TFF: Pure Gold On The Golden Anniversary!

For its 50th anniversary, the 2023 Telluride Film Festival was dedicated to founders Tom Luddy (1943-2023); Bill Pence (1940-2022); Stella Pence; and James Card (1915-2000). And what a celebration it was. Five days of pure gold.

For more information about Telluride Film Festival, or to download the 2023 program guide, please visit www.telluridefilmfestival.org.

Go here for more about the Telluride Film Festival (back to 2009).

“Love is divine. And I love cinema. For me, love is completely indistinguishable from cinema.” Guillermo del Toro.

One of the very few actors we saw to stand up with her film over the five-day weekend that was the 50th anniversary of the Telluride Film Festival (TFF) was Dakota Johnson. With an interim agreement “Daddio” was not bound by strike rules, yet the actress declared her solidarity with SAG-AFTRA – and got a round of applause for supporting a better outcome for the future of cinema.

But even without the glam slam of actors supporting their movies – and the whispered, existential threat to the LaLa Land of SLAM!, BAM! POP! sequels and super heroes on rinse and repeat – word on the street was that 2023 was one of the best ever.

The why is simple.

Since its inception (1974) TFF directors and their sterling team of flick pickers have been all about the art, not the business, of filmmaking. In other words, Telluride is declaratively and decidedly not a horse race, not all about picking winners. Yet historically and with uncanny consistency Oscar winners have emerged from that Labor Day weekend in Telluride and this year was no exception.

Honoring TFF founders, film after film hit that elusive sweet spot where compelling storytelling, confident filmmaking and escapist entertainment melded into something that resembles a chestnut-in-the-making.

Many festival pet their celebrities.

Not Telluride.

That’s because TFF was never a booty call or a swag grab or a giant photo op. Here attendees find no big-budget pap; no paparazzi either. In short, TFF is red meat for cinephiles – stars, writers, directors, producers, and just folks who like watching.

Once again this year’s program held up a big, clear mirror to our world, reminding us why those ribbons of dreams (thank you Orson Welles) mesmerize as they do. Eyes wide open we are reawakened to socio-cultural challenges including bias against The Other. We are reminded of our foibles and flawed relationships, of our driving desires, of our own mortality. In the end, we are enthralled and those images become burned into our memories. Small wonder the TFF tribe is willing to hole up in dark theaters when the sun is shining outside. Why we are willing to out ourselves as voyeurs.

“We come to this place for magic,” Nicole Kidman was intoned in an ad for AMC Theaters that became a camp cult phenom, “to laugh, to cry, to care. Because we need that, all of us.”

A now famous line that underlines Huntsinger’s contention that “the most important part of TFF is the community.”

Even a community of two as in one of the buzziest films of a very robust weekend: “Daddio.”

Below is an overview of some of the films we saw and enjoyed. Sadly we could not see them all.

Daddio:

New York City, JFK airport. A young woman jumps into the backseat of a yellow taxi. The cabbie throws the vehicle into drive and the two head out into the night towards Manhattan, striking up a most unusual, most unexpected conversation as the improbable pair shed their veils to reveal dark truths about the Great Duality (men and women).

Note: There is also a third character, whom we meet through text messages only. But he is arguably the main driver of the action.

“Daddio” celebrates the power of those rare moments of pure human connection, even with the most unlikely person. The contained, yet kinetic character study explores the secrets we keep – including those locked away on our phones. The film is about truth and illusion and how we effortlessly substitute one for the other out of a need for closeness.

It is also a story about how past trauma can show up in the most profound and provocative ways.

In the end, first-time writer-director Christy Hall’s astounding cinematic breakout is about the magical, mystical dance between the pain and poetry that sums up the human experience. And, thanks to the virtuosic performances by the two protagonists Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn, both at the tippy top of their game, the movie unfolds as one of the most riveting pas de deux ever seen on the silver screen and, according to Hall, a love letter to New York City.

Go here to read a full review from Deadline.

Poor Things:

Easily and comfortably sitting on the top of our list for “Best of Fest” is Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” a totally irreverent, absolutely hilarious spin on female self-discovery, sexuality and ultimately power, adapted from a novel by Allsdair Gray.

Lanthimos received one of the Silver Medallions at the 50th anniversary celebration, perfectly timed in concert with what is likely the director’s finest work ever (including his “The Favourite,” 2018) and surely one of the best movies of the year. As his lead Bella, Emma Stone is at the top of her game in this wild and free roller coaster ride of a feature.

“Bella is one of the cinematic creations of the year,” raves Awards Radar.

Memorable performances by Willem Dafoe, Ray Youssef and Mark Ruffalo too.

This daring riff on the Frankenstein tale is not to be missed. (Unless you are easily offended.)

As Huntsinger said in her press briefing: “Sex is back on the silver screen.”

To which we say “Amen”:

“’Poor Things’ is one of 2023’s best works and should be a major Oscar player. Telluride seemed to largely love it, which is something considering how out there it can be at times. I never wanted this one to end, that’s how good it is. Trust me folks, Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone are about to blow you away, once again. Bravo,” continued Awards Radar.

Check out a great review by Below the Line:

All of Us Strangers:

Also from Searchlight Pictures is a second, very buzzy pic, Andrew Haigh’s “All of Us Strangers.” Another on our list of what not to miss.

“All of Us Strangers” is a British romantic fantasy written and directed by Haigh, loosely based on a 1987 novel Japanese novel by Taichi Yamada – and on his own life and love.

In the story Adam is a screenwriter living in London who encounters his mysterious neighbor Harry (Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in flawless performances) in an otherwise deserted apartment building straight out of “The Twilight Zone.” As their relationship develops, Adam returns home – for the record Haigh’s real childhood home – to discover his long-dead parents are not only alive and well, but have seemingly not aged in the 30 years since their fatal car accident.

Subtle and moving this tone poem of a ghost story is easily one of the best films of the year.

“Prepare to be wrecked,” raved The Hollywood Reporter.

Read this full review from Variety.

The Bikeriders:

According to Biker Digital:

“A motorcycle signifies a little extra spice in a guy – a dash of testosterone in a world swamped with overly-sensitive men. Not that bikers aren’t kind and loving, but let’s face it – they are VERY different from modern metrosexuals. While some women may like a polished guy, many still want to see a little masculinity in their men.

“A man riding a bike exudes fearlessness, self-reliance, and independence. There’s nothing but leather between him and danger, but he still embraces risks to live life to the fullest…

If you’ve ever wondered how that sexy bad girl vibe would feel and look on you, dating a biker is a perfect time to find out. A biker won’t try to tame your wild side. Instead, they empower their ladies to experience life as they wish, free their spirit and energy, and just enjoy the unchained side of life. A biker will encourage his girl to look and feel sexy, wild, and free at any age, and not many women can say no to that..”

Kathy couldn’t.

Kathy is a girl who walks into a biker bar in 1965 to meet a few friends and walks out with Benny, a member of the Vandals, a Chicago-based outfit, and a brand new life.

Kathy is Jodie Comer of “Prima Facie” and” Killing Eve” fame, in yet another riveting performance. Benny is the smoking hot James Dean progeny Austin Butler, dark, dangerous and out of control. The third big player in the story is the Vandal’s head honcho Johnny played as a haunted soul by Tom Hardy.

The through line of the film is the struggle between Kathy and Johnny for Benny’s heart and soul.

About a nickel ago, director Jeff Nichols happened upon a book of black-and-white photography by one Danny Lyons titled “The Bikeriders.” The images focused on a group of hard-nut motorcycle riders from Chicago in the early, tamer days of the 1960s. The grizzled, but electrifying subculture collectively acts as a prelude to the rebellion and violence of the decade soon to come. (Was it a happenstance the Vandals themselves followed that trajectory?)

Was this Jeff Nichols’ best effort? The consensus is “No.” Was “The Bikeriders” entertaining? “Yes.”

Go here to read a full review from Awards Radar.

Wildcat:

“Wildcat” is a biopic about American novelist Flannery O’Connor. We meet her as she is struggling to get her first novel published. The film was directed by Ethan Hawke, a self-declared nepo dad (and proud of it) and written by Hawke and Shelby Gaines. The film stars Hawke’s and Uma Thurman’s daughter Maya and close family friend Laura Linney, a Telluride regular and one of the most talented actors alive today. (If you missed Linney in “Summer 1976,” a master class in acting, so sad, too bad.)

Both Hawke fille and Linney play their several roles in the film with extraordinary authenticity and dexterity: mother and daughter, plus characters from four of O’Connor’s dark stories that underline aspects of the celebrated “Southern Gothic” author’s troubled and all-too-brief life.

“The truth doesn’t change according to our ability to stomach it,” Flannery O’Connor.

And the truth is “Wildcat” is an idiosyncratic movie about an idiosyncratic author. Some have said the film will be only of interest to college lit students. Our truth is otherwise: Flannery’s experience of white hypocrisy, as told through her parables and delivered through tour de force performances, speak directly to the racism we are experiencing today. A racism that is at the heart of our country’s great divide. We are privileged to see that ugly truth through O’Connor’s sharp eyes and acerbic wit as it unfolds on the screen.

Go here for a full review from Variety here.

The Holdovers:

IMDB summarizes:

“Nobody likes teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) — not his students, not his fellow faculty, not the headmaster, who all find his pomposity and rigidity exasperating. With no family and nowhere to go over Christmas holiday in 1970, Paul remains at school to supervise students unable to journey home. After a few days, only one student holdover remains — a trouble-making 15-year-old named Angus, a good student whose bad behavior always threatens to get him expelled. Joining Paul and Angus is head cook Mary (Randolph)-an African American woman who caters to sons of privilege and whose own son was recently lost in Vietnam. These three very different shipwrecked people form an unlikely Christmas family sharing comic misadventures during two very snowy weeks in New England. The real journey is how they help one another understand that they are not beholden to their past-they can choose their own futures.”

Under Alexander Payne’s direction – the two reunite at long last and amen after “Sideways” – Paul as Paul turns in one of his best performances ever as a brainiac curmudgeon. As the damaged trouble-maker, first-time scene actor Dominic Tessa serves up a fully baked, totally believable character study. As does Da’Vine Joy Randolph in her role as the prep school’s head cook. The arch of their collective journey from broken to better is a delight to watch unfold.

Like “Daddio,” “The Holdovers” is all about the power of human connection, however unlikely. The movie is also genuinely and consistently funny,  the kind of comfort food we need now as an antidote to the daily doses of the exhausting, depressing headlines we are forced to swallow.

A must-see.

Read a full review from The Wrap.

Rustin:

Barack Obama showed up at the Telluride Film Fest – larger than life on the silver screen to introduce the biopic he and Michelle produced. Rustin was directed by George C. Wolfe from a story by Julian Breece about the life and work of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, played to perfection by Colman Domingo in what will surely be his career-making performance.

Don’t know the name of that stage and screen actor? You will after watching Domingo metabolize Rustin, an openly and aggressively gay man at a time being queer was illegal, and also a fervent, passionately committed activist leader in the Civil Rights movement who schooled Martin Luther King in the practice of non-violent protest.

A towering figure in a towering film.

Todd McCarthy’s review on Deadline sums up beautifully.

American Symphony:

“American Symphony” is a documentary about the life and work of the behemoth talent that is John Batiste. It is also a love story.

The doc drew the biggest crowd in the 50-year history of TFF when it was screened in Town Park Sunday night, a show that included a rousing mini concert by Batiste.

His success in life looks too good to be true.

And it is and isn’t.

Batiste’s adored wife Suleika Jaouad is waging a battle again leukemia, a monster which refuses to stay caged. And Batiste himself fights ongoing anxiety and panic attacks.

Winner of five Grammies in 2022, the man has earned his place in the sun. And we basked in his electrifying smile.

Check out this review from The Hollywood Reporter.

The Pigeon Tunnel:

“The Pigeon Tunnel” is a thoroughly engaging look at the life and times of the enigmatic David Cornwell, aka John Le Carré. The doc by the legendary Errol Morris spans six decades and includes archival footage and dramatic, if often unsettling, anecdotes, which pull back the curtain on Cornwell/Le Carré’s life and work, effectively an act of aggression against the status quo – and the author’s grifter dad Ronnie.

In his introduction, Morris sums up his stories:

”History is chaos. There is no rhyme or reason.” And, as stated by Robert McNamara in one of his earlier docs, ‘The Fog of War,” (which also opened in Telluride), “Rationality will not save us.”

“The Pigeon Tunnel” is set against the backdrop of the Cold War, now in version 2.0.

Memorable performances on both sides of the camera.

“Making films for me is a form of thinking,” Morris added.”It is my way of talking about the world out there.”

Read this illuminating review from The Guardian.

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