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The Telluride Film Festival 2003: Satisfying Attitude @ High Altitude

High altitude and film festivals have a similar effect on people. Both can make you short of breath, lightheaded and euphoric. Of course, they can also give you a headache and make you nauseous. Fortunately, Telluride is a great film festival and if you plan well, choose the right films, and drink lots of liquids you can have a splendid weekend.

The 30th Telluride Film Festival provided a marvelous Labor Day weekend in the mountains. The festival raises the bar on what festivals can be by providing moviegoers with numerous high quality films, unique programs, and filmmaker conversations amid an amazing alpine setting. The festival isn’t cheap – passes range from $300 to $3,500 and even individual tickets are $20 – but once you are there you realize that you are paying for the privilege of attending a unique and intensive four-day celebration of cinema like nowhere else in the world.

For starters the festival takes an egalitarian approach to its schedule. There is no announcement of what films will be shown until a day before the festival. Festival-goers must pick up the schedules and make decisions on the go. What’s more there are no awards given to any films. Instead, there are tributes given to three significant movie personalities of the festival organizer’s choosing. In the past, tributes have been given to the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Clint Eastwood, and Meryl Streep. But – this being a festival more closely attuned to the artistic nature of film rather than the market driven movie business -tributes have also been given to such celebrities as Indian-British actor Om Puri, film noir cinematographer John Alton, and Russian director Alexander Sokurov.

This year the tributes were given to Peter Brook, the highly esteemed theatre producer and director of The Beggar’s Opera in 1953, Australian actress Toni Collette (best known from Muriel’s Wedding and The Sixth Sense), and relatively unknown Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi – who has had too few films released here in the past couple of decades.

One thing that the Telluride organizers appreciate about film is that it shares a lot with the other arts and disciplines. This year the eclectic mix of festival guests reflected this. The guest director was musical composer Stephen Sondheim, a Special Medallion was presented to media tycoon Ted Turner, cartoonist Gary Larson was commissioned to do the poster art, and former Secretary of Defense Robert S McNamara — who was the subject of one of the festivals best films (Fog of War) could be seen walking around the town.

This year there were 40 film programs shown from 13 different countries.

No one film stood head-and-shoulders above the rest, however there were plenty of films with good buzz. They included Touching the Void (IFC Films), a mountain climbing survival movie, Fog of War (Sony Picture Classics), a documentary by Errol Morris about Vietnam, I’m Not Scared (No distributor), an Italian film that deals with child kidnapping, Best of Youth (Miramax), a six-hour Italian television drama, This Little Life (No distributor), an affecting film about a woman dealing with the premature birth of her child, The Triplets of Belleville (Sony Picture Classics), an animated French film about a boy who is kidnapped while riding in the Tour de France, and The Barbarian Invasions (Miramax), a Canadian film that many said was similar to The Big Chill although it is really a sequel to The Decline of the American Empire by the same filmmaker.

Two of the most anticipated art house films shown were Dogville and Elephant. Both had mixed reactions. Dogville, a Danish film by Lars von Trier, stars Nicole Kidman as a woman living in a small Colorado town during the Depression. The film is more like a stage play than a film, and some felt its three hour length was too long. Elephant (which won the Palm D’or at Cannes), by Gus Van Sant, is a film about a high school that draws parallels with the Columbine tragedy.

Other mixed reactions were expressed for Osama (United Artists), a film from Afghanistan about a young woman who must dress as a boy to help her ailing mother around the Taliban-controlled areas, and Shattered Glass (Lions Gate), a film based on the true story of the freelance writer (played by Hayden Christensen – who is said to be much better here than he was in Star Wars), who fabricated facts in various news stories back in the late 1990s, before Jayson Blair stole all his thunder.

The most noteworthy short film was Destino (Disney), a seven-minute animated collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney that was planned to be made in 1946 but was recently completed by 25 artists.

Of these films I only caught Fog of War. However, I did manage to see a handful of other fine films over the four-day weekend.

Distant (New Yorker Films)
This Turkish film, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Distant is an excellent character-driven drama about two cousins who live with one another for a short time. One is a rich photographer and the other is a poor villager who comes to Istanbul to find work. The film is both literally and figuratively about distance, as it deals with personality clashes and the lack of communication between the two men. Not much happens, but what makes it so engaging is its masterfully refined cinematography, remarkable use of sound, deliberate pacing and subtle metaphors. The film is close to the spirit of Andrei Tarkovsky films, which most definitely makes it not for everyone. I thought it was great.

Fog of War (Sony Picture Classics)
This brilliantly executed documentary by Errol Morris is primarily an extended interview with Robert S. McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense from 1960 to 1967 and was known primarily for being one of the main architects of US involvement in the Vietnam War. The movie provides nothing particularly new about the Vietnam War, nor does it provide a mea culpa by McNamara – who comes across as an articulate, gregarious, and very bright person – but it does contribute a broad and valid view of the period.

Love Me if You Dare (No distributor yet)
This crowd-pleasing French film by Yann Samuel is a fast-paced, irreverent romantic comedy about a boy and a girl who are life long friends. They play a hilarious game of dare with one another but have been doing it for so long they have managed to estrange themselves from everyone they know — including themselves. In time their affection for one another becomes too much to bear, yet they cannot find a way to communicate with one another outside of the rules of their frivolous game. Similar to the French hit Amelie, the film is highly stylized and shot in such bright, primary colors that it borders on fantasy.

Lost in Translation (Focus Features)
Sofia Coppola’s bittersweet comedy concerns a young, neglected wife and an aging TV star who meet in a Tokyo bar and become friends. The film has impressive performances by both Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, who have a good deal of screen chemistry. The movie deals with both personal and cultural alienation, and while it has mainstream appeal, it manages to add new wrinkles to a somewhat conventional story.

Nói albinói (No distributor yet)
This Icelandic, deadpan comedy by Dagur Kari is about a bored high school student named Noi who lives in a small remote village. Noi has no mother, his father is a drunk and he lives with his haggard grandmother. Life is pretty dull, and although he seems bright he is at odds with the entire school and manages to get himself expelled. The film has a casual pace to it but is absorbing and picks up pretty well in its second half as Noi is thrown into a situation where he must confront his fate and his future.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Lions Gate Films)
Based on Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring is a captivating chronicle of how 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer came to paint one of his masterworks. At once artful and authentic, the film – directed by Peter Webber – has the resplendent look of a moving Vermeer painting. Veteran British actor Colin Firth gives a strong performance as Vermeer, and rising star Scarlett Johansson has the proper innocent mien as the quiet but strong young woman who serves as the artist’s muse.

Alexandra’s Project (Empire Pictures)
Described as a psychological, psycho-sexual thriller, this Australian film was one of the few truly provocative and disturbing films of the festival. The film primarily takes place on one set and involves a woman’s carefully orchestrated revenge on her husband whom she feels no longer understands her needs and whom she suspects of having an affair. The film, directed by Rolf de Heer, takes on the quality of reality TV, and is uncomfortable not only because it deals with the sexual politics of marriage but because the woman is insane and handles the situation in the most unseemly manner.

Struggle (No distributor yet)
This Austrian film by Ruth Mader is a short film in two parts. The first part is about a poor woman who sneaks across the boarder with her daughter in tow to find any decent paying menial job. The second half is about a lonely realtor who has plenty of money but can find no one to share his life with. The woman is literally working to death, and the man is literally dying to find something in his life that will work. The film is slow going and involves a lot of observing — we watch the progression of the woman’s various jobs from strawberry field to slaughterhouse — but the director shows an able hand at politically social drama.

Reconstruction (Palm Pictures)
An enigmatic Danish film by Christoffer Boe, Reconstruction uses a convoluted narrative structure to tell the story of a man who attempts to leave his girlfriend for a married woman. The movie is primarily about the innocence of love and what it is like to start anew and be in love for the first time. Stylistically the film seems to be influenced by such disparate films as Memento, Groundhog Day, and Hiroshima mon amour. However, it has its own sophisticated take on the interactions between men and women and – at the very least – makes the viewer think.

My Life Without Me (Sony Picture Classics)
This matter-of-fact tear jerker stars Sarah Polley as a young woman who is diagnosed with cancer and given two months to live. The film, directed by Spanish director Isabel Coixet, takes a more positive and less weepy approach to the material as Polley’s character decides to prepare for death without telling anyone. The performances from Polley, Mark Ruffalo, Scott Speedman, Deborah Harry, and Amanda Plummer make it a much better film than the material allows.

Young Adam (Sony Picture Classics)
Considering that this film features a full frontal shot of Ewan MacGregor and a rape scene that involves ketchup and mustard, the film is a complete bore. It’s basically a Dostoevsky-type character-driven drama about a man in 1950s Scotland who works on a barge with a married couple. The title sequence starts with a scantily clad dead woman’s body floating in the harbor and for the next couple of hours we learn who that dead body was and why and how she died. MacGregor deals with his anger and guilt throughout the film by sleeping with every woman in sight. On paper the film sounds great; trust me it’s not. In fact, it was the only film I saw during the festival that received no applause.

Another exciting thing about Telluride is that you can see a good number of rare, older films. This year their was live musical accompaniment by the much hailed Alloy Orchestra who did a new musical score for Buster Keaton’s The General and one for a very rare silent French film titled Dans la Nuit. There also were three forgotten French classics La Belle Equipe, Carnet Du Bal, and Panique, all directed by Julien Duvivier (best known for Pépé le Moko).

Maybe it’s the thin air, but seasoned festival-goers know that films in Telluride just seem better. And yet there is never enough time to get the buzz on every film much less see everything. So for four days festival-goers push themselves to see as much as they can, knowing full well that when they return to their homes to see films at the multiplexes they won’t nearly be as good. And then when it is over, all we can do is begin to plan for next year’s festival when we know our oxygen-deprived brains will again have to make tough decisions.

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