MINING CINEMATIC GOLD: 2006 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL

While there was mercifully no snow falling on this year’s edition of the venerable Telluride Film Festival, there was an ample amount of pixie dust transforming this historical mining town turned posh resort city once again into the best and most pure film festival in the world. Telluride is perhaps the only international festival that doesn’t cater to the hoi poli providing (almost!) completely egalitarian access to movies throughout the weekend in which Hollywood muckey-mucks and celebs mingle alongside average filmgoers throughout the weekend and the streets are noticeably devoid of autograph seekers and paparazzi.

After last year’s bravura slate of films which included Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Walk The Line, the 2006 33rd Telluride Film Festival had it’s work cut out for it and the magical alchemy that annually combines the best in independent, foreign and studio filmmaking along with one-of-kind tributes and spotlights (John Alton, Disney’s Lost Treasures, Cinerama, 3-D, Nature’s Filmmakers, 1928) with rare retrospectives (Seven Men From Now, The Hard Way, and last year’s Army of Shadows, natch), was considerably less stellar than the weather outside. While there were few outright clunkers, there was a noticeable dearth of the kind of transcendent film experiences like Koyla, The Boys of St. Vincent, The Crying Game, Once Were Warriors and the aforementioned Brokeback Mountain offered in year’s past. If nothing else, it was certainly a curious year for the unpredictable festival in which selections are not announced until the first day of moviegoing. While Babel seemed to be getting the most buzz, despite several attendees saying some judicious editing is called for, one of the festival’s biggest sleepers was the unlikely success of the British slasher film, Severance, in which a band of employees for a Haliburton-like company go on a team building weekend only to find themselves stalked by deadly killers. The film was aptly described as The Office meets Deliverance and is probably the slyest and most subversive evisceration of the military industrial complex since Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” The sight of septuagenarians emerging glassy eyed and giddy from this Ten Little Indians meets Friday the 13th extolling its merits was truly a sight I had never beheld at Telluride. I felt like I was at Sitges, my other favorite festival with a unique genre bent.

The other film garnering the most buzz was The Lives Of Others, a German film examining the East German secret police, which was a hit at Berlin, and The Italian, a charming Russian film about an orphan who goes in search of his birth mother. Expect an inferior American remake anyday now, I’m sure. Director Andrei Krovchuk’s film along with his ensemble of non-actors left audiences enraptured. Never cloying, the film alternates from heartbreaking melodrama to delightfully wry and ironic storytelling atypical of the Russian film canon.

Tributes at Telluride can be a hit or miss affair and this year was no exception. The requisite actor being honored was Penelope Cruz who falls into the same category that Jennifer Jason Leigh was stamped with nearly a decade back: why? Was Kate Winslet, who gives a brilliant performance in Todd Field’s sly, but ultimately unsatisfying Little Children not available? Despite wonderful performances, including that of Patrick Willson and former Bad News Bear Jackie Earle Haley as a local child molester as well as the inspired use of satirical narration, the film never delivers on its Desperate Housewives meets In The Bedroom promise. Fortunately, Walter Murch received well-deserved kudos at the fest for his editing work, although his groundbreaking sound design efforts were largely ignored. Much of the non-industry crowd seemed stunned to realize how important an editor’s work was to a film seemingly still enamored with the auteur theory of yore.

Truman Capote returned, if not from the dead, in the form of actor Toby Jones in Infamous, receiving mixed reviews from audiences who were transfixed with last year’s Capote at the fest and resistant to embrace this case of cinematic déjà vu.

If there was one standout that seemed to receive nearly universal acclaim this year it was documentarian Kevin MacDonald’s first fiction film, The Last King of Scotland, which chronicles Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s relationship with his Scottish doctor. Although the character is a composite of several British doctors, Forest Whitaker’s performance as Amin was earning him well deserved Oscar buzz and it’s a beautifully directed, masterfully acted story worthy of this unconventional director whose One Day In September and Touching The Void were equally memorable Telluride films. The other performance earning major buzz was Peter O’Toole in Roger Michell’s Venus, a sweet, if predictable, dramedy about a dying man’s would-be love affair with his friend’s young niece. While it certainly doesn’t have Manhattan-size laughs, O’Toole gives his best performance since My Favorite Year and steals the show as a prurient actor enamored with a aimless girl.

As for retros that were notably sparse this year, festival staple Peter Bogdonovich returned with his revamped version of Directed by John Ford, which was a festival highlight and shows on TCM in November. With new clips and all-new interviews including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, the film manages to improve on the earlier version of the doc Bogdonovich unspoiled several years ago. The real highlight of the documentary is vintage interviews with Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and an affable John Wayne. The Alloy Orchestra also returned to accompany Lonesome,”a Telluride discovery nearly a decade ago and is a delectable confection from the early 20th century once again showing that the medium in its infancy still has greater treasures to be unearthed than much of contemporary cinema.

Another revelation was part one of Ken Burns’ The War, his look at World War II. Noting that while he didn’t want to make another documentary about a war after his monumental Civil War epic, the disturbing statistic that over 48% of today’s high school students think that America fought WITH the Germans AGAINST the Russians in WW II prompted him to embrace this ambitious undertaking. Powerfully told, availing himself of several living veterans who are as articulate as they are moving, The War is no History Channel lesson and, not surprisingly, Burns unearths a treasure trove of rare archival footage and photos, it is a powerful and important work that will premiere on PBS in Fall 2007, this being the first two hours of a mega-15 hour series. Not to be missed.

Overshadowing all the films however was the retirement of festival founders Bill and Stella Pence. The Pence’s were devoted to over three decades of Telluride festivals, taking it from being a blip on the festival map to one of the most important film festivals in the world while retaining its unique charm and resisting its commercialization while maintaining its rarified tastemaker status . Their contribution to the annals of film history should be revered and cherished and one can only hope this unique festival retains its distinctiveness in the coming years under veteran fest honcho Tom Luddy and incoming festival co-director Gary Meyer. As John Wayne’s men tell him in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,

“…Lest We Forget.”




Posted on September 7, 2006 in Festivals by
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