Telluride 2011: Festival Gives Promising Look Into the Fall

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Alexander Payne's "Descendants" and its star George Clooney emerge as critical favorites as the Labor Day weekend event closes.

The Telluride Film Festival, a Labor Day weekend event since its inception in 1974, always provides the opportunity for scouts on the front line of the film scene to leave the summer behind and get a first look at what lies ahead during the cinematic harvest season.  In this regard, the festival offered a satisfying amount of good news.

Alexander Payne’s The Descendants was the first film shown, at a special "preview" on Friday afternoon, and by festival’s end Monday it had only consolidated its profile as a picture likely to win wide critical and popular support down the line. The writer-director’s trademark touch for human drama shot through with eruptive comedy is present in spades, its effectiveness augmented by the terrific work in the leading role of a besieged father by George Clooney, who may never have been better.

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For his part, Clooney was the undeniable star of Telluride. Not that Clooney isn’t the star pretty much wherever he goes. But on the streets of Telluride, site of Butch Cassidy’s first bank robbery, where everyone strolls, chats easily with anyone in the vicinity and basically refrains from acting like fools in the presence of celebrity, Clooney amazed for his relaxed affability and accessibility. Traveling without an entourage after jetting over Friday from the Venice world premiere of The Ides of March, a film he directed, Clooney was very visible and approachable, never took himself too seriously, was hilarious at two packed tributes to him and drank and schmoozed into the wee hours Saturday night at the venerable Sheridan Bar.

There was one moment when, as the actor headed for his car before a tribute, a crowd of some 30 or 40 young ladies suddenly materialized out of nowhere to surround him, a sight unlike anything I had ever seen at Telluride before, but there was nothing alarming about it. Cool is the word with him, but funny cool, warm cool. He won over everyone he met, and there were a lot of them.

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Given the jigsaw-like screening schedule at the multiple venues here, it’s never possible to see everything, but Telluride featured its usual mix of premieres (which they never advertise or announce as such to avoid difficulties with such festivals as Venice and Toronto, which thrive on such bragging rights), highlights from Berlin and Cannes, tributes (to Clooney, Tilda Swinton and 83-year-old French comic actor-director Pierre Etaix), silent films with live musical accompaniment, assorted revivals and restorations and an ever-growing sidebar of cinema-related documentaries.

You never knew whom you might be sitting next to in a cinema or meet in a coffee line: Werner Herzog (here with his new documentary Into the Abyss), Wim Wenders (Pina), Alice Waters (supporting the showings of two rare titles by her favorite filmmaker, Marcel Pagnol, Merlusse and Harvest), Peter Sellars, Ken Burns, Pierre Rissient and the irrepressible Serge Bromberg, on hand to present his color restoration of Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, complete with a commissioned soundtrack by French electronic act Air, and other archival rarities, which he will repeat Tuesday night for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills.

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Among the new films (some of them more or less simultaneously debuting in Venice) were Agnieszka Holland’s intense and very particular take on the Nazi occupation of Poland, In Darkness; Martin Scorsese’s excellent epic biographical documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World; Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs, with Glenn Close in a precisely judged performance as a woman passing as a man in 19th –century Dublin; Steve McQueen’s searing Shame and David Cronenberg’s immaculate and riveting A Dangerous Method, both featuring superb performances by Michael Fassbender, and Jim Feld Smith’s comedy Butter, shown as an unannounced sneak preview, which looks to be more of an audience pleaser than a critical favorite. There were quite a few notable documentaries, including Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse, Becoming Bert Stern, The Island President, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, Perdida, Bitter Seeds, Tropicalia and Sodankla Forever.

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Also of note were the enticing first two sections of Mark Cousins’ eventual 900-minute personal documentary, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which just began showing on British television.

Of the foreign features already shown at European festivals, the two that emerged from the pack as huge popular hits were Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s enormously engrossing Berlin Golden Bear winner A Separation and Michel Hazanavicius’s thoroughly entertaining black-and-white silent The Artist.

Others that went over well in their North American debuts were Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s The Kid With a Bike and Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye First Love.

Guest director Caetano Veloso presented six personal favorites, including Glauber Rocha’s hard-to-see Black God, White Devil and Rene Clair’s 1955 Les Grand Manoeuvres.

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Silent rarities presented by Paolo Cherchi Usai were Boris Barnet’s humorous 1928 The House on Trubnaya Street, Pudovkin’s half-hour Chess Fever from 1925 and the little-known 1920 German feature From Morning to Midnight, a head-scratcher by the unknown Karl-Heinz Martin that features expressionistic sets, costumes and makeup far more bizarre than anything in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.