The View from Telluride: Previewing a New Season of Cinema


Colorado Avenue in Telluride, CO on Sunday afternoon. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

A dramatic rainbow emerged over Telluride, CO on Sunday afternoon. A handful of folks standing on Colorado Ave looked up at the San Juan mountains and began chattering. As it took shape, the crowd grew quickly. Within moments, the rainbow intensified and then doubled. Word spread. The crowd along the street swiftly grew from a few dozen to more than a hundred. Some sighed excitedly in disbelief, others smiled and snapped photos (and shared them on Instagram). Errol Morris and longtime friend Werner Herzog embraced in one shot.

Within a few minutes it was gone.

This weekend's rainbow moment perfectly characterized the way the Telluride fest works. Buzz spreads quickly at the intimate Labor Day weekend festival. Crowds swarm around movies they didn't even know about earlier in the week. Days later, it's all over.

I've said many times, to practically anyone who would listen, that if I could keep just one film festival on my annual calendar it would be Telluride. This is a festival for discovering new movies, getting a sneak peek at a new season of cinema, and being introduced to nearly lost classics. Attendees who keep their screening schedule loose and follow their nose can even find gems among the higher profile titles that populate the roster.


David Mackenzie's Starred Up

Case in point this weekend was Scottish director David Mackenzie's Starred Up. The director, known for Young Adam 10 years ago, arrived under the radar with a gritty British prison drama that was barely noticed in pre-fest posts by bloggers. By the end of the weekend, though, many of those informally polled called it among the best films of this year's Telluride Film Festival.

Mackenzie's latest depicts the brutal and volatile inner world of a British prison that aims to contain a kid who is rapidly deteriorating into a monster. Jack O'Connell (some may know him from the second season of the British show Skins) stars as an on-the-edge kid thrown into a violent adult prison. An unexpected father-son drama emerges in the film when the teen encounters a man from his own past. The film was written by former volunteer prison therapist Jonathan Asser.

Read more about Starred Up in a weekend Telluride dispatch.

Telluride buzz is cultivated throughout the day as the 2,000 or so pass-holders fan out to one of the fest's nine theaters and start asking anyone and everyone what they've seen and what they recommend (or what to avoid). In the 10 years that I've been attending the festival, the bonds built while standing in line for a Telluride movie have become lasting friendships. This year saw even more pronounced buzz as the festival marked its 40th anniversary and offered even more events and opportunities for conversations among attendees.

"People form new relationships in the Telluride lines," festival co-founder Bill Pence told me a decade ago ahead of my very first Telluride fest, advising me to follow the conversation. "People say, one of the things they like most is talking about the films."


Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Local buzz lead me to Jonathan Glazer's latest, Under the Skin, a new movie that kept people talking all weekend even though some attendees didn't quite know what to make of it. In the film, Glazer's third feature after Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004), Scarlett Johansson stars as a space alien who lands in Scotland. This strange sci-fi road movie about an alien in human form fills the screen with stunning visuals, not surprising given Glazer's music video roots, and some of the most distinctive music and sound I've experience in a cinema in some time. It is certainly a wild ride.

"I really connected with the idea of looking at the world through alien eyes," Glazer said of the film in notes on the production. "That was the spark."

In keeping with the idea for the movie, Glazer and his crew disguised the American actress and dropped her into scenes among everyday Scots. The results are both engrossing and perplexing, a perfect combination for a film festival that encourages an ongoing conversation.

A late addition to the event, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises arrived on the day that the master Japanese animator announced his retirement from filmmaking. The director has been stirring controversy back home since releasing the movie this summer, but audiences have flocked to his new film.

Just picked up by Disney for an American release, The Wind Rises centers on Jirō Horikoshi designer of Japan's World War II's Zero fighter plane, but Hayao Miyazaki's take is solidly antiwar. Tracking the dreamy creativity of a young engineer, the film follows his quest to build a better aircraft even as the man navigates his love for a young, ailing woman. Notably, of course, his invention will aid the war effort rather than achieve purely aesthetic goals. A couple of years back, the Japanese director was asked why he chose to focus on a figure situated in such a difficult moment for his own country.

"One day, I heard that Horikoshi had once murmured, ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful’," Hayao Miyazaki explained, "And then I knew I’d found my subject."


Teller's Tim's Vermeer

Festival organizers keep the Telluride schedule open with numerous TBA slots that they fill in according to audience demand as the weekend progresses. This weekend, planners couldn't keep ahead of Tim's Vermeer, a new documentary by comedy team Penn & Teller. Penn produced and Teller directed this look at an inventor (Tim Jenison) who questions the photorealism found in the acclaimed painter Vermeer's celebrated works. Using camera optics to imagine how the Dutch painter might have made his art, Jenison spent more than four years creating his own Vermeer painting. 

At dinner the other night, Jenison showed me a five minute video he's carrying around on his iPad, still images strung together from an overhead camera to offer a time lapse peek as he paints his own Vermeer. The resulting painting, and the reconsideration of art history that it ignites, is potentially explosive and, because the film was created entirely in secret, is only just starting to iginte a conversation among art historians and curator. Next up for the film is a stop at the Toronto fest before it heads to Lincoln Center for the upcoming New York Film Festival

Also coming to the Upper West Side is the new film from Film Society neighbors Joel & Ethan Coen.

The Coen Brothers track the troubled road to enlightenment for a young musician in a poignant new film set in the city 50 years ago. Inside Llewyn Davis follows the title figure's hurdles inside the New York City folk music scene of the early 60s at the moment right before Bob Dylan turned that world upside down. But, young and troubled Llewyn Davis is no Dylan.

"The success story thing did not appeal to us," Ethan Coen said of the origin of their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis. "It's hard for us to see stories in that." 


The Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis

A folk musician who wasn't Bob Dylan was much more compelling.

"What was interesting to us was doing a movie about the guy who was never going to be Bob Dylan and why not," Ethan Coen explained. So they imagined a character not unlike Dave Van Ronk, an NYC folk singer from Brooklyn who was big in Greenwich Village before Dylan exploded on the scene.

The Coen Brothers were honored by the festival and reflected on the film, the music in their movies and their own careers working together. Their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis is situated squarely in that moment when folk music was in a dramatic time of transition. The title character of their new film, played by Oscar Isaac, is a man in a time of transition. Specifically, 1961. Would Llewyn Davis achieve wider attention for his music or give up his career and join the Merchant Marine? The path he follows while making that decision is marked by comedic moments, lots of music and insights exploring the persistent tug of war between art and commerce.

Read more about the film and the tribute to the Coens in a recent Telluride dispatch.

Organizers added an extra day and the spectacular new 650-seat Werner Herzog Theater for their 40th anniversary. Built on top of an ice rink in the local park, the temporary venue had the best sound, screen and seats to be found at a festival that prides it self on the quality of its presentation. The new venue was the site of a pair of electric screenings for new releases that will sure explode when they hit the Toronto International Film Festival later this week.

12 Years A Slave, the new film from artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen was added as a surprise sneak for attendees and the powerful slavery story kept attendees talking all weekend. It brings to life the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free African American man who was kidnapped into Southern slavery in 1841.


Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave

Intense lashings at the hands of white masters, extended scenes of tranquil Southern plantation landscapes, and the poignant songs sung by slaves create both painful and at times beautiful cinematic moments throughout British filmmaker Steve McQueen's third feature film. Producer Brad Pitt, who appears in a small (but crucial) role in the film sparked a conversation that continued throughout the festival when, in a post screening Q&A, he questioned why Hollywood has made so few movies about slavery even as it has told countless stories about the Holocaust. "It took a Brit to do it," Pitt said on Saturday, singling out director Steve McQueen.

"As soon as it was in my hand I couldn't put it down," the filmmaker said of Northup's under appreciated book, "It was like reading Anne Frank's diary, only 100 years earlier."

And then there was the most sought after new film of the festival, Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón's new movie had people buzzing the moment that the festival's lineup was announced the day before the Telluride fest began. The highly anticipated space movie starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock generated instant buzz the moment it opened the Venice festival on the eve of Telluride.

Working from a script from his own son, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón arrived in town from Venice and unveiled his new movie at a packed Herzog theater showing on Saturday night. Pointing to a massive portrait of the German filmmaker hanging on a wall, Cuarón said he felt at ease unveiling his lost in space drama in a venue that bore Herzog's name.

For 90 minutes the roller coaster ride kept the audience riveted. The spectacular sights and sounds of the film, featuring a pair of American astronauts dramatically separated from their spacecraft, are unlike any ever seen on screen before (its effects rendered in stunning 3D and with pounding Dolby sound). The story is told with few words and long takes and its impact is entertaining and provocative.

"Overcoming challenges you can reach a catharsis," writer Jonas Cuarón detailed at the screening, explaining that he and his father hoped to show characters experiencing a bit of a reboot. Standing on stage afterward, Alfonso Cuarón elaborated, "We wanted to make a film about adversities," because from such hardship a character can effectively be reborn.

Read more about Gravity and 12 Years a Slave in a recent Telluride dispatch.

Gravity opens in theaters on October 4 and 12 Years a Slave will screen as a special Film Comment presentation at the 51st New York Film Festival on October 8.

Eugene Hernandez filed daily dispatches from the Telluride Film Festival for FilmLinc Daily. Follow him on Twitter for updates: @eug

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