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Telluride Film Festival 2023 Highlights

The journey of attending film festivals encompasses screening new films, meeting film talent, and networking with fellow critics and moviegoers. It never disappoints, and on-site experience has always heightened my film perspective. Each film festival has its unique vibe and tone; having attended Cannes, Sundance, and Toronto, I've been waiting for the right time to attend Telluride. My expectations for Telluride were high (no pun intended) as it's supposedly common for talent to walk down Colorado Street, the main thoroughfare and home of the festival headquarters, or to bump into talent randomly during the festival. After attending the film "Wildcat" and meeting star Laura Linney, sure enough, she walked by while I was having an alfresco lunch; she smiled and waved, saying, "Hi again." Then, ten minutes later, Casey Affleck walked by. Seeing talent in a casual environment is unique, although another standout is the breathtaking mountain splendor of Telluride's 8,750 ft. elevation.

Reporting for RogerEbert.com carries considerable weight due to the importance of his legacy, as he is well renowned in Telluride; it was one of his favorite film festivals. Telluride's 50th Anniversary online program includes a quote from him in which he says the fest is "... like Cannes died and went to heaven."

My fellow film critic attendees gave similar positive answers to why they enjoy Telluride. In speaking with Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times, he said, "The first few days here are as crazy and frenzied as they are at most film festivals, but at a certain point, it is the type of place where you feel you can relax, take things in, as it does move at a much saner pace than most festivals." In a quick conversation with Clayton Davis of Variety, he replied, "Telluride has the best movies and best location, ah yes, location, location, location." Director Steve McQueen said of the festival, "Telluride is unique and wonderful. It's a filmmaker's paradise." McQueen was in Telluride to promote his documentary, "Occupied City."

My festival started with the excellent Alexander Payne film, "The Holdovers." It's the story of an eccentric boarding school teacher working at an elite school who forms a bond with a student over Christmas break. The screening location was the Werner Herzog Theater, which is a hockey rink during the winter. Payne introduced the movie and spoke of his fondness for Telluride's festival. He also talked about the similarities between his lead character, Paul Giamatti, and his background attending the well-respected Yale University, where, at one point, Giamatti's father was the college president.

Before entering the theater, I met Beth Miller, a jewelry designer from Boston who told me she'd been coming to the festival for 24 years with her mother, who is in her late eighties. This year, she went with a friend. I was impressed by their film schedule and enthusiasm. When she found out I freelanced for RogerEbert.com, she was very excited as she and Chaz Ebert are close friends. We exchanged our details and met up for another screening. Again, a benefit of film festivals is meeting new people.

"A Tribute to Wim Wenders" was held in the Chuck Jones Theater and began with a retrospective short film of his work. His photography and unique filming style were presented in a series of films, "Paris Texas" (1984), "Wings of Desire" (1987), "Pina" (2011) and "Buena Vista Social Club" (1989), and "Salt of the Earth" (2014). Next, his new film "Perfect Days" screened with lead Koji Yakusho, this year's Cannes Best Actor winner, in attendance. Koji won his award by portraying a dedicated toilet cleaner who spends his free time listening to cassette-made tapes and staring into the sun while enjoying the beauty of nature. The "day-in-the-life" film offers an in-depth look at the pride and care in one's daily life, even though the job brings an invisible presence to most. The cinematic poetry of Wenders' observations is a sublime experience, an elevation almost beyond human comprehension. Its immense reflective and calming emotions make "Perfect Days" worth the time. 

The Q&A with director Wim Wenders and actor Koji Yakusho shed light on his performance and Wenders' remarkable film career as a former artist who enjoyed painting. However, he desired to make his paintings come alive through film. The minute details of daily routine, the environmental factors that flood our senses, and the suggestion of patterning one's life with personal joy were explored.

Telluride also had the world premiere of "Janet Planet" by director Annie Baker, (the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for her play The Flick). It's Baker's directorial debut, which has shades of The Flick in the easygoing pacing and natural dialogue. The story focuses on an 11-year-old child who lives in a fantasy world and learns about life through her mother's bad choices in boyfriends and cult associations.

Baker introduced the film and talked about her desire to become a director at a very young age. Completing her film is a tremendous personal accomplishment, as she learned so much from the process. The film's performances are spot-on, mainly due to the heartwarming enactments by Janet (Julianne Nicholson), the single mom of the title, and Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), her daughter. The story unfolds in 1991 in rural Massachusetts through the socially awkward and needy Lacy's attentive eyes.

"Daddio," starring Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson, is writer/director Christy Hall's debut film; it's incredible as the duo of taxicab driver Penn and his passenger Johnson are the sole focus for the duration of the film—her taxi fare from New York's JFK's airport until the final destination in mid-town Manhattan. Told through her backseat texting and Penn's observant nature, they both deliver nuanced and steady performances. Penn's stellar turn as Clark reminded me of his Academy Award-nominated role in "Dead Man Walking" (1995), as the film's set has similar restrictions in terms of physical space. Johnson's performance garners compassion and empathy for her character, a woman emotionally scarred by the lack of a loving father in her life.

Johnson was able to introduce the film alongside Hall, having been granted an interim agreement from SAG to appear at Telluride and promote her work on the movie. She expressed gratefulness to be able to promote her independent film and spoke of her dedication to the SAG strike.

Returning to the civil rights march in Washington D.C. in 1963, George C. Wolfe's "Rustin" boasts an embodied performance by Coleman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, the openly gay civil rights activist who orchestrated the famous march against racism. The Netflix film, shown in the Palm theater, presents the obstacles of the time with an all-star cast including Chris Rock, CCH Pounder, Gus Halper, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, and Jeffrey Wright. Thoroughly engaging, this historical recreation brings us to a time of extreme prejudice against Black people and those who were openly gay. 

One can't help but be moved by the strong performances and the direction of the seasoned George C. Wolfe. The Q&A afterward was hosted by Clayton Davis with producers Bruce Cohen and Tonia Davis producers and director Wolfe. The main takeaway was a quote by Wolfe: "Bayard Rustin inspired me to be a better version of myself."   

The "Wildcat" screening with director Ethan Hawke brought an intellectual spin to the festival as his screenplay, co-written with Shelby Gaines, is of the life of American writer Flannery O'Connor, with Maya Hawke as O'Connor and Laura Linney as her mother. The film presents the different phases of O'Connor and her mom, as both play various interpretations according to her essays and short stories.

During the Q&A, Ethan Hawke said that he knew he wanted to direct his daughter Maya in the film and cast Laura Linney as they started their careers together. He knew she would be great in helping him with the project. Maya read Flannery O'Connor growing up and was mesmerized by her writings. 

Lastly, "The Bikeriders" has an all-star cast, with Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, and Michael Shannon. The movie is inspired by a photo book of the same name by Danny Lyon in 1968. Jeff Nichols ("Loving") wrote the script and directed the film. The movie takes place near Chicago and tells the beginning of a group of motorcycle friends who form a gang named the Vandals. Butler is a wild child and has several scrimmages with violence at the beginning of the film to set up his character. He and Comer marry, navigating their lives according to the road map that leader Tom Hardy sets out. The performances are noteworthy, along with the authentic period dialogue that sets the tone. 

In speaking with Jeff Nichols after his Q&A, and immediately telling him that I was writing for RogerEbert.com, he exclaimed, "I love that guy!"

"I owe Roger everything for helping me in my career as he changed my life when he put my film, 'Shotgun Stories' (2007), in his Top 10 list! It was like, wow, I couldn't believe it!” 

I asked Nichols what he thinks about Telluride; he said enthusiastically, "It's about cinema and filmmakers, and that's it. There are no awards. Everybody wins!"

Note: Reviews of "The Holdovers," "Wildcat," "Daddio," and "Rustin" will run over the next week out of TIFF.

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