Telluride: Big Premieres Outshine Retrospectives as Festival Throws Itself a Great 40th

3:48 PM PST 09/02/2013 by Todd McCarthy
"Gravity"

Steve McQueen’s "12 Years a Slave," Alfonso Cuaron’s "Gravity" and a slew of Cannes hits punctuate the five-day Colorado event, bolstered by the opening of a new theater.

The Telluride Film Festival celebrated its 40th birthday in grand style over an extended five-day Labor Day weekend with a banner collection of generally outstanding new films, stellar tributes and a big new theater that considerably eased the perennial problem of guests not getting in to see everything they desired.

As has increasingly been the case over the last several years, big new fall titles caused the greatest anticipation and, in most cases, excitement when they were unveiled in the rarefied, 8,750-foot altitude town, which now has eight first-class venues running films all day and often until 1 a.m.

PHOTOS: Telluride Film Festival: The Films

Of the hitherto unseen titles from name directors from whom much was expected, all were extremely well received, most of all Steve McQueen’s gripping biographical drama 12 Years a Slave, Alfonso Cuaron’s eye- and mind-blowing Gravity and Denis Villeneuve’s gritty Prisoners. Jason Reitman’s moving Labor Day kicked things off in very nice fashion, while Ralph Fiennes’ romantic drama about Charles Dickens, The Invisible Woman, provided a happy surprise; Gia Coppola’s teen study Palo Alto revealed a distinctive hand; John Curran’s Australian trek epic Tracks and David Mackenzie’s violent prison drama Starred Up generally satisfied; Shane Salerno’s long-awaited documentary Salinger made it (but just barely, given the crash landing at Telluride Airport of the plane carrying the elements and support staff) for a final-day surprise; and Hayao Miyazaki’s latest, The Wind Rises, also arrived at the end -- along with the unwelcome news that the great Japanese animator is retiring.

An unknown quantity that quickly generated great enthusiasm was the camera optics art documentary Tim’s Vermeer from Teller (as in Penn & Teller), as did the account of weird doings in one of the world’s most far-flung outposts, Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden.

Not living up to expectations for most viewers was Jonathan Glazer’s Woman-Who-Fell-to-Earth-style mystery piece Under the Skin, while Errol Morris’ elaborate documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, was widely considered to be not on a par with his similar The Fog of War, about Robert McNamara.

PHOTOS: Telluride: Highlights From the Festival's 40 Years

Yuval Adler’s Israeli thriller Bethlehem received generally positive marks, while Pawel Pawlikowski’s Polish entry Ida was one for the high-art types but was widely praised for its black-and-white cinematography.

All the films picked up out of festivals in Cannes, Berlin or elsewhere hit the bullseye in their North American debuts. The Canners Palme d’Or winner, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, was a huge success, with its lead actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux around all weekend and avidly pursued by press and fans who wanted to express their feelings about the explicit love story.

If anything, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska went over even better here than it did in Cannes, with quite a few visitors professing that it was the best film they saw. Payne said he’s trimmed the film by one minute since May -- just tiny slices here and there, but he’s convinced they make a difference.

Two other big Cannes hits, J.C Chandor’s All Is Lost and Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis, repeated their success in the mountains. On top of that, the first film’s star, Robert Redford, and the Coen brothers, in tandem with their ace musical cohort T Bone Burnett, received tributes over the weekend, as did Iranian Mohammad Rasoulof, whose Manuscripts Don’t Burn was also shown.

Also widely appreciated in their U.S. bows were Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture and Agnieszka Holland’s three-part European HBO drama about Czechoslovakia in 1968-69, Burning Bush.

More entries included Philppe Claudel’s Before the Winter Chill, Mitra Farahani’s Fifi Howls From Happiness, Stefano Sardo’s documentary Slow Food Story, Nicolas Philibert’s La Maison de la Radio and two more installments in Werner Herzog’s ongoing Death Row series.

Given all the excitement swirling around these new films, the revival and retrospective showings of old films, always a Telluride staple, seemed to take something of a backseat this year. The vintage titles shown included Aguirre, the Wrath of God (aptly offered as the inaugural title in the spacious new Werner Herzog Theater), Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai, Victor Sjostrom’s He Who Gets Slapped, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s A Simple Case, Sasha Guitry’s La Poison and the David O. Selznick/William Dieterle Portrait of Jennie.

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