Telluride Film Festival

09.06.11

Oscars, Start Your Engines!

Kicking off Oscar season, the Telluride Film Festival showcased shoo-in performances by George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, and more. Marlow Stern reports on the buzziest new competitors.

After taking in a screening of Michel Hazanavicius’s wondrous black-and-white silent film The Artist, I moseyed out of the Chuck Jones Cinema en route to the gondola that, in the course of 12 minutes, will transport me over a vast expanse of mountains replete with lush trees and packs of wild elk, and back down to the tiny town of Telluride. All of a sudden, a giddy little girl darts past me. A woman’s voice shouts, “Violet, come back!” I turn toward the sound to see Jennifer Garner, a concerned expression on her face, and spin my head back toward the girl just in time to see her run smack into the knees of Alexander Payne, the Oscar-winning director of Sideways. Payne helps little Violet up and brushes her off, while Garner thanks the man and leaves. The well-coiffed filmmaker then turns to a teenage girl, points toward the family of three ambling down the esplanade and says, without a hint of irony, “Look—there’s a famous actress’s daughter.”

Such are the unique joys of the Telluride Film Festival, which ran from Sept. 2-5. It’s a cinephile’s wet dream set in an idyllic silver-mining town of about 2,300 year-round residents, and is strategically nestled in between the more high-profile Cannes and Toronto fests, as well as the aforementioned red-faced San Juan Mountains.

“It’s my third time here and it’s just the best festival—the movies, the people, and the locale,” said Payne, staring out at the sun setting over the mountains. “I mean, look at that view.”

For those lucky enough to make the trip—lodging and flights are costly, and only a tiny amount of “key press,” as festival codirector Julie Huntsinger calls them, is invited—there is a lean program of about 25 films, including Indiewood Oscar hopefuls, thought-provoking documentaries, and retrospectives on the likes of Billy Wilder and Jean-Luc Godard that are displayed in venues such as a converted opera house, a high-school gymnasium, and even a miniature outdoor park. An abundance of families—often with dogs in tow—wander around the tree-lined streets, and there’s a plethora of bicycles locked against any and every available surface. And the kicker: the lineup for the festival is shrouded in secrecy, and is only revealed the day before it kicks off. To add to the suspense, each day new, previously unannounced films occupy vacant “TBA” slots in the schedule. Even many of the sponsors are of the low-key variety, including Turner Classic Movies, Dolby, and yes, Omaha Steaks.

“There’s an understated elegance to this little up-in-the-mountains town,” said Huntsinger, in her fifth year with Telluride. “And it’s the same thing with our festival—there’s an understated elegance, and we’d like to keep it that way.”

In recent years, Telluride has served as a starter pistol for the Oscar race, boasting several North American and world premieres of anticipated Oscar bait prior to Toronto. Two of the last three best-picture Oscar winners—Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech—made their world premiere at Telluride, and so have countless others (see: Sideways, Brokeback Mountain, Juno). Telluride is so unassuming that it refers to their world premieres as “sneak previews” in order to reserve the “world premiere” designation for Toronto.

This year, the biggest star wattage—and Oscar bait—belonged to the inimitable George Clooney, here to receive a tribute award and deliver the world premiere of his new film, The Descendants, directed by one of the finest American filmmakers, Alexander Payne. In the Hawaii-set film, Clooney plays a father trying to manage his two young, estranged daughters when their mother falls into a coma following a boating accident. Payne’s tragicomedy is full of his trademark dark humor, pathos, and hairpin tonal turns. In many ways, it eclipses even 2004’s Sideways—which Clooney actually auditioned for but was turned down in favor of Thomas Haden Church. Clooney’s loving father is an interesting foil to his islandlike character in Up in the Air, which also premiered at Telluride, and the actor delivers as emotionally naked a performance as you’re likely to see from a major Hollywood star; one that will all but guarantee him recognition come Oscar night. “He’s a schlub, and I wanted to be that guy,” said Clooney, in a postscreening Q&A. He also touched on how important it is for him to use his fame to greenlight as many small, interesting projects like this one as possible.

“My aunt [Rosemary Clooney] was very famous, and then she wasn’t famous, and then she was very famous again, so I’m lucky enough to understand how random all of this shit is,” said Clooney.” If you’re going to get these keys to the toy box, and you’re going to be able to greenlight things that nobody wants to make, you have to keep doing it as long as you can until they take them away. And they will take them away.”

The Descendants also provided the festival’s young, breakout star: Shailene Woodley (The Secret Life of an American Teenager), in her fist major film role, who gives one of the most convincing portrayals of teenage angst and rebellion ever put to film. “I don’t think you understand how hard it is to cry underwater,” said Clooney, of one of the actress’ pivotal scenes. And according to Woodley, Clooney made the experience easier for her with his on-set pranks.

The Artist may be the first silent film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar since The Patriot in 1929.

“After the table read, the very first time I met him, we were sitting next to each other and I was like, ‘OK, Shay, you can’t fuck this up,’ ” Woodley told The Daily Beast. “At the end, he looks over at me and goes, ‘Well, they won’t be bringing you back after that.’ Then he gets up from the table, turns around, smiles, and winks. I was like, ‘OK, it’s on. This is going to be awesome.’”

Clooney’s Michael Clayton costar, Tilda Swinton, was the other actor to be honored with the festival’s Silver Medallion. She brought along her film We Need To Talk About Kevin—an impressionistic horror movie from acclaimed Scottish director Lynn Ramsay (Morvern Callar), about a mother struggling to deal with the aftermath of her son’s (Ezra Miller) involvement in a school shooting, and whether or not her parenting was at all responsible. Swinton delivers the finest performance of her career as the grieving mom, and Ramsay’s film, with its disjointed narrative, artful direction, and endless motifs, was one of the most talked-about films of the festival.

“I feel like there should be couches outside the screenings,” Swinton told The Daily Beast. “This film will be psychoanalyzed. And it’s not that [the son] is so unmanageable and exotic, it’s that in him she sees the worst parts of herself.” Swinton, clad in a white suit, also gave high marks to Telluride, saying, “It’s a very unique festival where you can come here with your film and also see films as well.”

Speaking of psychoanalysis, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, starring Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, incited mixed reactions. This very handsome costume drama follows the battle of wits between Jung and Freud, as the two famed analysts feud over Jung’s sexual relationship with one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley)—a frantic young Russian woman whose father abused her. The psychoanalytical field seems like fresh meat for a mad scientist like Cronenberg, but here, the director has pulled back his twisted inventiveness in favor of a very rigid, academic approach, which ultimately hurts the film. Fassbender and Mortensen are solid, but Knightley’s jaw-jutting, teethy performance as the committed masochist is more than a little over the top.

Michael Fassbender’s other film at Telluride, Shame, not only features loads more explicit sex—and family drama—than Cronenberg’s film, but it’s also a borderline masterpiece. The film, which reunites Fassbender with his Hunger director Steve McQueen, sees the strapping Irish actor play a 30-year-old sex addict who, when he’s not masturbating to porn, stalks the New York City sidewalks in search of female—or male—prey. He’s forced to confront his troubled past when his flighty sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), crashes at his swank bachelor pad.

McQueen’s Shame is one of the most vivid, nightmarish portraits of Manhattan seediness ever put to film. This is Martin Scorsese's After Hours by way of Gaspar Noé, and Fassbender is up to the challenge, delivering a performance that rivals David Thewlis’s turn in Mike Leigh’s Naked in sheer emotional catharsis. Unfortunately, I spoke to several prominent indie-film distributors after the film’s screening who all believed it would be very difficult for this film, which is guaranteed an NC-17 rating thanks to loads of explicit sex—including full-frontal nudity by Fassbender and Mulligan, to get distribution. Several older attendees walked out of the screening I attended. It would take an indie-marketing virtuoso (think: Harvey Weinstein or Bob Berney), to create the kind of word of mouth necessary for this film to find an audience. Fassbender is worthy of an Oscar nod for this, the best performance of his career, but like Ryan Gosling’s turn in last year’s similarly controversial Blue Valentine, he may find himself being the sixth man out.

Not a single person dared walk out of Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist—the festival’s biggest crowd pleaser. This magical, black-and-white silent film centers on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a charismatic, self-obsessed silent-film star in the late 1920s who sees his career come crashing down when films make the transition from silent to talkies. He is replaced on the marquee by a former admirer of his, Peppy Miller (the director’s wife, Bérénice Bejo), and soon spirals into a deep depression that rivals the one laying waste to his finances. Dujardin, who won the best-actor award at Cannes, is a revelation. His George Valentin has the seductive charm and charisma of Errol Flynn, combined with the comedic physicality of Peter Sellers. And Hazanavicius’s film, shot in just 35 days on a budget of $11 million, is an absolute thing of beauty.

“I had this fantasy for a long time, and it’s very difficult because it’s so out of the market so nobody would put money toward a silent, black-and-white movie,” Hazanavicius told The Daily Beast. If the Weinstein Co. plays its cards right, The Artist may be the first silent film to be nominated for the best-picture Oscar since The Patriot in 1929.

Other festival highlights include Glenn Close’s passion project, Albert Nobbs, in which the 64-year-old five-time Oscar nominee steps into the Charlie Chaplin-like wardrobe of Nobbs, a woman who poses as a male waiter at a hotel in order to escape the social injustices of 19th-century Dublin. Close will undoubtedly receive an Oscar nod for her delicate, restrained performance, as will Janet McTeer, who dazzles as a woman posing as a broad-shouldered, burly Irish painter. Asghar Farhadi’s captivating A Separation, which swept the awards at the Berlin Film Festival, provides a unique lens into the lives of Iranian citizens, while Agniezka Holland’s In Darkness, about a man’s courageous efforts to rescue a town full of Polish-Jewish refuges during World War II, packs a massive emotional punch. The biggest disappointment of the festival is Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss—a death-row documentary that examines the devastating fallout on a small Texas town in the wake of a triple-homicide. It’s like Herzog’s version of an Errol Morris film—minus the Philip Glass score, fascinating reenactments, and exoneration.

During the second day of the festival, staffers on Main Street were put on high alert. The reason? A lone paparazzo, presumably veering from the star-studded nuptials of David Lauren (son of Ralph) and Lauren Bush (niece of George W.) at Ralph Lauren’s nearby ranch, was rumored to have breached the festival’s invisible force field, attempting to spoil the fun. When festival cofounder Tom Luddy was informed of this, he let out a deep laugh.

“We don’t announce the program, so by the time we announce it, paparazzi can’t get onto a plane or get a room,” said Luddy. “When Sean Penn was here with the first screening of Into the Wild, he was walking around puzzled and said, ‘This is a paparazzi-free zone? How did that happen?’ And for once he felt totally comfortable walking around everywhere.”