Telluride Film #40: Best Fest, A Review

Bruce Dern, Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman

Bruce Dern, Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman

It all started with a little red truck, the one Bruce Dern sent to director and Telluride favorite Alexander Payne after reading the script for the Everyman tale, “Nebraska.” The truck came with a note: “I think I am Woody.”

He was.

He is.

As Woody, “Bruce from Winnetka” (Dern’s self description) hit his stride at the 40th annual Telluride Film Festival, where Payne’s latest film received a big bounce. (As a launching pad for the Oscars, Telluride is known to be springier than your mother’s old mattress.)

Dern could walk that walk all the way to the Oscar stage to claim a golden stature for what? Best Actor? Best Supporting Actor? There is some debate in the blogasphere about which prize the actor should go for. There was, however, no debate in the audience at the 40th annual Telluride Film Festival, which rewarded “Nebraska” and the character actor (he’s been at it for 55 years) with a standing ovation for a seamless performance that is a tour de force of understatement. The fifth cowboy on the left finally made it to “the Super Bowl,” Dern’s declared goal.

“Alexander Payne put together the best teammates I have ever worked with in my life, then asked us all to let him and the rest of his crew do their jobs. ‘Don’t show us anything,’ Alexander said. ‘Let us find it,’” Dern told his fans.

At the Q & A, Payne interjected: “All I want to do is make movies everyone wants to see.”

Everyone will.

“Nebraska” is the story of a tired recovering alcoholic who appears to have lost his memory. In a last-ditch effort to restore his dignity – and a reason for being into his sorry life – the embittered old man decides to trek from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the $1 million Mega Sweepstakes prize he believes he won from a Publisher’s Clearing House look-alike.

Payne shot “Nebraska” in black-and-white for a look that is straight out of photographer Walker Evans, who, for 50 years, (1920s – 1970s) lovingly recorded the American scene with the nuanced eye of a poet and the precision of a skillful surgeon. Payne cast the film with, yes, professional actors, but also with regional locals, who also delivered the goods.

“I have the local passport, so they came to our auditions,” said Payne. (He grew up in Omaha.)

In “Nebraska,” Woody’s son David is played by Will Forte, the comedic actor and writer best known as a cast member of Saturday Night Live. He matched Dern’s calculated restraint step by step en route to discovering one another. As Dern’s harridan of a wife, June Squibb sucked the limelight whenever she appeared on screen.

We predict nominations for Best Picture; Best Director for the simple but elegant execution Payne brought to the project (no color, minimal camera moves, no big songs); Best Actor; Best Supporting Actor (Forte and Stacey Keach as Woody’s greedy ex-partner and all-around bully); Best Supporting Actress (Squibb); and Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael).

Another of the buzziest films at the Festival was “12 Years A Slave,” based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African American kidnapped while living the life of a gentleman and scholar in upstate New York and sold into slavery. The gentleman becomes the property of a Simon Legree wannabe, evil plantation owner Edwin Epps and his wife, Mary Epps, as mean-spirited and manipulative as Lady MacBeth.

“Twelve Years” was directed by Steve McQueen, whose “Shame” opened in Telluride last year to very mixed reviews. This year, however, the response to McQueen’s work was unequivocally favorable: after the first screening, a sneak peek (the film chose Telluride over Toronto), the Internet lit up like the Fourth of July with critics gushing geysers of well-deserved words of praise.

“Twelve Years” underscored America’s “Shame,” our history of men living off the backs of other men, in what has to be McQueen’s most important and palatable work to date. Out of the hissing cauldron of lust and depravity that was “Shame” into another.

The star of “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejiofor is masterful (pardon the pun) in the role, who simmers on a low boil he must contain  throughout. Michael Fassbender, the sex addict of “Shame” fame, once again proves convincing as a twisted mister (Epps). Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Bryan Batt play various oppressors, with Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Taran Killam, Scott McNairy, Garret Dillahunt and Brad Pitt rounding out the film’s massive (and massively impressive) supporting cast.

Will the visually stunning survival narrative about an unbreakable soul break through to gold for MacQueen (also Ejiofor and Fassbender)? The film at times does go over the top – but largely in keeping with the nature of the story.

The other sneak peak that enraptured critics and fans alike was the equally intense “Prisoners,” starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. We missed the screenings, but here’s a synopsis of what Scott Foundas of Variety had to say:

“A spellbinding, sensationally effective thriller with a complex moral center that marks a grand-slam English-lingo debut for the gifted Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve.”

Ethan & Joel Coen

Ethan & Joel Coen

So will “Nebraska,” “Twelve Years a Slave,” or “Prisoners” be the 2014 “Argo” or “King’s Speech”?

Wait wait, there’s more.

The Oscar buzz also includes the Coen brothers “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a dark comedy set in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk music scene about a kvetching (albeit talented) narcissist from Queens. The story is based on the memoir of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, a friend of Bob Dylan’s and other luminaries of the day who made it. Despite obvious talent, Llewyn is forced to couch surf to survive.

Oscar Isaac is wonderful in the title role and what a warm, vibrant tenor. He is supported by a great cast of Who’s Who that includes Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, and John Goodman in a memorable cameo as a drug- addled jazz musician.

T Bone Burnett

T Bone Burnett

The audience at Cannes, where the film won a prize, reportedly rewarded the Coen brother’s 16th project with whoops of delight and vigorous applause. Critics were over the moon. Telluride not so much. Audiences here did not seem to make a visceral connection with the angsty hero of long glance looks – though everyone agreed the sound track and the performances rocked.

Isaac was in town with the Festival tributees the Coens and their musical guru, T Bone Burnett, an architect of American music.

Palme D’Or winner at Cannes, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” is the story of a Adele, a break-out performance by Adele Exarchopoulos, whose pouty, nubile beauty is reminiscent of early Bardot. The typical 15-year-old is initially seen as a woman on the verge, eager to be sent into raptures by her first real love affair. A handsome classmate fails to do the trick. That honor goes to a slightly older art student with blue hair named Emma, played by rising star Lea Seydoux. The overwhelming pleasure Adele experiences with Emma – and yes, one scene in particular is graphic and steamy, but really no sexier than Bernini’s sculpture “St. Teresa in Ecstasy” and just as beautiful –  opens the door to a very complicated love story that spans a decade and elicits knowing nods from an audience who has been there, done that (or is there, doing that). And we are not talking the lesbian thing, no more than a plot detail appropriate to these much more sexually permissive times, but the whole first love thing and the ripple effect that initiation has throughout our lives.

“Blue” was directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, who also wrote the beautiful, believable story with Julie March.

“Gravity,” a space epic directed by Oscar nominee Alfonso Cuaron, with son and co-writer Jonas Cuaron, came to the Festival with a lot of wind under its sails. The film, which adroitly walks the line between scientific fact and fiction, is a spine tingler featuring A-listers and Oscar winners George Clooney (TFF tribute 2011) as Captain Matt Kowalsky and Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone. The two astronauts are out and about on a leisurely stroll around space when disaster strikes, their shuttle is destroyed, and the pair are left completely alone and adrift.

We were privileged to attend the screening of “Gravity” at Film Fest’s newest venue, the Werner Herzog (the “Zog”) Theatre, itself a masterpiece of engineering (kudos to Bone Construction, Parks & Rec and all involved), which showcased the film’s stunning technical achievements, on a par with Ang Lee’s groundbreaking “Life of Pi.” The films tell the same story as “Pi,” of guts and grit and the will to beat the odds and survive in the face of an environment that yawns at the effort.

Gravity” is one of a trilogy of movies at the Festival based on that theme. The second, J.C. Chandor and tributee/icon Robert Redford’s “All is Lost,” is way less flashy, but no less of a gut punch.

(For more, read Clint Viebrock’s very personal review of the two movies.)

And while we are on the subject of do or die, John Curran’s “Tracks” rounds out the picture (or pictures). The slow-moving, visually engaging drama tells the story of Robyn Davidson and her epic trek across the Australian desert on 1977. Davidson is played with beguiling innocence and determination by rising star (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Jane Eyre”) Mia Wasikowska. The National Geographic photographer who recorded Davidson’s journey, Rick Smolan, is played by sexy nerd Adam Driver. Four camels and a dog also star. (Trivia buff alert: Davidson told the stunned crowd at one screening that she actually married Eddie, the Aboriginal elder who accompanied her through sacred territory.)

Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet led the cast of “Labor Day,” a film faithfully adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard (“To Die For”) and directed by Telluride favorite Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up in the Air”).  The reception in town was mixed, however, “Labor Day” was one of several movies at the Festival that fell into the category of lost souls, people looking for a meaningful connection in the autumn of their lives to replace a profound lethargy generated by their past and solidified in their present.

But in the case of the suspense thriller,”Before the Winter Chill,” that desire for something or someone to really rock the boat has scary consequences. The story about an all-too-complacent French haute bourgeois couple (the man, in a mid-life crisis) features quietly powerful performances by Kristin Scott Thomas and Daniel Auteil.

At our screening, director Phillippe Claudel enjoined the audience to “cooperate” with him.

“I ask you to explore and inspect your own life to understand this movie.”

Glimpse into our rear view mirrors in order to figure out the road ahead? Un peu effrayant, n’est pas?

Is “Winter’s Chill” a contender for Best Foreign Film? Perhaps. For sure, it’s a fine, viscerally satisfying film.

In the same category, “The Lunchbox,” the only Indian film to be featured in the line up, is a fine comedy drama directed by Ritesh Batra. “Lunchbox” came to Telluride on a wave of praise generated by the festival circuit. Irrfan Khan (of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Life of Pi”) turns in an Oscar worthy performance as an older man who falls for the anonymous creator (Ila, played by the affecting Nimrat Kaur) of the delicacies in his lunch package.

Paulina Garcia, who won Best Actress for the role in Berlin, is glorious in “Gloria,” Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s tragic-comedy about a woman reaffirming her zest for life. “Gloria” affectively proves there is life after 30 – even for women: lines, thickening waists and all.

But among all the foreign films, “The Past,” stood out. And the movie, Asghar Farhadi’s powerful follow-up to his Oscar-winning “A Separation,” is an equally strong second act.

The epicenter of the story is Ahmad, Ali Mosaffa, the calm in the storm – though not without flaws of his own. Why for example did it take him four years to return to Paris to see the woman he is still legally married to (Berenice Bejo of “The Artist” fame in a much darker, deeper role, which won her Best Actress at Cannes) and to reunite with the children he supposedly loves? As the complex plot unravels, revealing dark secrets, Farhadi manages to keep all the balls up in the air. Another small masterpiece with winning performances.

An added kick for “The Past,” at least locally: Farhadi is as much in love with Telluride as Telluride is with him.

“I think this is the coolest festival in the world.

Naturally we agree.

This year especially.

Kudos to the three co-directors, Tom Luddy, Julie Huntsinger and Gary Meyer, who really brought the magic to their 40th celebration, including as always, documentaries.

Tim’s Vermeer,” features the obsessive, extremely successful, extremely likable inventor Tim Jenison, who conducts a five-year experiment to find an explanation for the photorealistic quality of art world god Johannes Vermeer’s shimmering masterpieces. Ee-gaads, does the fact Vermeer did it with mirrors mean he cheated? Does the fact that Jenison, a non-artist, duplicated Vermeer’s “The Music Room,” in any way diminish the genius of the artist? Teller directed, with Penn Jillette supplying on-camera context, but gives no clear answers. The film is a shoo-in for the Best Documentary category, along with “Salinger.

Salinger,” Shane Salerno’s (“Armageddon,” “Savages”) is an in-depth portrait of the paradoxical author, J.D. Salinger, whom one insider described as “an iconoclast who wanted to belong.” “Salinger” was another sneak peek in a long weekend packed with wonderful surprises. There was simply too much to see and review, though friends report “Ida,” “Starred Up” and Ralph Fiennes’ “Invisible Woman” about the secret mistress of Charles Dickens, Ellen Terman (a pitch- perfect Felicity Jones), should be added to your watch list and Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto” is a very respectable freshman effort.

Yes indeed, Telluride Film Fest 2013 was the good, better, best Fest. Not one rotten tomatoes in the whole bunch. The celluloid celebration slammed the door shut on the disappointments of early summer, which we all know by now brought a series of turkeys to the big screen. It added momentum to the fall Oscar season. Most of all, Telluride, true to the tradition established by the Pences and Luddy, celebrated the art of filmmaking, its reason for being.

What does that mean?

Morning at the Chuck No gratuitous guys and gore stuff. Or gimmickry for gimmicky’s sake. Just good stories well told about complicated people and their everyday struggles with life, love, power, sex, money, social convention, and the vagaries of the human heart. The resulting tapestry, rich and surprising, not only entertained, it also enhanced our visceral understanding of the world in which we live – warts and all. True, Telluride helped launch “Argo,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Descendants,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Juno,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote” and “The Last King of Scotland.” And yes, it’s fun to speculate about what’s up next. But it was enough to just be here this banner year and experience push ups for the brain. Buzzmeister Telluride clearly remains outside the stupid zone.

(Note: links go directly to trailers.)

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Susan Viebrock

Susan is Telluride Inside… and Out’s founder and editor-in-chief, the visionary on the team, in charge of content, concept and development. For 19+ years, Susan has covered Telluride’s cultural economy, which includes non-profits and special events. Much of her writing features high-profile individuals in the arts, entertainment, business, and politics. She is a former Citibank executive specializing in strategic planning and new business development, and a certified Viniyoga instructor.

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