Telluride: From ‘Birdman’ to ‘Mommy,’ Festival Soars Above the Fray

Tensions with Toronto didn't stop the Colorado festival from putting on another excellent Show.

Telluride Film Festival

JUSTIN CHANG: How was your Telluride, Scott? Mine was terrific — though I should note that I don’t really have a frame of reference, being a first-timer at this annual mountainside mecca for movie lovers. Still, I’m happy to report that just about everything I’ve heard is true: the unbeatable backdrop, the near-unbeatable films, above all that wondrous sense that the usual barriers separating filmmakers, journalists and audiences have magically melted away for one long weekend, uniting us all in one collective cinephile bliss-out. This is a festival where you’re as likely to pass Alexander Payne, Mike Leigh or the Dardenne brothers in the street as you are to make it into your next screening, and where a Megan Ellison sighting can send a momentary hush through a screening queue. (“You’re a rock star,” someone told her as we waited in line for Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater,” one of the best movies I’ve seen here.)

I’m hardly the first person to wonder about the possible salutary effects of imbibing movies at this high altitude. Indeed, it’s led more than one cynical observer to wonder if the sheer thrill of the Telluride experience tends to overwhelm one’s critical faculties, breeding a sort of positive-minded groupthink — a tendency to embrace movies a bit more readily than if one were watching them closer to sea level. I don’t entirely buy that theory, though I have to admit  I thought about it as I emerged from “The Imitation Game,” Morten Tyldum’s WWII-era drama about the great British mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing, whose reception here has been little short of rapturous.

And it’s no surprise why: Scene by scene, the film is tasteful, touching, skillfully crafted and splendidly acted — not least by Benedict Cumberbatch, giving a towering performance in a movie that doesn’t, in the end, prove entirely worthy of it. In your own spot-on review, Scott, you made an unflattering comparison to “The Social Network.” Me, I found myself thinking repeatedly of “A Beautiful Mind,” another picture about a troubled, socially awkward genius that doesn’t trust the audience to follow mathematical concepts above a grade-school level. Watching “The Imitation Game,” it’s hard not to feel that you’re seeing a beautiful mind being examined by a rather conventional one. I couldn’t help but wonder what a richer, more cerebral and challenging piece of storytelling we might have gotten if this material had wound up in the hands of someone like Christopher Nolan or David Cronenberg — or better yet, Shane Carruth.

Far better, and far less susceptible to groupthink, was Alejandro G. Inarritu’s dazzling high-wire act “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” — for my money, the most thrilling, inventive, moment-to-moment exhilarating new film at Telluride, albeit one that also split audiences right down the middle, to judge by overheard chatter. Nothing this distinctive gets unanimous praise across the board, and for every person who loved it, there was also someone who hated it, or was still trying to get a handle on it — like the very kind concession-stand volunteer who, after a few minutes of vigorous “Birdman” discussion, gave me a soda on the house. I hate condescending generalizations, but I have to say it: People in Telluride sure are friendly.

 As the grizzled Telluride veteran, I’m glad to hear you had such a good time, and such an emblematic one. I’ve been coming to the festival for 11 years now, and I still delight at seeing the wide-eyed awe on the faces of first-time attendees who find themselves standing in a screening queue or sharing a Labor Day picnic with Francis Coppola or Errol Morris or Salman Rushdie or the theater director Peter Sellars — or sometimes all of them at once. And I take even greater pleasure at opening the festival program every year and seeing nearly as much space devoted to revivals of classic and unfairly forgotten films from cinema’s past as to all the bright and shiny world premieres. In Telluride, a silent film with live music (like “Children of No Importance,” a 1926 gem by German director Gerhard Lamprecht) or a rediscovered rarity (like Volker Schlondorff’s long-unavailable TV adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal,” starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder) can be a hotter ticket than the movies people know they’ll be able to see in commercial cinemas in the coming weeks and months.

SEE ALSO: Telluride vs. Toronto: The Battle for Oscar Supremacy

That’s one of the things I fear has gotten a bit lost in some of the reporting about the simmering tensions between Telluride and the Toronto Film Festival which, this year, led to the latter event imposing a penalty on films that chose to screen first in Telluride. Those movies now won’t screen until Toronto’s second half, generally considered to be a less desirable stretch of the festival due to the diminished presence of press and distributors. It’s been great fodder for reporters who like to force life into archetypal narratives, envisioning a David-vs.-Goliath struggle between scrappy, independent Telluride and big, corporate Toronto, or, conversely, between clubby, elitist Telluride and populist, salt-of-the-earth Toronto (a narrative crafted primarily by those who’ve never actually been to Telluride before).

As usual in such cases, the truth is both more complex and less melodramatic. For starters, Telluride (now in its 41st edition) predates Toronto’s existence by three years, which makes it pretty hard to argue that the Colorado festival has been engineered to steal the Canadian one’s thunder. And while Toronto has grown and grown into an impressive multifaceted entity that brings important screening series and retrospectives to Toronto audiences throughout the year, along with exhibitions and education programs, Telluride remains very much as it began — a four-day celebration that, like the festival’s aptly named hospitality center, Brigadoon, materializes in the mountains every Labor Day weekend and just as quickly vanishes into the ether.

On the other hand, Telluride isn’t exactly a pitiable underdog — if anything, the festival may have become the victim of its own success. As you pointed out in a recent report, Justin, for much of Telluride’s existence press attendance was limited to a handful of trade and mainstream media outlets, in part because Telluride isn’t a very easy place to get to, and the festival has never bent over backward to accommodate journalists, forcing them to buy their badges at the market rate (something one of your sources said as if it were a bad thing!).

CHANG: My sincere hope is that, after this year’s ugly but perhaps necessary venting of tensions, the Telluride-Toronto fracas will blow over, and the focus will again be on the films themselves, rather than on the amount of strategizing and politicking that goes into their placement every fall. (Not that the strategizing and politicking isn’t fascinating — indeed, I rather think someone should make a movie about it. Suggested title: “The Invitation Game.”) It’s worth noting, too, that in this war of the world premieres or whatever you want to call it, Telluride has maintained a classy silence on the whole matter — publicly, anyway. On the ground in Colorado, I did hear the occasional sly dig at Toronto, as when one staffer, introducing a film, noted that it would be the first time it had ever been shown to an audience. “We don’t use words like ‘world premieres’ here, because … we don’t really care about that stuff,” he said, to much applause and laughter.

I laughed, too, even if I couldn’t help but detect a somewhat disingenuous note, as if this really were just a silly issue of semantics. Whether you call a film’s first public screening a world premiere, a sneak peek or an early-bird special, the fact is that being first matters, and Telluride knows this as well as anyone. Indeed, the festival’s co-founder Tom Luddy said as much in an interview with the New York Times: “We owe it to everybody to have things they haven’t seen elsewhere.” Quite so. Who would pretend otherwise?

I agree, Scott, that there are doubtless people in Telluride less excited to see the latest batch of Oscar bait than the prospect of a newly excavated Lamprecht gem, or the DCP restoration of Mario Monicelli’s 1960 comedy “Joyful Laughter” (which I caught up with at your recommendation, and was quite glad I did). But then, there are also many of whom the reverse is true. Every successful festival program, don’t we know, requires a careful balancing of artistic sensibilities — a blend of old and new, populist and esoteric, fiction and nonfiction, experimental and Oscar-baity. The trouble, and here I know we’ll agree, is when the latter overwhelms everything, to the exclusion of those worthy but under-heralded gems.

FOUNDAS: In the end, this whole teacup tempest actually seems to have had little measurable effect, save for some distributor-less titles seeking sales deals (including those by Telluride vets Noah Baumbach and Michael Winterbottom), which were rumored to have bypassed Telluride because of the perceived importance of screening during Toronto’s opening stretch. But distributors like IFC, Sony Pictures Classics and the Weinstein Co. have continued to place their films in both festivals, and many friends and colleagues in various sectors of the business have told me they’re relieved at the thought of a Toronto in which the high-profile films are spread out more evenly over the festival’s 10 days. This entire dilemma, it seems to me, could easily be remedied if producers and sales agents would simply schedule private buyers’ screenings in Toronto during the first weekend, regardless of when Toronto itself decides to screen their films. Similar screenings already exist at market festivals like Cannes and Berlin, where a lot of attendees also seemingly can’t be bothered to stay until the bitter end. I mention this all because, as a child of divorce and a fan of both Telluride and Toronto, I just hate to see Mom and Dad fight.

Surely both fests could take a lesson from another Schlondorff film, “Diplomacy,” which had its North American premiere at Telluride (and was curiously snubbed by Toronto) after first screening in Berlin earlier this year. It’s a cleverly dramatized depiction of the relationship between Dietrich von Cholitz, the German military governor of occupied Paris, and Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling, who used his finely honed diplomatic skills to talk Von Cholitz out of dynamiting Paris’ artistic and architectural landmarks in the waning days of WWII. (Think “The Monuments Men,” only much better.) Schlondorff dedicates the film (which opens in the U.S. via Zeitgeist on Oct. 15) to the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who, as Schlondorff so deftly put it in Telluride, “died in the saddle” while serving as Obama’s special adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan. And at a time when it’s been estimated that there are more active conflict zones in the world than at any time since WWI, a film like Schlondorff’s can’t help but strike a timely chord.

Much the same can be said for “Three Short Films About Peace,” a trio of new films by Errol Morris that screened as one of Telluride’s late-breaking “sneak previews.” Each of these 15-minute films focuses on a champion of world peace, filmed in Morris’ proprietary, face-to-face, “Interrotron” style: Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, whose nonviolent protest movements led to the ouster of corrupt dictator Charles Taylor; former Polish president and Solidarity leader Leach Walesa; and rocker Bob Geldof, whose Band Aid, Live Aid and Live 8 charity projects have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in support for Africa. Curiously, the films grew out of Morris’ assignment to make a series of World Cup commercials for Visa, but the only thing being sold in these beautifully crafted and very moving portraits is the hopeful notion that one person really can change the world. (Following their Telluride premieres, the films will be available for streaming on the New York Times’ Op-Docs video channel starting next month.)

Finally, Justin, I love your description of “Birdman” as thrilling, inventive and exhilarating. There are all kinds of great movies, but there are some that give you a certain extra-special charge. It’s what the critic David Thomson described, writing about Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” as “a kind of passionate involvement with both the story and the making of a film, so that I was simultaneously moved by the enactment onscreen and by discovering that a new director had made the medium alive and dangerous again.” In Telluride this year, I felt that sensation myself on three occasions: at “Birdman,” at the 35th anniversary screening of “Apocalypse Now,” and, to no one’s greater surprise than my own, at Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy.”

We critics always have various skeletons lurking in our closets, and one of mine is that, over the past five years, I have somehow managed to miss all five features directed by this 25-year-old French-Canadian wunderkind — including “Mommy,” which was the one competition film I couldn’t squeeze into my schedule at Cannes this year. Finally catching up with the film in Telluride, I was simply bowled over by its depiction of a harried single mother, Diane “Die” Despres (the extraordinary Anne Dorval); her emotionally troubled teenage son, Steve (superb newcomer Antoine-Olivier Pilon); and the odd friendship they develop with a shy, withdrawn neighbor woman, Kyla (Suzanne Clement).

Dolan has been nothing if not a divisive figure on the festival circuit, at least partly due to his youth, his habit of casting himself in the lead roles of his films, and his brash, attention-getting fashion sense. But it is impossible to look at any five-minute stretch of “Mommy” and not acknowledge that Dolan knows an enormous amount about cinema. He’s a rapturous image-maker, with a keen sense of framing (here in the unusually narrow 1:1 aspect ratio, which might have seemed like a cheap visual stunt, but doesn’t), color and, most importantly, the precise emotional distance the camera should be from its subject at any given moment. Even more excitingly, he thinks in terms of long sequences that build slowly and precisely in intensity and then just as carefully wind back down — including one, late in the film, that’s almost a direct lift from Spike Lee’s “25th Hour,” but so brilliantly executed that no one is going to press any charges. By the end, I felt I had lived alongside these characters, walked their neighborhood streets, breathed their stifling suburban air, shared in their longing for escape. When I get back from Toronto, I look forward to finally seeing Dolan’s previous films (the first three of which are available for streaming on Netflix). Most of all, I can’t wait to see “Mommy” again.