Critic's Notebook: Telluride Marks Dazzling Start to Fall Movie Season

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival; Courtesy of Jan Thijs/Paramount Pictures; Courtesy of David Bornfriend/A24
From left: 'La La Land,' 'Arrival,' 'Moonlight'

The year in movies sprang to life at Telluride over the weekend, with first-rate new films from Damien Chazelle, Denis Villeneuve, Barry Jenkins, Clint Eastwood and several others, writes THR chief film critic Todd McCarthy.

As the first American film festival of the fall season, the ever-stimulating Telluride Film Festival provided several exciting signs that 2016 will have some potent movies of quality to offer after all.

As always, this Labor Day weekend deep-dive into unrestrained cinephilia in the Rocky Mountains served up a tasty smorgasbord of offerings, from world premieres and highlights of recent foreign festivals to vintage rarities in brilliant new prints and, especially this year, lots of new documentaries, notably several with a musical bent. And, once again, Telluride distinguished itself for its eclectic selections and the accessibility of its guests, as the likes of Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, Isabelle Huppert, Emma Stone, Werner Herzog and guest director Volker Schlondorff mingled with first-time filmmakers and buffs who knows that this discriminating festival is a place where it’s hard to go wrong with whatever you choose to see.

Eight significant new features had their world premieres here over the weekend, while two highly anticipated titles, La La Land and Arrival, were shown mere hours after their Venice bows. Both of them made very big impressions, with Damien Chazelle’s original musical drawing raves from many early viewers — led by none other than Hanks, who himself drew unanimous plaudits for his performance as an old pro pilot who landed a jet safely in the Hudson River, an event very impressively depicted in Eastwood’s well-received Sully.

Denis Villeneuve’s stunning sci-fi drama Arrival mesmerized many who saw it, although a minority seemed puzzled by the final stretch. Adams, the film’s star, was saluted with a tribute, as was Casey Affleck, whose Sundance triumph in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea made a big impression here as well.

Three modestly scaled American features by young directors whose profiles will be significantly heightened by their new works are Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar’s pungent Richard Gere-starrer Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer; Ben Younger’s familiar but brawny boxing drama Bleed for This; and first-timer Barry Jenkins’ poetic and unusually insightful drama of a black youth finding his path in life, Moonlight.

Robin Swicord’s more conventional E.L. Doctorow adaptation Wakefield was mostly notable for its tour de force lead performance from Bryan Cranston, while Maudie, Irish director Aisling Walsh’s Canadian-shot drama about the eccentric artist Maud Lewis, was similarly highlighted by Sally Hawkins’ turn in the title role.

The two foreign-language world premieres were the delightful Belgian slapstick comedy Lost in Paris by the toplined directing and performing team of Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel and the second feature from Israeli helmer Rama Burshtein, Through the Wall, which was generally regarded as not on the same level as her arresting debut with Fill the Void.

Among the films previously seen at other festivals, the surprise smash was a recut version of The Eagle Huntress, Otto Bell’s Mongolian feature about a 13-year-old girl who competes with men. Other features that had already been debuted at European festivals included Graduation, Toni Erdmann, Neruda, Frantz and Things to Come, although Huppert’s presence here in conjunction with the latter led many ardent fans to gripe about the festival’s decision not to show Paul Verhoeven’s Cannes sensation Elle, in which the French star gives one of her most astonishing performances.

A small festival like Telluride is in a position to be picky about the documentaries it shows, and it showcased a lot of them this year. Among the premieres were Herzog’s volcano-themed Into the Inferno, Errol Morris’ embracing The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson’s upsetting The Ivory Game about African elephant slaughter, John Scheinfeld’s deep investigation of a jazz titan in Chasing Trane, Angus Macqueen’s look at the discovery of a previously unknown Brazilian tribe in The End of Eden, Ryan Suffern’s moving account of the surprising aftermath of a 1980s Guatemalan massacre in Finding Oscar, Mimi Chakarova’s revelatory Men: A Love Story, Gregory Monro’s well-received Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown and Doug Nichol’s obsessed and obsessive California Typewriter.

For the second year in a row, the long-awaited world premiere of the 1972-shot Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace, filmed by Sydney Pollack, was canceled at the last minute for legal reasons.

Telluride regular Pierre Rissient, the legendary scout, discover, promoter and all-round man of cinema, had his 80th birthday celebrated by the likes of Eastwood and Bertrand Tavernier, the latter his former publicity partner, who was here to present his magnificent three-hour My Journey Through French Cinema.

The vintage restoration sensation of the year was E.A. Dupont’s 1925 circus German circus drama Variety, which had even classic cinema specialists like Tavernier and Rissient raving over the visual quality and admitting they had never seen the film looking nearly so good. The indispensable Alloy Orchestra supplied a live score.

A 4K restoration of the 1930s French Pagnol Trilogy was another big event, while guest director Schlondorff’s selections were highlighted by a popular restoration of Fritz Lang’s 1928 Spies and two important films essentially unknown in the West, Konrad Wolf’s 1968 I Was Nineteen from East Germany and Marlen Khutsiev’s 1970 It Was the Month of May from the U.S.S.R.