Telluride Film Fest 2019: It’s a Wrap – Diane Carson reports

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The 46th Telluride Film Festival maintained its reputation for outstanding film selection, though I’d welcome more foreign films (since far too few make it to big-screen cinemas), and I’d appreciate more offerings directed by and starring women. Still, over my twenty-seven years attending the Telluride Fest, I like that no competitive awards intrude into the celebration of film as the aesthetic treasure it is. In addition to the gorgeous setting and this year’s delightful weather (none of the rain of 2018 or the snow many years ago), I thoroughly enjoyed the question-and-answer sessions after designated screenings, always presented with a producer, director, and/or actor(s) from the film.

This year’s forty-three featured programs included five chosen and introduced by guest director Pico Iyer, three “Filmmakers of Tomorrow” compilation programs, and eight documentaries shown at Telluride’s Wilkinson Library, those latter free and open to the public. All of this means no one can see every film and, therefore, must make painful choices. There’s also that nagging second-guessing (when a film fails to appeal) that there must be something more tantalizing showing elsewhere.

Nevertheless, let’s cut to the chase. Of the fifteen films I saw over this Labor Day weekend (Telluride always takes place from Friday through Monday of that holiday weekend), several selections stand out, those films I look forward to savoring at a second screening on a more leisurely day. In the top tier, Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory showcases his arresting, colorful art direction. More importantly, Antonio Banderas embodies film director Salvador Mallo (and won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) in Almodóvar’s autobiographical reminiscence of multiple regrets and longed for reconciliation. In person, discussing his experiences with Almodóvar, Banderas gave a moving description of working with this director on eight films, being friends with him for forty years, and yet for the first time experiencing and enjoying Almodóvar’s “leap to another universe” of his heart and soul. So personal was Almodóvar’s leap that the apartment constructed for the production mirrored Almodóvar’s own, including Almodóvar moving his books, photos, and art to the set to meticulously recreate his world. Equally moving, Banderas shared his profound emotional involvement, noting his attention to his own mortality, ready now to reveal his own interior life after his recovery from a heart attack three years ago. Deeply moving, Pain and Glory is a masterpiece among Almodóvar’s many superb works, this one baring his soul.

Director Kelly Reichardt inhabits a quite different world of the 1800s in First Cow, which flawlessly exhibits her restrained style, as in her Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women. She demands and rewards audiences’ attention to every reaction shot, the Pacific Northwest location another strong element contributing to the narrative. First Cow presents and disrupts a frontier seldom seen as it perfectly envisions a thriving business, concocted by a Caucasian cook and a Chinese immigrant. Sustained by theft, they will grapple with wealthy British inhabitants. Survival at stake, Cookie Figowitz and King Lu will find companionship, test friendship, and face cultural inequity. First Cow is beautiful and engrossing, inviting considerable reflection on life over a century ago and how misrepresented it has often been.

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, prompts laughter and admiration for its first two acts and gasps as the violence occurs in the third act. As in The Host, Mother, and Snowpiercer, Bong segues seamlessly from humor to wonder with unexpected, but always welcome, narrative twists and turns as he cleverly mounts a strong social critique of rich versus poor life experiences. At the discussion after one screening, Bong said, “While I always admire genre, at the same time I like to break out of genre conventions, so these two things area always in conflict.” This opposition gives his film’s a distinct signature as well as a dynamic tension. I laughed, I cringed, I applauded.

Three films weigh in on post-WWII life, each with strong, exceptional political and social insight. Those Who Remain follows Klara and Aladár in Budapest, both struggling to cope with their family tragedies at the hands of the Nazis. Abigél Szoke and Károly Hajduk bring their characters trauma to vivid life through understated performances of immense power.

Beanpole locates its study of post-traumatic stress victims in Leningrad. In only his second feature film, Kantemir Balagov, awarded Best Director at Cannes, dares to hold on faces nearly incapable of registering emotion post-War. Set primarily in a hospital and a small apartment, the restricted locations reveal the breadth and depth of catastrophic events.

Quite different in tone and content, Dan Friedkin’s Lyrebird dramatizes the true story of art dealer and forger Han van Meegeren. Set in Holland, anchored in the May 1945 investigation and interrogation by prosecutor Joseph Piller, justice is on trial along with van Meegeren, as Nazi influence continues to wield ugly influence. Claes Bang and Guy Pearce contrast in ethical choices as they confront everything from the value of art (forged or authentic), Göring’s greed, cooperation with Nazi occupiers, and reclaiming a rule of law post-WWII.

Of course, I can’t discuss every film I watched, so I’ll end with praise for great acting and dazzling storytelling. Recipient of one of the three tributes held each year to recognize outstanding talent, Renée Zellweger gives a powerful performance in Judy, chronicling the last, sad year of Judy Garland’s life. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are daredevils in Aeronauts, set in 1862 and based on a compilation of true experiences of those setting altitude records. The inclusion of actual balloon flights and Jones’ heart-stopping stunts will give anyone with acrophobia nightmares. Another tour de force of acting finds Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins squared off in The Two Popes, with Pryce as the progressive Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina wanting to resign (only to become the current Pope Francis) and Hopkins as conservative Pope Benedict XVI. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, or anything else, this film speaks to every thoughtful person about values, religious and national politics, friendship, responsibility, tolerance, and life’s choices.

Terrence Malick casts his unique spell in A Hidden Life, Adam Driver proves what a chameleon he is in both Marriage Story and The Report, Edward Norton as director and star of Motherless Brooklyn follows classic film-noir style narratively and cinematically, and Ford vs. Ferrari will revive a love of Formula One racing as Matt Damon and Christian Bale struggle to win—finally—the 24 Hour Le Mans in 1966.

These and more testify to the brilliance and variety of the great cinematic experience at Telluride 2019. It’s a good time to be a film lover.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.