Friday, November 8, 2013

My First Film Festival: Telluride 2013

Wow.  What and experience.  As I've told several people since returning from Colorado, this was the single best experience of my life.  It was everything I'd hoped it would be.  I hope to be able to convey some semblance of what our trip was like in this blog post.  So, here we go:

Wednesday - Day Before the Festival

We flew from Denver to Telluride on a charter jet early Wednesday afternoon.  Unfortunately, our bags didn't quite make it to us until early the next morning since they couldn't come on the same flight due to weight restrictions, and something about the air being too warm in Telluride.  The flight in was gorgeous.  I'd never seen the Rocky Mountains up close before and the view was breathtaking for the entire 1 hour 15 minute flight.  When we landed, it was a little unnerving because the airport is tiny and the runway looks like it's about a foot long from up high; but everything went smoothly, and we got a shuttle into town just in time to check into our condo and pick up our festival passes before the concert that evening in the town park.  

The concert was in conjunction with the Festival honoring the collaboration between the Coen Brothers and T-Bone Bennett, and featured the Punch Brothers (a fantastic bluegrass band) playing some original songs and songs from Coens' movies.  We left the park right after "Man of Constant Sorrow" since it looked like it was about to rain really hard, and went and found an Italian restaurant in town.  After a fantastic dinner (I had a custom designed pizza with chicken, bacon and pesto, and Grace had a beet salad), we headed back to our condo for a good night's sleep.

The Town and the Festival
Before we get too far, I just wanted to give you a quick idea of the layout.  The town is no more than a couple miles from one side to the other, and there's 10 movie theaters sprinkled throughout during the festival.  One theater, the new Werner Herzog converted from ice skating rink and seats 650 people.  Other theaters are converted from school gyms, libraries, and other buildings.  The one thing they have in common: you can't tell these theaters aren't always movie theaters.  The seating, projection, and sound are so well done.  In fact, I'd go as far to say that the Werner Herzog Theater had the best sound and picture of any theater I've ever been to.  Also, sprinkled throughout the town is a plethora of restaurants and coffee shops, all within walking distance of our condo, which was located under the tick-mark legend on the map to the left.  So while we certainly got our exercise, it was really nice not having to rely on public transportation or worry about a rental car.  One other unique aspect of this festival, besides the setting, is the fact that they don't announce the program until the day before it starts.  Since they also don't issue press passes, this leads to most of the people who attend being cinema lovers who are eager to see whatever the programmers have in store.  As far as I can tell, they've never disappointed, and they sure did an amazing job selecting films for the 40th anniversary, which featured a 5th day of films, one more than the typical 4 day festival.  So one thing we did on Wednesday night before bed was map out first day of films on Thursday.  As it was the first day, films didn't start until the afternoon.

Thursday - Day 1 of the Festival
We slept in until mid-morning since the first film we'd decided to see wasn't until 3:30.  Grace had her heart set on going on a hike while we were up in the mountains, so we took advantage of our free time in the late morning and set out on a trek up the Bear Creek Trail, a fairly steep 2.5 mile hike up the side of one of the surrounding mountains.  Given that we were more than 9,000 feet in the air already and I haven't exactly been good about working out recently, it was quite a strenuous workout for both of us, but man, what a view!  

Luckily we got back in time to go to our condo to clean up and then make it all the way to the Werner Herzog Theater about 1 1/2 hours before the first ever showing in this theater.  It turned out that 90 minutes was about the minimum amount of time you wanted to show up before the bigger, more popular screenings and still get a seat.  Our passes let us into any screening we wanted, but you still had to get a good place in line.  Luckily we made the cut for all of the films we attempted to attend, due primarily to our impeccable planning.  Seriously though, you really do have to plan carefully to make sure you have enough time to get to the screenings you want to see.

All is Lost

This film is the second feature from writer/director J.C. Chandor  (Margin Call), and features a one man tour-de-force performance from Robert Redford as a man stranded on his sailboat in the Indian Ocean.  There is almost no dialog, but the depth of emotion conveyed by Redford without words was incredible.  Even more impressive was the physically demanding performance as he's tossed about in or out of his boat in the storms.  Redford, who is in his late 70s, seems to handle it with the finesse if a stunt man 30 years younger.  It wouldn't surprise me to see him his second Best Actor Oscar nomination this year, having not been nominated since The Sting in 1973.  The film remains tense throughout, and constantly held my attention without bombarding us with plot unnecessary characters.  It was simply a man's struggle to survive.  As a point of comparison, I found it be an interesting mix of Cast Away, Life of Pi, and Open Water.  Probably one of the coolest aspects of seeing this at the festival was having Redford in attendance (with the director) to introduce the film.  While we weren't able to make it to the tribute that they had for him, it was so cool just to be in the same room watching the film with him, and being among only the 2nd audience to see the film.

After the conclusion of the film, we made a mad dash across town to get in line for the 7:00 of the Coen Brothers' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, at the Galaxy Theater (which is in the town's elementary school).  In addition to this being the first showing of the film in the United States, this screening also featured a Q&A panel afterwards with the Coens, T-Bone, and the star, Oscar Isaac, so I was particularly keen on attending this screening.  Luckily we got there in time to get a queue card, which are basically line placeholders they hand out one hour in advance of showtime.  This way you can walk around a little before the show, use the restroom, etc.

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens' latest film feels very much like a Coen Brothers film.  I mean, they all do, but this one especially does when compared to their last film, the more accessible, Oscar nominated True Grit.  It features, as I've already alluded to, the musical choices and influences of T-Bone Burnett  which pretty much guarantees a pretty high level of quality in that department.  Set in the midst of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the early 1960's, the film follows a struggling musician (Oscar Isaac, probably best known as Cary Mulligan's husband in Drive) as he moves from one couch and misadventure to the next.  Plot isn't really important here, but rather the music and the performances, particular the leading man.  Oscar Isaac sings and plays all of the music his character does in the film, all in real time, without a click track.  He played each take so consistent, that they were able to cut between takes without there ever being a drop in tempo.  This is virtually impossible, but somehow he pulled it off.  I personally think he has a good chance of getting a nomination for the award that shares his name.  As per usual, the Coens get a huge kick out of torturing their protagonists, and Llewyn Davis does not escape their cruelty.  Their typical dark brand of humor is laced throughout; from a runaway cat Llewyn's forced to look after, to a deranged, drug addled jazz musician (played brilliantly by John Goodman) he takes a road trip with to Chicago, to a hilarious recording session with none other than Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (of Girls fame).  Tonally and aesthetically, I'd say this is a mix between O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man, but truly is a fine work all its own.  This probably won't be a crowd favorite, but to those who love and appreciate most of the Coen Brothers' work, this will be one of the year's highlights, as it was for me.

On a high from seeing two great movies, and still with plenty of energy as this was only the first day, we decided to take on one more film starting at 11:45 PM at the The Palm Theater, located nearby in the gym of the middle school.

Under the Skin

Set in Scotland, Under the Skin is the latest film from British director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), and stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien vixen whose purpose is to lure men into her lair in order to steal their skin.  This film is strange, to say the least, and at first reminded me of a Euro, feminist, art-house take on the original Terminator.  Most of the conflict starts when Scarlett's character begins to explore her humanity and feelings of empathy for her prey.  It goes to some pretty dark places, but is ultimately an interesting, entertaining film.  I probably would have enjoyed it more if it hadn't been so late when we watched it, but as it is, it was probably one of my least favorite films we saw at the festival.  That said, most of what we saw was very strong, so that shouldn't be seen as a strong indictment.  

Friday - Day 2 of the Festival
Since we got to bed at 2:00 AM the night before, it was a bit of a struggle to get back to the Palm by 7:30 AM in advance of the 9:00 screening of Nebraska, but we really wanted to attend this screening due to the Q&A afterwards.  What a great decision it turned out to be...


I'll go ahead and tell you, this film is the best thing we saw at Telluride.  It's the latest film from American auteur Alexander Payne (most recently directed The Descendants), and stars 77 year old Bruce Dern as a man who thinks he's won $1,000,000 when he receives one of those Publisher's Clearing House type scams.  While he lives with his wife in Montana, he's determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska where the letter says he can claim his prize.  Finally, after being picked up by the cops several times walking on the highway, his son agrees to drive him down to Lincoln.  Shot in black and white, Nebraska is a beautiful, poignant film about stagnant familial relationships, unrealized dreams, the importance of where we come from, and surrounding ourselves with those who mean the most to us.  I laughed and I cried, and at the end everyone stood and cheered.  A delightful film if there ever was one.  I know this is starting to become cliche, but I honestly think Bruce Dern could get an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves it.  All of the performances were spot on, and it's all the more impressive due to the heavy mix of local non-actors with professional actors.  This isn't a film that sells itself, but I'm confident everyone who sees it will love it.  It's my favorite film of the year so far, and this is a strong year.

The Q&A afterwards was equally rewarding with Bruce and Alexander speaking about the experience of making the film, and director Jason Reitman did an excellent job leading the discussion.  It was a little ironic that he was there doing the Q&A, because we were on our way to his film next at the Galaxy at 1:30, after which he would do a Q&A himself.

Labor Day

As I mentioned above, this is the latest film from Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Thank You For Smoking) and it is much different than his other films, which are mostly hilarious, but poignant comedies.  Labor Day is good old fashioned melodrama, with equal parts thriller and romance. If that doesn't sound good to you, that only speaks to the poor film making prevalent in those genres in recent years (particularly melodrama and romance).  Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard (who was also in attendance), the story focuses on an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who hides out in the home of a reclusive woman (Kate Winslet) and her young son.  The film shifts in tone several times, but each time it feels earned.  Reitman handles the material with a deftly, and gracefully, all while maintaining a high level of tension throughout the entire film.  I don't see this being a major awards contender due to its release date, but Grace and I enjoyed it immensely   Let's just say there wasn't a dry eye in the theater at the end.  Definitely check it out when it hits theaters in January.

Afterwards we had about an hour to grab a bite to eat before getting back in line at the Galaxy two hours in advance of the 7:30 sneak preview of 12 Years a Slave.  Not only was this the first ever showing of the film in front of an audience, but there was also a lot of buzz around this screening as Brad Pitt was to be in attendance as he is a producer and actor in the film.

12 Years a Slave

This was a film I had been hoping would be at the festival, as I am a huge fan of the director, Steve McQueen, a British artist turned filmmaker whose previous films, Hunger and Shame, are both intense, heavy, compelling, beautiful, haunting pieces of cinematic art.  12 Years a Slave is no different.  Based on a true story and set in antebellum America, the film tells a harrowing story about a free black man from New York named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who gets abducted and sold into slavery and ends up on a plantation in the deep south. McQueen pulls no punches, as the film portrays plantation life in what is likely a more realistic fashion than any other film to this point.  Ejiofor's performance is emotionally raw and hits you in the gut.  Also powerful is the performance by newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, as a hard working slave that unfortunately has eye of the plantation owner, ruthlessly portrayed by Michael Fassbender, much to the disdain of his wife (Sarah Paulson).  There are scenes of rape, savage beatings, and bloody whippings, all shot with an unflinching boldness that probably couldn't (or wouldn't) have been confronted this directly by an American director.  Underlying the savagery is a desperation and hope for survival, and a longing for humanity.  I believe this will be the definitive film of American slavery, much as Schindler's List is for the Holocaust.  

The film received a long standing ovation, directed at the filmmakers and actors in attendance (as seated left to right in the picture above): the moderator, Pitt, Ejiofor, Nyong'o, Fassbender, and McQueen.  At the Q&A the mood was solemn and emotional.  Fassbender mentioned this was the first time he'd seen the film and was having trouble finding any words to say.  Pitt mentioned something to the effect of, if he never produced or acted in another film, he was fine with this being his last.  This is and will likely remain one of the most memorable film screenings of my life.

After such a heavy film, we decided we didn't want to go straight to bed, so we hopped back in line at the Galaxy for the next film, The Lunchbox.

The Lunchbox

Set in Mumbai, India, the premise of the film involves the highly elaborate lunchbox delivery system prevalent in the city.  Basically, lunchboxes are prepared by a wife or by a lunch service, and picked up by a delivery man.  After being transported by all forms of vehicles, it safely and promptly arrives at the exact office building, and the exact desk of the exact person it is intended for; except for when it doesn't.  A young wife and mother wants to "spice up" her stagnant relationship with her husband, so on the advice of her aunt who lives upstairs, she mixes up the usual lunch she makes for her husband and makes something a little more extravagant.  She's pleased when the box comes back to her completely empty, but when asking her husband about his lunch, she discovers he didn't receive the correct box.  Curious, she decides to continue her quality meals, and find out who enjoyed it so much by putting a note in the box.  Thus begins the pen-pal relationship with a soon-to-be retired widower that is the comical and emotional center of this film.  Without going into any more details, The Lunchbox is a light, but melancholy film about loneliness, fate, and human connection.  My overall enjoyment of the film was probably hurt some by the late start time (10:30) as well as the heavy film that came before, but I did still like it quite a bit and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys good adult dramas. 

Saturday - Day 3 of the Festival
Saturday morning we struggled to get out of bed at 7, as we'd attended late night screenings the previous two nights.  However, there's nothing like the crisp mountain air to help wake you up as we boarded the gondola to travel up the mountain, and then back down the other side into Mountain Village, where the Chuck Jones Theater is located.  We were headed there for the 9:00 tribute to T-Bone Burnett and the Coen Brothers.  The tribute included a long montage of music-centric clips from the films on which they collaborated,  which happen to be some of my all-time favorites: The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Though?, The Ladykillers, and Inside Llewyn Davis.  After the montage T-Bone and the brothers took the stage for a Q&A.  While you don't get a ton of information from these guys, it's just a joy to be in the same room with two of my favorite filmmakers of all time and listen to them talk.  

After the tribute, we hopped on the gondola and headed back to town and made our way to the small, cozy Nugget Theater downtown.  While waiting in line for the next film, we actually had to wait a little longer than we thought because Brad Pitt and the 12 Years a Slave cast and crew were having a private screening.  They exited the theater near where we were standing, and it was funny to see the ladies scramble with their phones to get some candid shots of Brad and Michael Fassbender (Grace included).  After the commotion, we were finally allowed to enter the theater.

Starred Up

This film takes place entirely in a British prison, and centers around a 17 year old boy who has been "starred up," or promoted, to the adult prison because of the multitude and severity of his crimes.  This also happens to be the same prison his dad is in, and we soon come to understand why this boy has ended up on the path he is on.  Another major character in the film is an independent social worker of sorts who has anger management classes to help the prisoners who want to help themselves.  Starred Up is essentially a family drama set in the confine of a maximum security prison, so it also includes all the tropes that come with a prison movie.  I found it very intense and enjoyable.  Grace found their accents hard to discern, so for some it might be better on Blu-ray with the subtitles on. Next we hurried back up the mountain via the gondola to catch the next film on our list.

The Past

The Past is the latest film from Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi. His previous film, A Separation, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  Set in Paris, The Past features a wonderful performance from the beautiful Berenice Bejo, who was nominated for her performance in the Best Picture winning film The Artist.  She plays a woman who is trying to move on with her life, but needs her estranged husband to come sign divorce papers so she can marry her new boyfriend, played by Tahar Rahim from A Prophet.  What starts off as an awkward family drama turns into something more when we spend time with the characters and learn of why there are certain tensions and uneasiness.  Farhadi is a master of piecing together a mysterious drama, and telling stories about imperfect human beings that can't be easily defined.  There is no white and black, rather his films dwell and relish in the gray.  A beautiful film, while perhaps not as beloved as A Separation, The Past is worthy of your time and is another great film in Farhadi's oeuvre.

After only our second film of the day, Grace and I decided to have a nice dinner and retire early to catch up on some sleep.

Sunday - Day 4 of the Festival


First thing in the morning we headed back to our most visited theater, the Galaxy, for a showing of the latest film starring the most talented young actress working today, Mia Wasikowska.  Based on a true story, Mia plays Robyn Davidson, a young woman who decides to set off on a 1,700 mile trek across the Australian desert.  She does this basically to find herself and possibly to relate some to her deceased father who had also been an adventurer, having himself journeyed across similar distances in African deserts.  The best part of the film is Mia's performance, by far.  Overall the story is somewhat inspiring, but the stakes never seem too high, and the purpose of the trip is too ambiguous to really latch onto.  While I think Tracks a decent film, it's certainly one of the weakest we saw at the festival.


We got back in line at the Galaxy for one of the sneak previews, Prisoners, from Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve.  Featuring stellar performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as the father of a kidnapped girl and the investigating detective, respectively, this film sets the tension level high and never gives the audience a reprieve.  After two little girls are abducted from their neighborhood on Thanksgiving, the desperation of their parents is palpable, and they begin to take matters into their own hands in light of the perceived ineffectiveness of the police.  

Prisoners also features performances from heavy hitters such as Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terrance Howard, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano.  It explores themes of vigilante justice, justified immorality, and doing anything to protect your family.  Since this film is currently in theaters highly recommend you go check it out, pronto.  It's not a light film and it set heavy on us as we chose to take the late afternoon off to relax and eat a nice dinner before catching up with Gravity that evening.


This much anticipated film from Alfonso Cuaron has opened since the festival, and with great box-office success.  The word of mouth has been good, and the reason I mention it is because I agree 100% with what seems to be the general consensus.  Gravity is an incredible technical marvel  and should be seen on the biggest screen possible in 3D.  Normally I hate 3D, but this film is made for it.  It looks amazing.  We caught the film at the large, new Werner Herzog Theater, and both the sound and visuals were breathtaking.

The film does a great job of making you feel like you're in space with these astronauts who are out there on a mission to repair a satellite or something.  The specifics aren't important, because it doesn't take long for all hell to break loose, and the overall sense of claustrophobia and impending doom is very effective.  The main thing that didn't work for me was the character moments.  There are times when the film tries to get the audience to empathize with a character, and there are moments obviously meant to be cathartic, but for me it really had little impact.  Overall, it was a thrilling cinematic experience, but left me wanting a little in regards to overall emotional gravitas. 

Monday - Day 5 of the Festival

Before the Winter Chill

We started out our final day of the festival with this little French drama starring Kristin Scott Thomas from director Philippe Claudel.  Claudel's fantastic first film, I've Loved You So Long really put Scott Thomas on my radar when I saw it back in 2008.  Their collaboration here doesn't produce as powerful a result this time around, but overall the film was enjoyable, featuring typical French themes of love, passion, and infidelity.  The overall mystery that unfolds over the course of the films is also intriguing, while not necessarily mind-blowing.  

After the film, we walked across town to the Town Park for the Labor Day Picnic   Besides only being allowed to take "one protein" (come on, I'm a growing boy!), the food was fantastic and the weather was perfect.  I particularly enjoyed the ice cream sundae bar for desert.

Burning Bush

Next, we headed over to a very small venue, Masons Hall Cinema, for a double feature.  Actually, it was all the same film, but broken up into two segments: Part 1 followed by Parts 2 & 3.  Burning Bush tells the story of the student who set himself on fire in the middle of Prague in protest of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1969.  The majority of the film actually focuses on the legal battle against the communist government after the government launched a smear campaign against the young man in order to squash any possible revolution.  Although a bit long, the film tells a compelling story and offers plenty of tense moments.  In the end, the power of this true story and its impact on the history of Eastern Europe does ultimately reveal itself, and for me, there is little that is more inspiring than stories of people struggling for freedom.  

Palo Alto

The last film we saw, in the beautiful and ornate Sheridan Opera House, was directed by Gia Coppola (Francis' granddaughter) and based on short stories written by James Franco.  A descriptive tag-line could be "California teens behaving badly."  It has its moments of genuine angst and human frailty, but overall it came across more as tales of spoiled rich kids whose parents didn't discipline them when they were younger.  The film-making quality is average, and the performances are decent.  James Franco is effective as the creepy, rape-y soccer coach.   Unfortunately not the best film to go out on, but it certainly wasn't a terrible experience.

As a whole, the festival was amazing, and I really, really hope to go back soon.  Click here for a list of the films I saw, ranked from best to worst.  Thanks for reading (to the 3 people who make it to the end), and please let me know your thoughts in the comment section.

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