Critic's Notebook: Buoyed By Jobs and Bulger Biopics, Telluride Delivers

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Telluride Film Festival

Despite rain and a canceled screening, the annual fest had much to offer, including strong, star-driven biopics 'Steve Jobs' and 'Black Mass' and an entrancingly weird sex/love story from Charlie Kaufman.

For the film buffs who make the trek to the Rockies on Labor Day weekend to see the season’s most anticipated new titles as well as old rediscoveries, the 42nd Telluride Film Festival offered an ideal balance of strong Hollywood contenders and deep-dish archival treasures.

For the first time in a decade, rain put a bit of a damper on the first couple of days, and the legal imbroglio that resulted in the cancelation of the world premiere of the late Sydney Pollack’s 1972 Aretha Franklin concert documentary Amazing Grace cast a certain shadow on opening day.

But by Saturday all this was an afterthought, as passholders struggled only with how to squeeze in as many of the enticing offerings as possible. Naturally, media attention focused most intently on the several world premieres of hot awards-season entries, and it’s fair to say that both the Danny Boyle-Aaron Sorkin electric and original Steve Jobs and Scott Cooper’s take on the Whitey Bulger story, Black Mass, received the sort of strongly enthusiastic receptions their makers might have dreamed about. Utterly different in style, both fronted by dazzling central performances, by Michael Fassbender and Johnny Depp, respectively. Boyle was also the recipient of a festival tribute.

The Netflix feature, Beasts of No Nation, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s harrowing look at a boy forced into servitude by a rebel warlord in Africa, also made a strong impression. Stimulating general approval among the Telluride premieres set to open before the end of the year, albeit with some more measured responses mixed in, were Lenny Abrahamson’s claustrophobic, very well acted Room, Sarah Gavron’s absorbing, somewhat diffuse evocation of the struggle for women’s voting rights in Britain Suffragette, and Tom McCarthy’s Boston priests scandal newspaper drama Spotlight, which split opinion on whether it’s a worthy successor to All the President’s Men.

Far more specialized was the stop-motion puppet feature Anomalisa from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, which is weird and strange to its very core and entrancingly so if you’re willing to embrace its rather astonishingly forthright love/sex story between two misfits.

Among new foreign work, the most widely acclaimed feature was Xavier Giannoli’s idiosyncratic 1920s opera world drama Marguerite. There was enthusiasm as well for Paddy Breathnach’s unexpected and highly engaging Irish/Cuban Viva and another work from an Irish director, the Oklahoma-set Mom and Me.

In the documentary arena, perhaps the most warmly received was Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, but also stirring discussion were Charles Ferguson’s climate change investigation Time to Choose, Laurie Anderson’s idiosyncratic Heart of a Dog, Michael Ware and Bill Guttentag’s Iraq War study Only the Dead See the End of War, Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala. Australian director Jennifer Peedom’s timely Everest docu Sherpa received much love at its Abel Gance Open Air Theater screening.

Among films that had previously turned up other international festivals, Lazlo Nemes intense holocaust drama Son of Saul knocked just about everybody out, while another Cannes hit, Todd HaynesCarol, won wide approval and was shown in conjunction with a tribute to its co-star Rooney Mara.

Other titles making their North American debuts were Guatemalan director’s very well received Ixcanul, Grimur Hakonarson’s Cannes favorite Rams from Iceland, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years with the exemplary Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, Indonesian Eddie Cahyono’s notable low-budget black-and-white debut Siti, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, Nicolas Saada’s Taj Mahal, Kent Jones’ film buff delight Hitchcock/Truffaut and Avishai Sivan’s Tikkun from Israel.

Special tribute was paid this year to one-of-a-kind British historical/political affairs provocateur Adam Curtis, whose new work, Bitter Lake, disturbingly investigates the relationship between Afghanistan and the West.

For some, however, Telluride’s greatest strength lies in its devotion to archival treasures. This year, revelation number one was a full-length screening on the giant Werner Herzog Theater screen of Fritz Lang’s two-part, 275-minute, 1924 epic Die Nibelungen. Even among Lang and silent cinema buffs, this film had not really been properly seen until its recent restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, and the result is staggering, for its dramatic power, its amazing design and the tremendous original score by Gottfried Huppertz. Only in Telluride: The very well attended opening Friday afternoon screening was accompanied at intermission by generous servings of beer and brats.

Revelation number two: The irrepressible restoration impresario Serge Bromberg’s program entitled Retour de Flamme, which consisted of an early Charlie Chaplin short, a superb demonstration of what it took to restore Buster Keaton’s marvelous 1922 short Daydreams and, finally and convulsively, the world premiere of the restored, and thought largely lost, 1928 Laurel and Hardy comedy, The Battle of the Century, which concludes with the cinema’s greatest-ever pie fight. It’s a masterpiece. As usual, Bromberg doubled as master of ceremonies and live piano accompanist.

Telluride’s and Bromberg’s other silent offering was Marcel L’Herbier’s experimental and astonishingly designed 1924 L’Inhumaine. Another visitor from France, George Mourier, presided over a fascinating program called “Restoring Napoleon,” at which he meticulously surveyed the history of all the different versions of Abel Gance’s 1927 epic, including his own upcoming one for the Cinematheque Francaise, which will run about six-and-a-half hours and should be completed in two years.

This year’s guest director was novelist Rachel Kushner, who presented a wonderfully eclectic group of six programs: Two films by the late French iconoclast Jean Eustache, The Mother and the Whore and Mes Petites Amoureuses, Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 thriller Wake in Fright, Robert Frank’s long-elusive Cocksucker Blues with the Rolling Stones, a double-bill of Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country and Agnes Varda’s Uncle Yanco (along with Jean-Luc Godard’s rarely-seen, eight-minute Une Bonne a Tout Faire, shot in 1981 on the set of Coppola’s One From the Heart), and Francesco Rosi’s recently restored 1972 classic The Mattei Affair.

Also on hand was veteran animation ace Richard Williams with his gorgeous and amazingly fluid six-minute short, Prologue, which is designed to be the beginning, as one might surmise, of an ongoing longer work.

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