At Telluride, the Movies Reawaken
The very first thing I saw at this year's Telluride Film Festival was sheer bliss. Lava, a musical romance from Pixar Animation, was one of the shorts that traditionally precede almost every festival screening; the director was James Ford Murphy. The story, spanning millions of years in 7 minutes, starts with a lonely Hawaiian volcano who, crooning to ukulele accompaniment, yearns for "someone to lava". The volcano's poignant plight really spoke to me, touched me, made me laugh like a loon and lifted my spirits. After an especially dispiriting movie summer cluttered with dumb clunkers, I'd been yearning for films to lava and, once again, Telluride came through — not just with films, though there were plenty of fine ones, but with new reasons to lava the movie medium.
Two standouts in a remarkably diverse program, Birdman and Leviathan, could hardly be more different stylistically, let alone thematically. One is hip-surreal, the other grandly classical, yet both bespeak the movies' ability to enthrall us as no other medium can. Birdman stars Michael Keaton in a stunning, scary, one-of-a-kind performance as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up action hero trying to make a comeback on Broadway. I'm partial to movies I can't quite keep up with, as long as they're good. This one, propelled by a madly percussive, anxiety-provoking drum score, moves at the speed of its hero's addled thought processes. Riggan ricochets between fantasy and reality, while coping as best he can with a stentorian inner voice that sometimes takes the form of an outer doppelgänger. The virtuoso director, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, and the peerless cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have created a swirling universe all their own, and populated it with a top-notch cast — most prominently Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Lindsay Duncan — at the top of their game.
Andrey Zvyagintsev's masterly Leviathan, set against the primeval grandeur of Russia's northwestern coast, takes place in the Putin present, though the moral decay and political corruption it depicts are timeless. The antagonists are Kolya, a good-hearted, hotheaded auto mechanic, and Vadim, the mayor of the little town that's about to seize Kolya's home. The seizure is illegal, but that doesn't faze the odious Vadim, who sees Kolya and his prickly ilk as insects to crush. (The third major presence is Kolya's friend from the army, a suave, overconfident Moscow lawyer. The fourth is vodka, which turns pervasive cynicism and despair into rage.) As visual art, Leviathan is majestic — the cinematographer was Mikhail Krichman — with the majesty enhanced by a pulsing Philip Glass score. As social and political observation, it's a portrait of a once-great nation going down a rusty drain.
Great subjects don't always fall into good hands, but The Imitation Game does right by the astonishing story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician and cryptanalyst who played a pivotal role in cracking Nazi Germany's Enigma code during World War II. (Winston Churchill credited him with having made the biggest single contribution to the Allies' victory.) In a handsome production that's been skillfully directed by Morten Tyldum, Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose performance was one of the highlights of the festival. It's an urgent and stirring portrayal of an eccentric genius at work — what came to be called the Turing machine was a progenitor of the modern computer — and a soul in torment; Turing paid a terrible price for his homosexuality.
Red Army gets at serious stuff with a sidewise approach that's hugely enjoyable. Gabe Polsky's documentary focuses on Viacheslav Slava Fetisov, the ice-hockey legend who led the Soviet national team that the army ran during the Cold War. These days Mr. Fetisov is a worldly wise politician, as witty and endearing as he is smart. Yet his equanimity belies his harrowing journey from state-sponsored hero to victim of stupid tyranny by a KGB-sponsored coach and then, as the Soviet Union crumbled, a formidable force in this country's National Hockey League. Red Army charts Soviet decline, but it's equally a celebration of a man who always tried to play the game he loved with winning grace and imagination.
If Leviathan defines a place and time, the centerpiece of Telluride's annual retrospective, Apocalypse Now defines an era. Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 masterpiece played here on the occasion of its 35th anniversary, and I'd argue that it towered above everything else on the program. I overheard a young filmmaker (who had just signed a deal, he said, with YouTube) tell a friend that Birdman represented the next level he was aspiring to. Good choice, and good for him, but Mr. Coppola's film, with its operatic vision of personal and collective madness, represents a level that few filmmakers have aspired to and fewer still have attained. It also stands as a monument to cinematography, and the man who shot it, Vittorio Storaro, was here with the director for the long weekend.
Superb cinematography lit up venues all over town: the bravura style of Apocalypse Now, the phantasmagoric fluidity of Birdman, the formal elegance of Leviathan and, perhaps most rewarding, the magical luminosity of Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh's marvelous new film starring Timothy Spall as the 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner.
Shooting a movie about a visionary artist presents an inherent challenge, one that Mr. Leigh and his veteran cinematographer, Dick Pope, not only rise to but revel in. They take us into Turner landscapes and seascapes, they give us eye feasts of greenswards, glittering water and opalescent, Turner-esque mists, and they do it with digital equipment that neither man had used before. (I would have bet the farm that they'd shot on film.) Mr. Spall gives another one-of-a-kind performance, a scowling, scuttling, wheezing, grunting misanthrope who only heightens the mystery of great art's wellsprings. The running time of 150 minutes may be too long, as some audience members contended, but the movie is so richly detailed and densely populated that I cherished every vivid minute.
In Turner's time, climate change meant the progression of the four seasons. At Telluride, it was the central issue of a provocative and improbably entertaining documentary called Merchants of Doubt. The broader subject of Robert Kenner's film is a loose alliance of lobbyists, elected officials and ostensible — or in some cases genuine — experts that Mr. Kenner groups under the rubric of science deniers. His thesis, set forth with persuasive flair, is that many of those who continue to question the link between global warming and human activity are following the playbook first developed by the tobacco industry, which fought off government regulation for almost half a century while denying the implications of sound science, including its own.
The most shocking documentary this year was Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence, a companion piece to his 2012 The Act of Killing. In the earlier film, former death-squad assassins in Indonesia demonstrate, in eerie re-enactments, how they helped perpetrate a mid-1960s genocide that killed more than a million people in a single year. This film revisits that horrific time, but through the eyes of its victims. (Ironically, Mr. Oppenheimer's protagonist and calm inquisitor, a young optician named Adi, helps some of the murderous monsters he and his family must still live with to see more clearly.) What sticks most memorably in my mind is a remark made by a former killer after explaining to Adi, in grisly detail, how his brother died. "Well, that's how it is", the man says cheerfully. "Life on earth".
Among the dozen films I managed to see over the weekend, one of the most fascinating, and frequently stirring, was Two Days, One Night, a drama written and directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Marion Cotillard is quietly brilliant, then flat-out brilliant, as Sandra, a worker in a solar-panel factory who will lose her job to the pressures of globalization unless her co-workers vote to reject bonus money that would go toward restoring her salary. The plot is schematic, a series of confrontations between Sandra and each of her colleagues. Within the scheme, though, the Dardenne brothers explore solidarity and self-interest, greed and empathy and the wondrous ambiguities of human behavior.
The best kind of movie experience is the one I had with Seymour: An Introduction — going in with next to no expectations and coming out on a high that had nothing to do with the nearly 9,000-foot altitude or Colorado's legalization of pot. I knew nothing of what awaited me except that it was a documentary that Ethan Hawke had made about someone he'd met and admired. That someone proved to be Seymour Bernstein, a formerly reclusive concert pianist and piano teacher who is now a soft-spoken octogenarian and the most captivating guru you could imagine. Mr. Bernstein's wisdom is far-ranging, but his abiding concern is integrating one's art with everyday life. If the physical scale of Mr. Hawke's production is modest, the content gives it a good shot at longevity, if not quite immortality, as a teaching tool that will be studied, and savored, for decades to come.
Though the weather was glorious from start to finish, the festival had opened under a cloud. Back in January the Toronto International Film Festival, a far more comprehensive and commercial affair that always follows Telluride by one week, announced a new policy. Toronto would exclude from the first four days of its lineup any movie that had premiered at Telluride. The move was not only ineffectual — Telluride seemed to be thriving this year, as usual — but petty and ill-advised, hardball played by Little Leaguers. Movies are an endangered species that needs all the competition and support it can get.
The greatest threat to Telluride comes not from without but from within. This year, as in 2012 — though not last year, when new venues added many new seats — regular festival-goers with regular passes spent too much time on line for popular films, only to discover that they'd been shut out by last-minute arrivals with expensive patron passes. The dilemma is acute. To survive, the festival needs generous patrons. To survive with its populist ideals intact, this invaluable institution needs to fix a flawed system, as I hope and trust it will. Movies have never been a medium for the rich. The Telluride Film Festival mustn't become a preserve for the privileged few.
"The Wall Street Journal"