Telluride: Wrapping up the 40th annual fest

Posted by · 6:06 am · September 3rd, 2013

TELLURIDE, Colo. – The 40th annual Telluride Film Festival has come to a close, unofficially launching the Oscar season and wrapping up another wonderfully curated program that continues to be one of my most anticipated journeys each year.

Not to start on a down note, but there’s been an odd whiff of ownership of the fest amongst a certain set that likes to think that, because of the way studios have been using sneak previews of Oscar-contending films here as an awards season launch pad, things just aren’t the way they used to be. This was just my fifth stint. I’m by no means a long-timer. But talk to anyone who’s been here 20, 30 years and you find out that the spirit of the fest is the same as it has always been. It’s just the noise around it that these people are responding to, and really, that noise isn’t unique to Telluride.

Part of this is obviously the rise in media attention here. Maybe some think their little paradise has been spoiled. But speaking personally, I’ve absolutely relished the experiences I’ve had here over the last five years, precious few of them regarding the awards season. Only a grouch would begrudge more people experiencing that cinephile joy, right?

Telluride XL was a packed affair. Indeed, the three films I had been saving for today ended up scheduled right on top of each other. In the end, I settled on Hayao Miyazaki to round out my experience. With the animation legend taking his leave of the cinema, it felt somehow apt. And though I don’t count myself as a major fan of the director’s work, I found “The Wind Rises” to be something of a gem in his catalog. It has an elegiac feel but also one of life lessons learned. It’s so deeply felt, so mature, with grace notes throughout hinting at a swan song: Here’s a film that, after all, contains the line, “I’m retiring. This is my last design.”

Earlier in the morning I took in a second screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” the first time I’ve ever double-dipped at Telluride. Mostly it was a last resort due to odd scheduling on the fest’s part Monday morning and afternoon, but it also seemed like a film that demanded another ride. I liked it even more the second time, affected by its tender if easy emotional strokes and, naturally, blown away by its technical accomplishments.

I should also mention I caught up with John Curran’s “Tracks” Sunday night. I’m a fan of the filmmaker, who somehow manages to have a unique voice with each film he gives us. This one’s a lesser work,  though, not overly compelling thematically or formally, but a little difficult to dislike at the same time. Mia Wasikowska is a solid anchor throughout.

I also finally saw Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past,” which shocked me at how minor it felt. The performances and craft are great but the soap opera story left me wanting more. I’m one of many who felt “A Separation” was a towering achievement but this one didn’t land right for me at all. Bérénice Bejo gives a wonderful performance, however.

Those are really the only moderately down notes of the fest for me. And really, if those are the lows, it says a lot for the highs. Looking back at the program, I’m mostly happy to have experienced the dream of seeing “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” in these mountains. And not only that, but such a beautiful HD scan of the negative. It will be my favorite Telluride memory for years to come, I imagine.

The awards stuff made its mark, no doubt. But the question is, did we see the 2013 Best Picture winner at Telluride this year, as we have four of the last five years? I’m honestly not so sure. In fact, I’ve been wondering lately if the ultimate winner ends up being a non-festival film — “American Hustle” or “The Monuments Men” — rather than the nurtured players of the season. It’s way too early for such talk, but the appearance of “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and “Argo” at this festival in recent years at least welcomes a pondering of the possibilities. Do “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” — both October releases — have the stuff of winners? The latter certainly could, but I have a nagging feeling the Telluride Oscar streak will hit a hiccup this year.

Speaking of Oscars, the Academy put together a lovely little exhibit at the Sheridan Opera House celebrating 40 years of Telluride. In addition, there were clips depicting iconic filmmakers from the Academy’s TFF Special Collection that screened in advance of each film, as well as special screenings of Satyajit Ray’s “Mahanagar” and the 1948 short “Muscle Beach,” both courtesy of the Academy Film Archive. Also, the Werner Herzog Theater displayed photos of the director over the years taken from the Academy’s collection.

Speaking of the new 650-seat venue, it is, easily, the best theater of the lot. Comfy seating, exquisite sound, gorgeously designed, it’s truly worthy of the namesake. I think I ended up there most of the time.

I saw 12 films on the program and that’s a little more than I normally find time for, what with the filing and the peripheral things like interviews and whatnot. Favorites include “Gravity” and “Tim’s Vermeer,” but all of it made for a solid anniversary year. I have to hand it to programmers Tom Luddy, Gary Meyer and Julie Huntsinger for crafting yet another sterling program.

Here’s to 40 more years.

Check out all of our 2013 Telluride Film Festival coverage here.

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