Editor’s note: With over 30 programs packed into just over three days, no one experiences the same Telluride Film Festival. It depends on what you choose to see, what you stumble into and what you miss. Here is one passholder’s festival diary.
The world is in trouble. This has been the core message of every Telluride Film Festival, and it’s always been true, but never more so than now. The world’s great film artists are preoccupied with injustice and racism, the tenuousness of human civilization, the isolation of the individual, and the possibilities for redemption. There was an escapist Hollywood star vehicle on the program, possibly for relief, but even “Ford vs. Ferrari,” which was well-liked possibly because it refuses to think too deeply, was in its own way a reflection of these most challenging times we live in.
The movies talk to each other and to each festivalgoer individually, depending on what that passholder sees and in what order: If I didn’t respond well to “Ford vs. Ferrari,” with its schlocky (but undeniably gripping) action footage, familiar narrative structure and cliched characters, it still reflects this moment in time: MAGA America’s nostalgia for a simpler past, where machismo is all that’s required to beat the system and more horsepower can respond to any challenge. To see that movie and then Terrence Malick’s magisterial “A Hidden Life” was a shock to a filmgoer’s (or at least this filmgoer’s) aesthetic sensibilities.
Malick’s earliest movies — “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” — introduced mysticism into the daily life of “ordinary” characters. He seems in “A Hidden Life” — the profoundly felt story of a martyr to Hitler, structured less like a narrative feature film than a classical oratorio — to have reached a destination. Malick explicitly posed the question of the festival for me: What can an individual do in the face of monstrous inhumanity?
In “Beanpole,” the second film by a Russian prodigy Kantemir Balagov, the question is answered without a shred of Malick’s theoretically transcendent religiosity, and therefore, without mercy. In Leningrad in the aftermath of WWII, the psyche of individuals has been shattered, likely beyond repair. This was a tough movie to watch, yet undeniable.
As if in response, there were films on the program that insisted salvation might be found in coming to terms, finally, with the sins of the past. Director Kelly Reichardt in “First Cow” revisits the American frontier of the early 19th century to reveal that the diversity of peoples and cultures is integral to who we are today as a nation. Moreover, the brutality of the past is not past.
“The Australian Dream” brought a welcome note of hopefulness to the subject. This brilliantly structured documentary tells the story of Adam Goodes, an Australian football superstar who challenged the offhand racism of his own fans and paid a high price for it, but possibly with surprising success. The movie packs an unexpected emotional punch, and to see it on Monday morning made for a magical moment when Goodes himself walked into the Nugget at film’s end. The man is living proof that human decency could prevail.
The riveting first feature by Filipino director Raymund Ribay Gutierrez, “Justice,” made, for me, another “Telluride moment” — because it was so unexpected. I saw it early Sunday morning with an audience of maybe 30 people, without having heard any buzz. Although it is scripted, staged and acted, “Justice” feels like unvarnished reality, documenting the futility of justice for a woman assaulted by her husband, at least within a bureaucratic system that looks like a parody of the American system of justice. Then again, one thinks, maybe the American system of justice is self-parodic. “Justice” does something movies rarely do, at least after you’ve seen a bunch of them: It shows you something you’ve never seen before.
So, what’s going to hit big in theaters and at the Oscars?
Possibly none of the above, but Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” hits all the sweet spots. This is a smart and funny and brutal story of a divorce, fueled by Adam Driver’s and Scarlett Johansson’s star power. Festival buzz said the same of Boon Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” which I missed, but look forward to seeing. The documentary “Tell Me Who I Am,” which sets itself up for a big reveal and then delivers, was very well liked. Actor, writer and director Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn” aims high, trying to evoke the classic “Chinatown,” but falls disappointingly short. The searing family drama “Waves,” written and directed by 30-year-old Trey Edwards Shultz, could be a sleeper.
Perhaps the surest critical and commercial hit, on the art house circuit at least, was Pedro Almadóvar’s autobiographical “Pain and Glory.” Like last year’s major Telluride hit, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” here is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers at the top of his game, delivering sweet reminiscence, fearless self-reflection, style, and generosity of spirit. Like the explicitly political films on the festival program, the question presents itself: “What shall I do?” Here, though, the problem is not political oppression, but metaphysical and psychological paralysis, which might be the same thing. The filmmaker himself is blocked. His response, thrillingly, is the very film we are watching. Almadóvar’s answer, possibly the only answer: Only in artistic expression, in the magic of movies, can we make sense of it all. Especially in Telluride on a Labor Day weekend.