Keeping the Faith

I happened upon a nine year-old interview on NPR yesterday in which Scott Simon was asking a film critic about one of the primary distinctions of the Telluride Film Festival—the fact that attendees show up based on sheer faith, lacking any knowledge of the program until the festival begins. And even then there are daily surprises over the course of the festival.

Each year, Telluride’s founders carefully choose films for the festival’s line up and while not explicitly stated, there are some underlying themes that tie together the annual collection of movies. I’d say with great certainty, that like the festival itself, one of the primary themes this year was that of faith. Faith that the work, the journey, the effort will get you home again or at least to a better place. Whether it is a musician trying to make it big, an elderly man on an existential quest or a woman orbiting her broken life, this year’s movie collection was about finding a way back or at least a way forward.

Below are short descriptions with links to trailers of each film we saw (consult this year’s program for the complete list) to help guide your fall/winter movie-going. Of course, my taste is not yours and movies, like any form of art, are highly personal. So instead of providing some long (snore) review, I took a stab at giving you a simple reason why you may (or may not) want to see each movie, followed by a brief synopsis. And let me be bold enough to suggest you walk in to one or two of these with very little information, but a whole lot of faith in the choice you’ve made. Whatever the hell that means.

Why you should see it…

Because it’s outstanding: Twelve Years a Slave—A powerful and compelling true story about a free black man living with his family in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s. This movie is incredibly well-acted, yet graphic–but as Steve McQueen (the director) said, ‘Until this point, most stories of slavery have been sanitized or satirized.’ I am certain this will win the Best Picture Oscar and will garner several other nominations, including Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor (who was also in Dirty Pretty Things—another great movie). It is an incredibly important movie about our history—not easy to watch, yet captivating all at the same time.


Because this is life. Maybe even yours: Nebraska—On the surface, Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, The Descendants) has directed a movie about an older man who is on a quest to claim a million dollar sweepstakes prize that his family and the audience know is a scam. Beneath the surface, it’s a movie about life’s choices—the large existential questions and the smaller, more mundane decisions that may have a larger impact than you think. It’s a movie that really does touch every emotion—you will likely laugh a lot and cry just a bit and experience everything in between. It’s so beautifully shot and acted—Bruce Dern will give Chiwetel Ejiofor a run for his money for best actor and it will definitely get a best picture nomination.


Because you want a sure thing. Tim’s Vermeer—This was the ‘breakout’ hit of the festival. It’s the first full length feature documentary by Penn & Teller and it follows the story of a (non-artist) friend of theirs who sets out to paint a Vermeer Is it a movie about art? Sort of. Is it a movie about science? Kind of. Is it a movie where you are immediately rooting for the protagonist? Absolutely. It’s a compelling, enjoyable and fascinating film that may not sound interesting on paper (or on canvas), but is such a well told story. It’s truly a sure thing for anyone in any mood or with any taste in movies. Total win.


Because you like music, but not musicals. Or maybe you just want to see Justin Timberlake in an un-ironic turtleneck: Inside Llewyn Davis—This is now my favorite Coen Brother’s movie (note: I am not a huge Coen Brother’s fan, but I loved this one). It follows a fictional, albeit based on a Real Somebody, folk singer trying to make it big in the early ‘60’s (barely pre-Dylan). It’s a small film that feels at times like a documentary without all the direct eye contact interviews and hand-held camera work. The performances, both acting and singing, are outstanding with some fun cameos thrown in. Every moment of this movie was a pleasure, even if the main character isn’t himself such a good time.


Because it’s hot and sticky sweet. And tense. So very tense. Labor DayThis is the first adapted screenplay by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), based on Joyce Maynard’s book by the same name. Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet find themselves in a sticky (at one point, literally) situation over the course of Labor Day weekend. Reitman said he wanted to capture the emotion he felt through reading the book, so it’s a precise adaptation of the story. I wouldn’t call this a chick flick, nor would I call it a thriller, but it has elements of many genres. It’s a story that is at once really simple and really complicated. In another director’s hands, I may have been less captivated, but given his sort of Hitchcock meets romance approach, I’d call it a winner.

"Labor Day"

Because you made someone watch one too many rom coms and now it’s payback time. Prisoners—This is a movie I would never see in the theater because it is a tense thriller/whodunit, a la Seven or Zodiac. It is supremely acted by Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard, Jake Gyllenhal and Paul Dano. We were both on the edges of our seats the entire movie and it’s relatively unpredictable, making it engaging the entire way through. I was glad we saw it during the day, but maybe I’m more of a wimp than the rest of you. If you like tense well-acted, well-written head-scratchers, this one’s for you.


Because any well-told story is better told when it takes place in France. The Past—A sweet story by the same director who did A Separation, which won Best Foreign Language film last year. It’s about a couple in France finalizing their divorce and a misunderstanding that involves New Boyfriend, Ex-Step Daughter, New Stepson, Wife in Coma and sundry other characters. It was a pleasure to watch, as the writing and acting was very good. It’s one that immediately reels you in, no matter your mood or your taste. You know, assuming you’re okay reading your movies.

the past

Because any well-told story is better told in France, but only when it is less than three hours long. (too bad that’s not the case with this one). Blue is the Warmest ColorWinner of the Palm d ’Or at Cannes this year, this is a coming of age movie about a high school girl who falls in love for the first time. It is immediately compelling, well-acted and written. There has been a lot of controversy regarding some graphic and long (so very long) sex scenes, which we only judged due to the film’s three hour length. If the director shortens it, I’d feel better about recommending it.

blue is the

Because you love special effects and hate good dialogue. GravityYou will hear a lot of hype about this Sandra Bullock/George Clooney movie and it will most certainly get Best Picture and Best Actress nominations. Hearing the director and screenwriter talk about how it was made, one can’t help but have an incredible amount of respect for the process. I’ll also say that the effects and use of 3D are spot on. But we found the dialogue increasingly ridiculous and despite expecting a lack of reality, the plot quickly moved from plausible to unwatchable.


It is easy to spend days upon days embedded in a beautiful place and immersed in watching other peoples’ lives. But I can say with great certainty that spending another glorious long weekend in that sweet mountain town only further validated that there is no life represented on screen that is nearly as remarkable as my own. And I have a whole lot of faith that it will just keep getting better.



I love the smell of napalm in the morning

There are two types of Telluride attendees (actually, there are probably 247, but I’ll focus on just two): The kind that care deeply about seeing movies and the kind that care a lot about seeing movies.

We care deeply, which is why we are willing to wake up bright and early after ending a movie at 1:00 am, to get a good spot in the Q (again, not the queue, but actually the Sesame Street version–The Letter Q). Call it a touch of the Jewish anxiety or call it wanting to have a bench under my ass; either way, I’ll take an early morning for some certainty, any day.


This morning was our first late night/early morning combo this year. The first year it was a 5:30 am wake up call to see George Clooney in The Descendants (I was a little sad knowing he was sleeping in the same hotel, just floors above us, likely for hours after the time we were in line). But totally worth it to see Dr. Doug Ross in the flesh.


I digress.

So this morning, it was rise around 7:00 am after returning at 1:30 am from the three-hour French lesbian drama (because that is how the world has decided to qualify it), Blue is the Warmest Color (Nothing to say here about the controversy from Cannes about the sex scenes in that movie, but let’s just say we were all young once. Let me also say that watching it behind two legit cowboys who were definitely not Brokeback Mountaineers was reason enough for me to stick with it).


Suffice it to say, we were tired when we made the two-gondola, walk-to the-edge-of- town journey. It was worth it though, because we were 5th and 6th in line to see director Steve McQueen’12 Years a Slave, a movie I predict will nab Best Picture. Our decision to attend this particular showing was calculated because we wanted to attend with Brad Pitt. As part of the festival secrets, you never really know when the big names will come and go, so when you know they’ve arrived, you try to see them as quickly as possible, before their private jet scoots off the cliff, I mean runway, at the Telluride Airport.


Our suspicions were confirmed when we rode the gondola with four of Pitt’s People. Their conversation was filled with all sorts of information we feel they should have been less loose lipped with, but we were happy to hear that Brad would be at the morning’s showing because he was scheduled to leave before evening.




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Mornings in Telluride are typically gorgeous. Dewy, sunny and fresh. You can’t help but feel the paper thin air as you breathe in, but a good regimen of fierce hydration and alcohol avoidance is a perfect antidote for the altitude. I mean it when I say that the festival is not just mentally stimulating, it can also be physically exhausting if you don’t play it right. Just this afternoon, we overheard multiple descriptions of some film goers stuck in bed with altitude sickness.

Prepare, people, prepare.

We don’t mind sitting on a bench or on the ground for two hours in line because it brings us the sense of peace that we can choose our seats in the theater (first three rows for movies with Q & A’s and on an aisle toward the door for movies sans Q & A) and gives us time to read, email, Tweet, eat and connect with our fellow film lovers.



Sure, we don’t see all the movies we set out to see, but no one does. That’s part of the festival’s charm. And there’s something wondrous about making a last-minute decision that was perhaps your fourth option when you originally drew out your day’s game plan a la Friday Night Lights’ Coach Taylor.


For instance, this afternoon we headed back to Mountain Village for a late lunch that turned into a ‘line lunch’ at the Chuck Jones Theater, while waiting to see The Past, a gripping (pun!) tale by Asghar Farhadi, who also directed A Separation. We’ve seen a handful of great ‘unplanned’ movies that we’ve seen on a whim, outside of any strategy we dreamed up the night before.

I think it’s common to do Telluride the way we each do our lives. Mine is very planned and calculated, until a shiny object comes along and then still, I’ll weigh the options and proceed with caution. Others would rather just go with the flow and despite being turned away from movies because of capacity, there is always something else around the corner.


That’s one of the wondrous things about this place–around each corner there is another great view, tasty restaurant, talented film maker and another wooden slab of bench on which to place my ass and enjoy another gorgeous Telluride morning.



There’s No Place Like Home

We woke up at our friend Karen’s house this morning and were greeted by the high desert views of Southwestern Colorado. After a 1/2 mile walk to the nearest neighbor (who happens to own a farm, a bakery, a farm stand, a gift shop and coffee joint), we embarked on the 2.5 hour trip to Telluride.




By now we know to get excited when we pass the Double RL Ranch (thousands upon thousands of acres that shield Ralph Lauren from the light of day) and the ‘fancy’ Conoco station on the edge of town. Both are like walking into the front door and foyer of this not-so-sleepy mountain town.


This year, our third, we are back in Mountain Village, a town that sits another 1000+ feet above the already staggeringly high altitude town of Telluride. We stayed here three years ago when Meg surprised me with a trip to this place–the festival–that always seems to feel just like home.


The evening ended with me having the same thoughts I always have at the end of the first day of the festival–if this was the only day I spent here, it would be just perfect.


Watching Tim’s Vermeer was both a delight and an honor. A movie produced and narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller (he has legally changed his name), it’s a story that could go off the rails (why should I give a shit about some rich white dude who has too much time on his hands), but stays firmly on track.

From the moment it begins, you’re laughing, you’re rooting, you’re wondering, ‘will he do it?’ And ‘it’ captivated me for the full length of the film. Like most documentaries, it often doesn’t matter what it’s about because it’s never really about that anyway.

When Teller introduced the film he said, “I”m Teller and this is my partner, Penn Jillette. I don’t get to say that very often.” Insert audience laughter. He went on to say, “This film hasn’t been seen by an audience outside of Penn’s living room until now, so everyone who sees it tomorrow is just a punter.”

The angst and anticipation that you could see rise in his chest as he took his seat (right behind us!) is exactly what Telluride is about at its core. Artists making art (for years and years and years and years–truly) and then sharing it for THE FIRST TIME.


Our second movie tonight was Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne. His first film that he didn’t write despite the irony that it takes place in his home state of you guessed it. It was a quiet, loving, beautifully told story that never managed to stumble on one single cliche. Bruce Dern effortlessly and gorgeously captivated me during the entire movie and I know that the movie will continue to rattle around inside me for months to come. I believe its Payne’s best since Election and it has easily secured an Oscar nomination for Bruce Dern.


Both movies we saw today were about choosing a direction and never letting go until you get there. You know, even if it makes no sense, takes you down an unexpected path or makes you look crazy. At some point there’s no turning back, despite the fact that logically, it may be the best decision. And both films resonated deeply with me, as I think more and more about age (I am beforty, after all) and I consider what looking backward will feel like as looking forward occupies less time as I age.

With all the hullabaloo at festivals like this, it is easy to get swept up in the star gazing and strategizing, but all it takes is for the lights to go down and the screen to light up to remind me why for four and one half days, there is no place like Telluride.



The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of

I love movies. I’d claim to not bore you with the details about the history of my affection, but I can’t help myself. So here’s the nutshell: I remember racing home after seeing ET and Raiders of the Lost Ark to act out various scenes from each movie and heading to the Redford Theater with my family to watch classics like Oklahoma and My Fair Lady on the big screen.

In high school I started seeing movies at The Maple Theater (a gateway movie theater), I recall watching countless independent movies in college (but apparently not understanding them hence my request of Mo to ‘help’ me write my paper on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet) after which I landed in my first job out of college as a talent agent (another story for another blog).blue-velvet-1986-04-g

So all of this to say that I adore movies, particularly on the big screen. Trouble is that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown less tolerant of my fellow movie goers because I can’t count on them to sit still, keep their voices down and refrain from loudly stuffing their faces with a tray of $25 movie theater nachos. The advent of On Demand and Netflix, has made it easier to enjoy movies at home for less money and less hassle.

However, for the last three years, I’ve made a pilgrimage to a sacred place in Southwestern Colorado to see amazing movies, talented film makers and exceptional actors. I take two planes, drive two hours, sleep under 6 hours/night, live in 9000 feet of altitude, skip most meals, weather all weather and spend hours in line because I love movies.Image

And the thing is…it’s all a secret.

The program at the Telluride Film Festival is a secret until the festival opens. That’s right–people spend a great deal of time and energy (and a little bit of money) on a mystery. Sure, some information leaks out, but for the most part it’s one of the best kept secrets 600 miles outside of Hollywood.

Yes, I love the content of the festival and I love the Big Reveal that happens on day one of the festival and subsequent days as mystery spots on the program are filled with surprise movies, actors and filmmakers. But it’s the framework, the process or rather the context in which the festival exists that I love the most.

Movies at Telluride are premiering in North America for the first time. That means it can’t have shown at Sundance or Tribeca and then show up at Telluride. The movies at Telluride have either never been seen by an audience (as was the case with Argo) or have only premiered at a foreign festival like Venice, which takes place in the days just preceding Telluride. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that on a number of occasions I shed some tears as a filmmaker or actor described the feeling of working hard to create something beautiful and then share it with an audience for the first time. Image

Press passes are limited at Telluride, so no swag or paparazzi or major VIP to-do’s. You’ll likely sit on the gondola with George Clooney or see the Garner/Affleck clan eating at their favorite breakfast spot. The festival is really about movie lovers, whether it’s those who make them, star in them or watch them. And as much name dropping as I might do in the days to come (and there will be plenty), I am equally as humbled to meet the unknown filmmaker who tells a powerful story and holds my attention even after I leave the theater.


The quality of the movies, can’t be underplayed. Telluride is known as a reliable Oscar barometer as Best Picture nominees and winners have regularly premiered here (The Artist and Argo in recent years). This makes attending mean something even more, whether you subscribe to the authenticity of industry awards or not. What I will say is while I’m sure there are politics involved in putting the festival together, the founders of the fete go to great lengths to bring a high quality show (and they do call it The Show) every single year.

The spirit of the festival is egalitarian and access is rarely denied anyone. Sure, you can pay more to get a good place in line, but the festival offers many opportunities to see movies for free with commentary from those involved in the film and bathrooms that might have you standing next to Bill Murray at the urinal (not my story, of course).

Attendance is limited, so it’s unlikely for festival-goers to miss movies that they strive to watch. Films that get good buzz over the weekend are shown more so that attendees can leave feeling fat and happy; filled up on high art and some of the best movie popcorn around. Image

And small is good because when I look down at the town, dangling high above it from the gondola, I can’t help but revel in the fact that these are My People. I will gladly sit behind them or next to them in a dark theater because I have spent an hour in line talking with them about the Next Big Movie and we’ll share stories and pictures of festivals past.

Beyond those who descend on Telluride for the festival every Labor Day, there are those residents who open up their homes, schools (I sat next to the middle school principal last year in his gym-turned-theater), parks and weight rooms and transform them into state-of-the-art theaters. This is a town that toils for their film festival, jazz festival and other events throughout the year. Telluride knows how to host a party, that’s for sure.

I am counting the hours until I board a plane and engage in my now pre-festival ritual of strategizing my attendance at this year’s premieres at Telluride. And I can’t help but feel that every movie that I watched before my first visit to the festival in 2011 was preparing me for all of my movie-loving  dreams to come true.