Critic's Notebook: At Telluride, Good Films for Bad Times

Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival
From left: 'The Shape of Water,' 'Battle of the Sexes' and 'Downsizing.'

As depressing news poured in from around the world, festivalgoers at Telluride were treated to some very compelling new films, many of which had a sociopolitical dimension.

The news around the world may be almost uniformly bad, but filmmakers are responding to it with some strong, often socially minded work, according to what was on display over Labor Day weekend at the 44th edition of the Telluride Film Festival.

Ever since the world's highest-altitude film event acquired a reputation for spotting year-end awards contenders a dozen years ago, the industry has scrutinized Telluride's picks with heightened attention. So it's not surprising that most of the talk going in focused on the likes of Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, Alexander Payne's Downsizing and Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, all of which have political components.

But then so does Battle of the Sexes, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's immensely engaging account of the momentous 1973 tennis match between self-styled male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs and female-equality-in-sports crusader Billie Jean King, who herself was on hand and basking in adoration all around. In terms of sheer audience pleasure, this Fox Searchlight release would look to have taken the Telluride trophy for 2017.

After two viewings, Downsizing remains exceptional, as a novel social comedy-drama and an insightful use of a sci-fi gimmick for serious purposes. Some viewers have found it wanting in one way or another, but the debate will continue.

The Shape of Water, another Fox Searchlight title, similarly uses sci-fi staples as a means to a very different end; it's a trans-species love story on the outside and a critique of Cold War suspicions of the other on the inside, beautifully made and definitely its director's best in a decade.

Darkest Hour, and Gary Oldman's winningly broad performance as Winston Churchill along with it, is designed to make audiences warm to Britain's wartime prime minister by emphasizing his doubts and foibles; in essence, it wants to humanize him by bringing him down a few notches. But I didn't buy it. I didn't buy his oafishness, his broadly portrayed insecurities, his willingness to even consider giving in to the appeasers. This is the man who, after all, was virtually alone all through the 1930s in urging resistance to Hitler and preparing for possible conflict.

And I didn't buy the big scene in the Underground designed to humanize Churchill by having him listen to the view of the common folk. The film is a middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser, to be sure, but very calculated, obvious and lacking in shading. 

Scott Cooper's Hostiles, starring festival honoree Christian Bale, is a tough, fine, violent Western that takes place at the end of the Indian wars. Potent in its own very personal way is Paul Schrader's return to form, and to his religiously penetrating roots, with First Reformed.

Then there was the winning directorial debut made by Greta Gerwig with Lady Bird, in which a scintillating Saoirse Ronan stars as the teenage Gerwig agonizing her way through senior year of high school in 2002 Sacramento. It's snappy, funny, observant, poignantly personal and there's hardly a scene that's more than two minutes long.

In a category all to itself was the sprawling, confounding, disturbing, hypnotic, relentlessly probing Wormwood, Errol Morris' nearly four-and-a-half-hour deep-dish meditation on the knowability of personal and political history. Focusing on the death of a CIA operative in the early 1950s with the hope of clearing the fog surrounding the case and melding documentary and dramatically staged formats, Morris mesmerizingly tries to navigate to the source of a particularly elusive heart of darkness.

Also here were Paul McGuigan's Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, with Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame in an unusual love story; Andrew Haigh's Lean on Pete, a boy-and-horse story set in the Northwest; and Angelina Jolie, who got a lot of attention with First They Killed My Father, about the Khmer Rouge genocide.

In the documentary arena, attracting considerable note were Lisa Immordino Vreeland's Love, Cecil, about the late British style and photography maven Cecil Beaton; Ai Weiwei's startling look at the worldwide refugee crisis in Human Flow; Rebecca Miller's study of her father in Arthur Miller: Writer; Barbet Schroeder's latest consideration of a murderous tyrant in The Venerable W.; Camila Magid's close-up look at U.S. mass imprisonment in Land of the Free; Christopher Quinn's expose of industrial food production in Eating Animals; and a sneak preview, via one episode, of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's upcoming 18-hour documentary, The Vietnam War.

Along with Bale, longtime Telluride regular and veteran cinematographer Ed Lachman was honored with a tribute. The festival reliably spotlights very special restorations and archival gems, and this year was no exception. By consensus, the standout was Carl Junghans' long-lost 1929 Czech feature Such Is Life, which today looks to prefigure Italian neo-realism, although also attracting favorable mention was Aleksandr Volkoff's boisterous 1924 semi-biopic of the British actor Edmund Kean, played by Ian Mosjoukine, Kean, or Disorder and Genius.

A big surprise was the first screening of an expanded, never-before-seen version of Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 musical extravaganza The Cotton Club. More than 20 minutes of big musical numbers have been restored by the director to a film that was subject to enormous internal battles among talent, producers and investors, resulting in an eventual release version that fully satisfied no one. The newly added footage is all to the good, although so many legal hurdles remain that it's unclear if and when this improved version will be available to the public.