Critic's Notebook: A Solid Telluride, But One Film Rose Above the Rest

Screengrab; Courtesy of TIFF; Photofest
From left: 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?,' 'Roma,' 'The Other Side of the Wind'

This year's edition of the mountain festival featured a revelatory dramatic turn from Melissa McCarthy and a fine farewell performance from Robert Redford, but Alfonso Cuaron's ‘Roma’ stole the show.

Cannes’ loss was Telluride’s gain, as Netflix’s most anticipated titles of the season — Alfonso Cuaron’s almost universally embraced Roma and Orson Welles’ nearly five-decades-in the-making The Other Side of the Wind — made their big splashes over the weekend at the 45th edition of the festival.

For several of the most in-demand filmmakers — including Cuaron; Damien Chazelle with First Man; Yorgos Lanthimos with The Favourite; Mike Leigh with Peterloo; and Olivier Assayas with Non-Fiction — it was a matter of quick appearances in Venice followed by the long trip to Telluride high in the Rocky Mountains. But it seemed like more than worth the travel involved, as all these films were, for the most part, very enthusiastically received.

But so were several others. A surprise for many was the turn to a genuinely serious and convincing performance by Melissa McCarthy in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, with Hugh Jackman very sharp as Gary Hart during his self-sabotaged presidential campaign, was widely regarded as a return to form for the director. And a couple of less high-profile entries — Yann Demange’s White Boy Rick, starring Matthew McConaughey, and Joel Edgerton’s gay conversion therapy drama Boy Erased, with Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman — earned approving nods from audiences here.

Kidman, this time all unrecognizable as a morally and emotionally hollowed-out L.A. cop, was also front-and-center in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, which takes itself very seriously indeed, while Robert Redford deserved his kudos for what he claims will be his final film performance, in David Lowery’s very fine 1970s-style crime drama The Old Man & the Gun.

Other hot-off-the-presses dramatic features were Ed Zwick’s earnest real-life-based anti-death penalty drama Trial by Fire and Ralph Fiennes’ half-good but perhaps still improvable The White Crow, which spins on ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s dramatic defection from the USSR to the West.

Of all these new titles, Roma, with its exquisite black-and-white visuals used to evoke highly selective and expressive youthful memories of Cuaron’s Mexico City childhood, was the one that inspired the most universal enthusiasm. Cuaron was also the recipient of a career tribute, as were Emma Stone, here with The Favourite, and Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, who also showed his new film Graves Without a Name.

For the most true-believing monks of cinema, however, nothing could compare to the prospect of finally seeing Orson Welles’ 48-years-in-the-making The Other Side of the Wind. The world premiere, held at the 650-seat makeshift Palm cinema, was watched with rapt attention, and vigorous applause ensued at the end.

The reaction, as well as it could be gleaned from a random sampling of viewers of different ages and degrees of devotion, was one of general admiration and/or enthusiasm, of being impressed that an actual real movie was forged out of the assorted scraps of material left behind after Welles’ death 33 years ago.

To be sure, there was dissent, with some finding it somewhat boring, and the film encountered some complaints about the alleged male-gaze presentation of Welles’ then-companion (and co-screenwriter) Oja Kodar walking around starkers through much of her appearance — even though the film-within-the-film in which this appears is clearly meant to be a satire on Antonioni-like movies in which women walk around aimlessly for minutes on end.

But among serious cinephiles, the film looks to have been accepted as a legitimate representation of Welles’ intentions, and three people close to the restoration process — producer Frank Marshall, who worked on the pic during its shooting; Peter Bogdanovich, a Welles confidant who co-stars in it; and scholar Joseph McBride, who also plays a role — seemed to be breathing a great sigh of pleasure and relief over the weekend.

Shown in separate programs were two highly useful documentaries about the Welles film’s history and restoration, Morgan Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and Ryan Suffern’s 39-minute A Final Cut for Orson.

Documentaries always figure prominently at Telluride, and among the most talked about was certainly Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s literally breathtaking Free Solo, about Alex Honnold’s effort to free-climb the 3,000-foot wall at Yosemite.

Other docs of note were Charles Ferguson’s four-hour Watergate — Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President; John and Molly Chester’s jewel-like, natural farming-centered The Biggest Little Farm; James Longley’s look at impoverished streets kids in Kabul, Afghanistan, Angels Are Made of Light; and Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’s Meeting Gorbachev.

Telluride reliably debuts the latest and best documentaries about the cinema, and this year featured some great ones, notably Peter Bogdanovich’s highly perceptive The Great Buster, about Buster Keaton, and veteran director Peter Medak’s jaw-dropping look at his own traumatic experience working with a different comic genius on a failed 17th-century pirate comedy, The Ghost of Peter Sellers.

Very good also are Rob Garver’s study of a giant of film criticism, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael; Brigitte Berman’s useful Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America; and Eric Friedler’s account of an essential recording company, It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story.

Telluride formerly showed more film history-related archival programs than it does currently, but titles presented this year by Paolo Cherchi Usai included Danish director Urban Gad’s early 1920s two-part Christian Wahnschaffe, Louis Dellluc’s Fievre (1921), Jean Epstein’s Coeur Fidele (1923) and Edmond T. Greville’s Remous (1934).

Each year, Telluride invites a guest director to create a sidebar of overlooked or personal favorite films. This year it was author Jonathan Lethem, who introduced screenings of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels, Mohammad Rasoulof's The White Meadows, Carroll Ballard's Never Cry Wolf and two by Ernst Lubitsch, Angel and To Be or Not To Be.

Meanwhile, there were two notable absences from Telluride this year. First was longtime adviser, scout and all-around man of cinema Pierre Rissient, a festival regular who died in May and was one of just three people (the others being Werner Herzog and Chuck Jones) to have a Telluride venue named after him. A tribute was held in his honor at Le Pierre, during which numerous participants shared funny and warm reminiscences.

The other missing person was festival co-director Tom Luddy, who experienced some medical issues prior to the festival and was advised by his physicians to stay at home to fully recover. Sounding very well indeed over the phone over the weekend, Luddy said that, if the festival were scheduled to take place a week from now, he would definitely be there.