The 43rd annual Telluride Film Festival kicked off last Friday. Unlike showier film fests in glamour spots like Sundance, Toronto or Cannes, tiny Telluride has no red carpet for celebs to parade up and down, dressed in their lavish best. Even the venues are relatively modest; Telluride’s school gym and hockey rink get converted into theaters just for the weekend. The films that premiered at Telluride will be released to the public in the coming months, so here’s five “must-sees” critics are raving about. Put them on your “to see” list now!
“Manchester by the Sea”This one is directed by Kenneth Lonegran, who also helmed the critically-lauded but tragically-underseen “Margaret,” starring Anna Paquin. The lead in “Manchester” is Casey Affleck, Ben Affleck’s younger and slighter brother. Casey is less of a movie star than his sibling, but more of an actor. Here he plays Lee Chandler, a long-suffering man burdened by a past trauma and left suddenly in charge of his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges, who ironically bears a passing resemblance to Matt Damon). This is a “coming home” story, exploring the tragedy that distanced Lee from his hometown years before by forcing him to return to that snowy, seaside Massachusetts community. The beauty of “Manchester” lies in delicate restraint, as many things go unseen or unsaid. We observe conversations from a distance without hearing words exchanged, but expressions and gestures are far more nuanced and interesting than any dialogue could be.
“La La Land”Damien Chazelle’s last project, “Whiplash,” was an intense, kinetic film about an aspiring drummer and his sadistic music teacher. “La La Land” is also about music (it’s a musical, in fact) garnering plenty of Oscar buzz thanks to charming performances by leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Apparently, Chazelle couldn’t get “La La” made for years because it was too difficult of a concept to sell and considered a risky investment, so he wrote and sold “Whiplash” first. Chazelle’s latest takes place in present day Los Angeles and follows a striving jazz pianist (Gosling) and a hopeful actress (Stone) who fall in love and simultaneously struggle with pursuing their idealistic Hollywood dreams. The whole thing is populated with original song and dance numbers, plus more references to classic musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain” than you can shake a stick at. There’s lots of pretty colors, but the constantly-whirling camera gave me whiplash (pun intended), I didn’t love any of the songs, and not only do Gosling and Stone not sing well (they aren’t professionals, to be fair), I thought they had less chemistry than I have with my toothbrush. Still – everyone else loved it.
“Arrival”Directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”), the dark and high-concept “Arrival” is billed as a sci-fi alien invasion flick, but it’s much more cerebral than the likes of “War of the Worlds,” instead akin to moody thinking-movies like “Solaris,” “Contact, or even “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In “Arrival,” alien crafts hover over the world in decidedly non-exciting locales (the spacecraft by the United States is above Montana), and a linguist expert (Amy Adams, always good) is recruited by the military to communicate with the foreign beings. If you’re looking for space battles and gooey alien creatures bursting forth from chests, you’ll be disappointed. This is a slow-burn story, as the human species interacts with the aliens over a period of months, ever unsure of their motives. “Arrival” is as much about grief as anything; Adams’ character lost her teenage daughter to cancer, an injury affecting the ease with which she connects to others, human and alien alike.
“Una”With a story similar to Nabokov’s “Lolita,” this is one of the most controversial films to come out of Telluride, and the first feature from director Benedict Andrews. Starring the lovely, intellectual Rooney Mara (you know her from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,”) “Una” is a sexual abuse story cleverly blurring the lines designating “predators” from “victims.” In 2016, sexual abuse victims are happily taken seriously (note: Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Nate Parker and “Birth of a Nation”), but far too often the circumstances and stories of involved individuals are insultingly simplified. “Una” challenges preconceived notions of what a sexual predator is; sometimes they are mere monsters, sometimes it’s more complicated than that. Una (Mara) was once a 13-year-old girl seduced by her 40-year-old neighbor, who was later convicted as a rapist and served time in jail. As an adult woman, Una decides to seek him out again. Part of her still loves him, and she grapples with those confusing feelings, despite knowing their relationship was wrong.
“Moonlight” Breakout indie hit “Moonlight” was directed by Barry Jenkins, a longtime Telluride Film programmer and venue manager. Cinematic stories about LGBT people of color are often ignored in favor of more white-washed dramas, but this film thrusts essential topics like Black Lives Matter and the battle for gay rights into the spotlight via a deeply personal story (the personal is political). In “Moonlight,” a black Florida teenager with drug-dealing-and-taking parents confronts his repressed homosexuality, enduring the isolation of being a closeted gay man in a culture that considers homosexuality and masculinity to be two concepts at odds with each other.