Other than the obvious, like watching all that you can and sacrificing sleep, the best thing you can do at a film festival to get a hold of its essence is eavesdrop. Easy enough at every film festival; but especially at the intimate Telluride, where you’ll often run into the same people and find yourself confined in a gondola of gorgeous views (no, not the Venice kind—a gondola in Telluride is essentially a cable car) with strangers all too eager to offer their views unprompted, with little concern for who might be listening.
For me, the most revealing conversations at the festival’s recently wrapped and surprisingly austere 49th edition didn’t unfold during a gondola ride towards the Chuck Jones theater, Telluride’s only screening venue up at Mountain Village, or one of the various dinners or parties I was lucky to attend, witnessing the likes of Chloé Zhao and Alejandro González Iñárritu lost in discussion. Instead, they happened almost simultaneously before an early Labor Day screening of first-time filmmaker Charlotte Wells’ haunting father-daughter memory piece “Aftersun,” a splendid film that gently radiates echoes of Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” with Telluride regular Barry Jenkins among its producers.
Behind me, a young viewer in their 20s (refreshingly in abundance this year at a festival that tends to skew older) was enthusiastically praising Luca Guadagnino’s sizzling standout “Bones and All,” starring Timothée Chalamet, “Waves” breakthrough Taylor Russell and Oscar-winner Mark Rylance as ... well ... cannibals, to put it as glibly as possible. “It was so insane and f*cked up,” they exuberantly said, adding in panic, “in the BEST possible way,” so that their praise wouldn’t be misconstrued. I giggled because I agreed: “Bones and All” is so insane and f*cked up in the best possible way, in its fearless exploration of on-the-fringes Reagan-era Americans, starved and invisible to anyone other than each other. Gritty, lush, sensual (this is Guadagnino after all) and deeply cinematic, “Bones and All” is the kind of film you hope to discover if you’re going through the trouble of traveling thousands of miles to a film festival.
Meanwhile in front of me, two viewers who were, let’s say, more or less Telluride’s usual demographic were praising Sam Mendes’ well-meaning, love-of-movies-themed “Empire of Light” as the best film they’d seen at the festival. I giggled once again, because I disagreed about Mendes’ at-best-naïve attempt to dig into his memories of the early ‘80s England, a formative time for him in terms of music, culture and cinema, as Mendes put it at the film’s world premiere. He admitted that he’s never felt this vulnerable standing in front of an audience prior to the screening, with his most personal project to date. He was so genuine that I actually felt a little guilty for not loving, or even liking his film better. But then again, if only the coy “Empire of Light” didn’t mishandle themes like racism, mental illness, and nostalgia so toothlessly; if only it didn’t have a misguided structure with several endings ...
But there you have it. At that screening before we all headed to the Town Park for the festival’s annual Labor Day picnic (where we sang a big loud “Happy Birthday” to Telluride mainstay Werner Herzog on his 80th and had a slice of cake precisely cut by Herzog), I was neatly sandwiched between the two Telluride attitudes. No, these stances weren’t necessarily driven by age or any other type of demographics, regardless of what my above set up might wrongly suggest. Rather, they were driven by distinct cinematic palates: affable and pleasant on one side; confrontational and boundary-pushing on the other. Sure, it’s not as black-and-white and there is no “one size fits all” taste. Still, I couldn’t help but think about a similar divide I noticed at last year’s Telluride between those who walked out of Sean Baker’s excellent “Red Rocket” and those who declared Kenneth Branagh’s sweet but all-too-precious “Belfast” an Oscar frontrunner. Again, it’s not as clear-cut as I’m making it out to be. And yet, the divide was there, amid an especially star-studded edition attended by the likes of Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Robert Downey Jr., Song Kang-Ho, and Bill Nighy among others; faces you could casually run into at a screening or on the river walk.
For those leaning closer to the “challenging” side of the pendulum, there was no shortage of offerings. The line-up was packed with critical darlings of former festivals (the soulful “Armageddon Time,” the sensual “One Fine Morning,” the searing “Holy Spider,” the restrained “Living” and the ravishing “Godland” among them), divisive movies and an unusually large group of documentaries (two of which I reviewed with an earlier dispatch) from veterans like Mark Cousins (also a tribute this year) and Werner Herzog, as well as fierce contemporaries like Matthew Heineman.
One of the best pictures of the year, Todd Field’s knockout “TÁR” was among the movies that led the fest’s most challenging offerings after its Venice debut. Screening alongside a special tribute to its sensational star, Cate Blanchett, "TÁR" is a film of rare elegance and sophistication, as well as a complex and nuanced probe into creative geniuses with ruinous ethical inklings. Featuring one of Blanchett’s career-best performances in a resume full of such highlights, “TÁR” follows a multi-hyphenate star maestro as her true colors start to unravel through an entrancing, mind-bending structure. The film isn’t so much about what we do with problematic artists with undeniable talent and output; but more an exploration of one such person’s headspace that neither enforces a moral compass onto the audience nor lacks one.
Perhaps the festival’s most divisive title, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Bardo” gave this year’s attendees a lot to talk (and complain) about. Marking Iñárritu’s return to Mexico for the first time since “Amores Perros” and following a fictional, States-based Mexican journalist-filmmaker’s existential troubles around his artistic, familial and national identity, “Bardo” is an ambitious artifact on the whole with a nearly three-hour running time. Perhaps too labored and undisciplined for its own good, but still a searching and honest reckoning of a larger-than-life artist (that is, Iñárritu) with his own demons and interests all the same; the kind of effort that is always worth considering despite all the noise that unfairly writes it off as a vanity project.
Less divisive were Telluride tribute recipient Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking”—a haunting adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel with the same name—and Sebastián Lelio’s gorgeously lyrical “The Wonder,” based on “Room” writer Emma Donoghue’s novel (with Donoghue herself among the team of screenwriters). To this critic, these titles—both exercises on listening with humility—were in conversation with each other in more ways than one, and not only because both are marked by #MeToo themes (Polley’s being the more explicit one). Not present at the festival was “The Wonder” lead Florence Pugh, in Italy to walk the Venice carpet with a controversy-ridden title you might have heard a thing or two about. On the other hand, almost the entire cast of “Women Talking”—from Rooney Mara, to Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Shelia McCarthy, Judith Ivey and Frances McDormand (also a producer)—were present, with McDormand presenting the immensely talented Polley her award during a charming ceremony.
Amid all the festivities, there was perhaps one heartwarming crowd-pleaser that everyone who saw it could agree on: Ryan White’s surprise documentary hit, “Good Night Oppy.” In fairness, it’s impossible to watch this lovely space escapade without shedding some tears, as its central character—a Mars rover called Opportunity—roams the planet on a 90-day mission alongside its twin, Spirit, and ends up surviving for 15 years and provides the humankind with priceless intel and imagery from Mars. It’s amazing to consider how much both of these rovers look like WALL-E. Or rather (given Pixar’s film is dated 2008, and the rovers were launched in 2003), how much Pixar animators were inspired by the real rovers’ looks. That reference certainly helps in further engaging with the sentience of the sweet Oppy, a happy-go-lucky robot who needs its own wake-up songs and suffers from increasing health problems just like the rest of us until its inevitable decline and heartbreaking expiration. The kinship on the screen between Oppy and those watching its steps from NASA wasn’t unlike the bond the audience had with the screen on the festival’s final night and final outdoor screening, under a starry blanket. Both connections were marked by a deep sense of love and wonder, a unifying force despite whatever divisiveness might have come before it.