed Lachman and his impressive work, spanning a 50-year career behind the camera.
Wearing his trademark black hat, he spoke eloquently about the way he views images and color: he enters the world of the characters through images that then help to tell the story. His careful use of color creates an emotional context. We saw excerpts from several of his films (Desperately Seeking Susan, Far from Heaven, Selena, Erin Brockovitch, I’m Not There, Mildred Pierce, and the most recent, Carol) that illustrate his mastery of cinematography and what he calls the “poetic realism of the image.” We were then treated to a screening of his latest collaboration with writer-director Todd Haynes: the magical Wonderstruck, based on Brian Selznick’s novel about two hearing-impaired 12-year-olds whose stories weave together in an unexpected and moving way. The two stories are told in tandem: Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who exists in 1927, lives in a silent black and white world; Ben (Oakes Fegley), who exists in 1977, wanders the gritty urban streets of New York City. Julianne Moore bridges both stories in a surprising twist. To say any more about how their stories intertwine would be to pull back the curtain and reveal too much. The sense of wonder driving these two characters and the denouement of their story helped make this film one of my favorites this year.
After enjoying the Labor Day picnic in the park and the traditional ice cream sundae, it was time to see the movie that everyone said was a don’t miss: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club Encore. The version that people saw in 1984 lacked 25 of the best moments of this film: the singing and dancing that takes place at the fabled Harlem nightclub. Gangsters, showgirls, backstage romance, a little Hollywood glamor, and the rifts between brothers and mob leaders: it’s all here. I didn’t see the original version of The Cotton Club, so I can only speak to this painstakingly restored version of the film Coppola wanted to make in the first place.
As a tap dancer, I nearly swooned over the Grand Central Station number and the high jumping tappers a la the great Nicholas Brothers. Gregory Hines’ incredible footwork is a wonder to behold. (His brother Maurice and son Zachary introduced the film and shared a few anecdotes). It was a thrill to see the Hines brothers and several other old school hoofers show off their terpsichorean skills.
(And how had Lonette McKee’s knockout rendition of “Stormy Weather” ended up on the cutting room floor?) The star-studded cast of thirty-three years ago includes Bob Hoskins, Nicolas Cage, Lawrence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Gwen Verdon, Richard Gere, Tom Waits and Fred Gwynne. I loved seeing Gwen Verdon showing some kids what to do with their arms while performing a triple time step: pure joy.
What better way to end this year’s festival than with Battle of the Sexes, based on the famous match between 29-year old Billie Jean King—in 1973 America’s top-ranked female tennis player—and Bobby Riggs, a 55-year old tennis champion, hustler, self-promoter and proud “male chauvinist pig.” Emma Stone and Steve Carell as Billie Jean and Bobby, have an outstanding supporting cast in Bill Pullman, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming and Elizabeth Shue. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton capture the look and feel of 1973 (the clothes! the hair! the music!), and allow the story to build to its three-ring circus glory.
There’s plenty of action, both on and off the court, as Billie Jean finds herself drawn to Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser she meets on her way to a big tournament. The film illustrates the astounding and infuriating inequities of the time, but also reminds us that, unlike the Virginia Slims tagline, we haven’t come such a long way, baby.
Thank you, Telluride: for the cowboys, the love stories, the horses, the tap dancing, the gondola rides, the lasting images, Ben and Rose, the tears, the tennis, the laughs—and the reminder to be present and active in the world beyond those beautiful mountains.
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. She has written extensively about eating, drinking and movies for EatDrinkFilms.
MORE ABOUT THE TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL 2017
We offer numerous links and downloads to give you even more about the Festival below and via links in this article (often an interview with a filmmaker about creating their film.
Download the 2017 Program Guide for the entire schedule.
Film Watch is a limited edition large size magazine with wonderful articles, interviews and images for Festival attendees. It is not for sale but you can read and download it here.
Christian Bale Essay by Leonard Maltin handed out at Tribute.
Consequence of Sound Rates Christian Bale’s 10 Best Performances (as of 2016).
Ed Lachman appreciation by Larry Gross handed out at the Tribute.
Read the Variety interview with 2017 Tributee Ed Lachman.
Twelve of the Best Films Shot by Ed Lachman.
Reel-Life Wonder Women Seminar photos and video
Francis Ford Coppola’s Official Statement handed out at the Cotton Club Encore screening. Because of complex rights issues it may never been seen again.
Coppola tells IndieWire that while he had final cut in 1984, an old Betamax recently showed him that he got it wrong the first time. That new cut? It’s headed for Telluride.
Vanity Fair Portraits from the Festival.
Though Risa could not squeeze The Shape of Water into her schedule we did find a very good Q&A after a screening. Very few of these sessions make it online.