With the competition for buzz-generating, high-profile pictures probably more intense than ever on the fest circuit, the Telluride Film Festival snared its share this year, with an unprecedented 12 world premieres, led by Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” and Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding.”
Fest’s 34th edition survived the transition to the post-Pence era — co-founder Bill Pence and his managing director wife Stella retired last year, leaving the event in the hands of fellow co-founder Tom Luddy, new co-director Gary Meyer and first-time managing director Julie Huntsinger –without an evident stumble, as it played out with customary style and smoothness over a beautiful Labor Day weekend.
Telluride reflected this strong cinematic year with a selection of 10 titles from Cannes, including the North American premieres of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winning “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and such other award winners as Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud’s “Persepolis” and Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine.”
Among the several sneak previews, the most popular with audiences was Jason Reitman’s snappy teen-has-baby-for-adoption comedy “Juno,” while Brian De Palma’s Iraq war drama “Redacted” provoked many reactions at the other end of the spectrum.
The in-person tributes to cinematic luminaries contemporary, international and veteran continued apace, beginning with a salute to Daniel Day-Lewis that included a tantalizing 20-minute glimpse of Paul Thomas Anderson’s much-anticipated “There Will Be Blood.” A highlight for the cognoscenti was the appearance of French musical maestro Michel Legrand, who not only spoke of his career and screened Jacques Demy’s “The Young Girls of Rochefort” and his own 1989 directorial effort “Five Days in June” but, with a Steinway onstage, played his work live for the audience.
Indian director Shyam Benegal, whose 40-plus films are all but unknown in North America, received a tribute that could conceivably initiate some wider recognition for him, while 92-year-old thesp Norman Lloyd, who was celebrated here several years ago, was back for a second round to regale crowds with his mesmerizing tales of Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir and other illustrious cohorts.
Among restorations of vintage films this year were King Vidor’s “The Big Parade,” Richard Lester’s second Beatles feature “Help!,” Korean helmer Shin Sang-ok’s “Bound by Chastity Rules,” Marco Ferreri’s “Dillinger Is Dead” and, most popularly, the exceptional 1929 Robert and Kurt Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, Eugen Schuefftan and Fred Zinnemann pic “People on Sunday,” a portrait of a few young people out and about in Berlin that still looks new wave nearly 80 years later.
In a related program, Leonard Maltin celebrated the fest’s presentation of a special medallion to him by showing a wonderful program, “Rediscovering Vitaphone,” featuring early sound-era shorts of famous vaudeville acts.
And due to the extraordinary number of current documentaries about the cinema and its history, a special sidebar called Backlot was created to accommodate 10 of them.
Still, with all these highlights, this edition of the fest lacked a knockout, a film or program or two that would stir unanimous excitement and mark the 34th as “the year of” such-and-such. Telluride has always been a unique fixture on the international map: It’s only four days long, never announces its lineup in advance and freely mixes old and new. But in recent years, it has also become known for premiering top titles of the final four months of the year — the likes of “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote” and “Walk the Line.”
This year, Venice Film Festival topper Marco Mueller’s strict world premieres-only policy for the competition has made securing such titles more difficult than ever for both Telluride and Toronto, putting several key pics out of reach, “Atonement” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” presumably among them.
In the event, Telluride came up with numerous eagerly awaited titles that had cinephiles packing in and spiritedly discussing them afterwards, but none can be said to have generated near-unanimous enthusiasm. Closest, perhaps, was Penn’s “Into the Wild,” a skilled adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller that most felt is too long but still Penn’s best outing yet as a director.
Bob Dylan buffs got the most of out Haynes’ stylistically arresting “I’m Not There,” Baumbach’s “Margot” drew split decisions down the line, and Anand Tucker’s British father-son drama “When Did You Last See Your Father?” was very warmly received. Wild-and-woolliest pic on display was Aleksei Balabanov’s Russian war-horror yarn “Cargo 200.”
New documentaries that received strong starts here were Kevin Macdonald’s “My Enemy’s Enemy,” about Klaus Barbie, and Werner Herzog’s Antarctica-lensed “Encounters at the End of the World.”
Also preeming here to assorted reactions were Sarah Gavron’s adaptation of Monica Ali’s multicultural novel “Brick Lane”; Wayne Wang’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”; Khuat Akhmetov’s magical realist “Wind Man,” from Kazakhstan; Alison Eastwood’s helming debut, the family drama “Rails & Ties”; Mark Kidel’s docu “Journey With Peter Sellars”; and Mark Obenhaus’ extreme skiing feature “Steep!”
For the record, also in the mix was the docu by the present writer, “Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient,” about the Frenchman who has been a Telluride mainstay for a couple of decades and was very much around again this year.