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Masked, vaxxed and happy to be back, Scott Feinberg and Rebecca Keegan huddled at their old haunt, The New Sheridan Chop House, to try to make sense of the 2021 Telluride Film Festival…
KEEGAN It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since we were last here at Telluride, Scott, and this year’s festival was like no other I’ve ever experienced. The longest lines in town weren’t for films, but for Covid tests, and we watched all our movies masked. Despite the spectre of the pandemic hanging over us — or actually because of it — I felt more grateful than ever to be seeing these movies on big screens shoulder to shoulder with appreciative, vaccinated and Covid-tested audiences.
Telluride is the first major North American film festival to proceed fully in person since Sundance 2020, with no virtual component, and we had what festival director Julie Huntsinger called a “bumper crop” of films to see, since some studios had been holding back their titles for months, hoping for a more hospitable climate for theater-going. After 18 months of life-or-death health and political news, it was a relief to get back to our much lower stakes — albeit just as passionate as ever — debates over films and performances.
FEINBERG Absolutely. It’s been so nice to see you and other friends in-person again, and to be here — anywhere, really, but especially here — that I have tried to muzzle myself any time I’ve been tempted to whine about feeling out of breath or exhausted or reluctant to write more. And yes, after the first three-quarters of 2021, which have yielded almost no narrative movies with any real shot at getting Academy recognition, it’s been thrilling to see several movies here which I really liked and which seemed to pop with a lot of people.
From what I could tell in conversation around town, no movie went over better with more people than Warners’ King Richard, Reinaldo Marcus Green‘s film, from Zach Baylin’s widely lauded script, about how Richard Williams, the father of tennis legends Venus Williams and Serena Williams, set the sisters on their path to greatness. Starring Will Smith in a transformative performance that has made him the best actor frontrunner, it’s the sort of big-studio, crowd-pleasing, artistically impressive movie that both the public and the Academy will root for. I think it’s like The Blind Side or Green Book, but better.
KEEGAN King Richard was definitely the feel-good winner of the festival, which is impressive considering its magnetic star wasn’t even here (Smith is shooting Emancipation with Antoine Fuqua). But the movie that seemed to captivate people with the sheer force of its filmmaking was Jane Campion‘s Netflix drama The Power of the Dog, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a cruel Montana rancher. Campion considers this movie, which she adapted from the 1967 Thomas Savage novel of the same name, a bookend to her groundbreaking 1993 Oscar winner The Piano for its portrait of repressed passion, and it feels like a filmmaker working at the top of her game. For the first time she’s got a male protagonist, and the film’s theme of toxic masculinity is current and potent in Campion’s hands, aided by strong supporting performances from Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemmons and a foreboding Jonny Greenwood score.
FEINBERG I’ll be curious to see what happens with Jane’s film — but one thing I know for certain is that you did a nice job moderating her Telluride tribute, even though she wasn’t particularly anxious to share her secrets!
KEEGAN Scott. We don’t call her Jane. Anyway, as you were.
FEINBERG A few years ago, as you know, Telluride hosted the first North American screenings of a black-and-white film recounting its filmmaker’s childhood unfolding against the backdrop of civil unrest. That film, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, went on to major Oscar recognition — and now another that fits the same description, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, looks poised to follow the same path. Despite the Focus film’s heavy subject matter (Branagh grew up in Northern Ireland as the Troubles exploded around him), people came out of it on a high, perhaps because it’s funny, smart and unpretentious (with a 97-minute runtime and Van Morrison songs!), and I think that its entire principal cast — Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Ciaran Hinds, Judi Dench and 10-year-old newcomer Jude Hill — are serious contenders, along with the film and Branagh’s direction and screenplay.
KEEGAN Belfast isn’t the only black-and-white movie that Telluride attendees really loved — the other is Mike Mills’ C’mon, C’mon, an A24 film starring Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist who interviews kids, and then is asked by his sister to take care of her own young son, in his first film since his best actor winning performance in The Joker. At every festival there’s “the one that got away” — the film I didn’t make it to despite hearing glowing reports — and C’mon, C’mon is that film for me this Telluride. Films about parents and kids seem to be resonating after so many have spent lockdown with their families. A very different film about parenting, Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s directorial debut The Lost Daughter, which Netflix is handling, has also been a conversation starter for its unusual portrait of an ambivalent mother.
FEINBERG That’s a really interesting point you raise about how the pandemic may impact the way we receive certain films. C’mon, C’mon is about a parent and surrogate parent who have a very special bond with a child. But for parents who are sick of their kids after the last 18 months, perhaps The Lost Daughter will feel more relatable. Regardless of where one is coming from, I think people will admire the performances of Joaquin and 11-year-old Woody Norman (whose character reminds me of Tatum O’Neal‘s in Paper Moon) in C’mon, C’mon and, in The Lost Daughter, Olivia Colman (gunning for Oscar nom number three in four years), Jessie Buckley (who plays a younger version of Colman’s character) and Dakota Johnson.
KEEGAN Speaking of performances that really sparked here, Kristen Stewart’s in Pablo Larrain‘s Spencer certainly had people talking. Like Larrain’s Jackie, which earned Natalie Portman a best actress nomination, Spencer follows a beautiful, famous woman in the midst of a crisis, this time Princess Diana as her marriage to Prince Charles is falling apart, and also like that 2016 film, Spencer seems polarizing to the viewers I talked to. You either want to wallow in Larrain’s stylish fever dreams about troubled beauties or you want to nap during them. What is undisputed, however, is the power and vulnerability of Stewart’s performance in the Neon film.
FEINBERG Absolutely. Stewart is only 31, but she has been doing great work for roughly 20 years, while also enduring a lot of unwanted scrutiny of the sort that drove Diana to the edge, so it’s really nice to see her doing career-best work and getting her due.
KEEGAN The same is true for Peter Dinklage‘s turn in Joe Wright‘s Cyrano, in which the Game of Thrones star takes on the title role in an adaptation of the 1897 Edmond Rostand play Cyrano de Bergerac written by his wife, Erica Schmidt, and based on her 2018 stage musical. Here Dinklage is — at long last — a romantic lead in a movie that makes full use of his charisma. Wright made Cyrano in the thick of the pandemic as a kind of antidote to cynicism, and audiences’ response to it may hinge on how much they want to be swept away.
FEINBERG Well said. It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea (a woman falling in love with a man’s writing and a man misleading a woman through his writing doesn’t necessarily play like it used to), but there are elements of it that are hard not to like, especially Dinklage. And he is not the only one at the fest to receive plaudits for a divisive movie. There were more than a few walkouts at screenings of Sean Baker’s risqué Red Rocket, which A24 brought here after unveiling it at Cannes, but I think far more people were impressed with the film’s lead actor, Simon Rex, who plays a has-been porn star who returns to his hometown, and supporting actress, Suzanna Son, who plays the young local he courts for debatable reasons.
KEEGAN She is one of a number of fresh faces we will probably see on the circuit a lot this season, along with the young ladies who play Venus and Serena in King Richard, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively.
But shifting subjects: The quantity and quality of docs this year at Telluride was straight up nuts and a reflection of just how much that genre has exploded as a force in the last few years. Perhaps the most eligible bachelor at the festival this year was British cave diver Rick Stanton, from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin‘s harrowing The Rescue, about the 2018 Thai cave rescue. Stanton and other rescuers featured in the Nat Geo project were mobbed after screenings of the film, which really ought to come with Xanax for all those claustrophobic underwater scenes. The movie was one of four the Disney division brought — Liz Garbus‘s Becoming Cousteau, Max Lowe‘s Torn and John Hoffman and Janet Tobias‘s Fauci also screened. Sony Classics brought Julie Cohen and Betsy West‘s Julia Child doc, Julia, which I didn’t get a chance to see but was warned not to watch when hungry.
FEINBERG Ha! After watching that film and the sumptuous kitchen scenes in Spencer, I found it extra hard to satisfy myself with Telluride’s grab-and-go hot dogs and candy, but c’est la vie.
Speaking of appetites, it felt to me that several excellent films which debuted at Cannes back in July were regarded by Telluride festival-goers as lower priorities — if not old news — than brand new films. For instance, the best documentary that I saw on the Croisette was Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, and the best film of any sort that I saw there was the Persian-language Iranian film A Hero from the great Asghar Farhadi, who you just profiled. But I didn’t hear much about either here, which leads me to wonder if people just didn’t prioritize them when planning their schedules. Would it have been wiser for Apple and Amazon, respectively, to have held those films’ world premieres at Telluride, or are films that are not narrative and/or in English always going to struggle to find an audience here?
KEEGAN I don’t know, I heard a lot of people raving about Farhadi’s film. He was here, and for those of us who didn’t go to Cannes, it was a treat to catch up on those movies in a festival environment.
Telluride isn’t traditionally known as a marketplace, but there are a few acquisition titles that grabbed me. I hope Emelie Mahdavian‘s Bitterbrush, a Concordia film about a couple of female cattle herders in Idaho finds a good home. Yes, it made me want to run off and become a ranch hand, but it’s also a really cinematic portrait of womens’ friendship and hard work and a new twist on the Western. I’m crossing my fingers, too, for the delightfully weird stop-motion animated mockumentary, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, the brainchild of comedian Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp, which reminds me of an indie Pete Docter movie.
FEINBERG Well, if you do decide to run off and become a ranch hand, you can just repurpose your hat and boots from this trip — I wish I was as skilled at dressing for this fest! Two other Telluride titles that I hear distributors are circling are Peter Hedges’ The Same Storm, which Hedges shot over Zoom during lockdown with the likes of Elaine May and Sandra Oh; and Robert Greene’s Procession, an experimental doc which went over really well with members of the doc community who were here on the ground.
KEEGAN Not everything went off with a bang, of course. Encounter, Michael Pearce‘s sci fi film for Amazon which provided the occasion for a Riz Ahmed tribute at the festival, and which got the coveted Patron Preview slot, seemed to leave many viewers shaking their heads.
FEINBERG Yeah. I’m not sure there’s a huge appetite at the moment for a film that is ostensibly about another pandemic.
KEEGAN One of the big worries heading into this festival was whether it would turn out to be a big Covid-sharing stew, as the Delta variant rages. After five days of mingling with vaccinated and tested friends and colleagues, I’m hopeful we all go home healthy, but it’s truly too soon to tell. A safer subject for prediction is that the season will go on either way, as we await a number of big premieres at Toronto, New York and London.
FEINBERG That’s right. Fingers crossed and PPE ready as we await the premieres in Toronto of Dear Evan Hansen, The Eyes of Tammy Faye and The Humans; in New York of The Tragedy of Macbeth and perhaps Don’t Look Up and Tick… Tick… Boom; in London of The Harder They Fall; and somewhere in-between or afterwards of Nightmare Alley, West Side Story, Being the Ricardos, House of Gucci, The Tender Bar and whatever Paul Thomas Anderson ends up calling his latest film.
I’m excited to see how those films go over — and that they will give us an excuse to have another conversation like this before long. Thanks, Rebecca.
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