TELLURIDE, Colo.—The Telluride Film Festival celebrated its 40th anniversary in southern Colorado last week with the likes of Brad Pitt, Robert Redford, and the Coen Brothers. With no free press passes and general admission tickets priced at $800 or more, the festival attracts a rare breed of cinephiles interested in film as a form of artistic expression, rather than the money-making machine it has become.
Still, in recent years Telluride has featured Oscar-winning films such as Brokeback Mountain, Slumdog Millionaire, and Argo, making the festival a must-attend for studio executives and critics alike. As a result, Telluride has joined the ranks of Venice, Toronto, Berlin, Sundance, and Cannes as an important stop for Oscar-contenders.
Despite the buzz surrounding the festival in recent years, Telluride stays true to its roots. Each year, for example, the festival brings together 50 students from around the world for free screenings and face time with filmmakers and actors. It’s not uncommon at Telluride to see a group of wide-eyed students discussing film with their favorite directors or actors—a scene almost unimaginable at the exclusive red carpet premieres and flashy press conferences of a festival like Cannes.
This year at Telluride, festival-goers were treated to a stylistically wide range of films, from Alfonso Cuaron’s dazzling space thriller Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, to Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, a minimalist family study that represents his follow-up to 2011’s Oscar-winning film A Separation.
Just as the festival represents a wide range of filmmaking styles, so too does Telluride provide no shortage of differing worldviews.
Take the French feature, Blue Is the Warmest Color, the recipient of the highest award at the Cannes Film Festival. Blue features a young lesbian couple and includes an extended and explicit sex scene that has been euphemistically called “controversial.” In fact, it’s hardly distinguishable from hard-core pornography—making the responses of both Cannes and Telluride audiences all the more troubling, since that means the film will likely get distribution and be coming to a theater near you soon.
Nearly as shocking as Blue’s explicitness was the buzz generated by films depicting more traditional values. Ida, the latest from Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, tells the story of one young woman’s exploration of her personal and national history just before she is to take her vows in the Polish convent where she was raised. Pawlikowski provides his viewers with a character who does not shy from traditional values or religion while also acknowledging the temptations and true evil she encounters on her spiritual journey.
In one of the ironies of Telluride, organizers scheduled both Blue and Ida for additional show times to accommodate the buzz and demand created by the initial screenings.
Another irony, given the audience: Telluride even had a few family-friendly films. Tim’s Vermeer features inventor Tim Jenison’s attempts to solve the centuries-old puzzle as to how Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer painted his photographic-like masterpieces. Think Mythbusters on globetrotting steroids.
Two films that raise interesting moral questions are The Prisoners (starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman) and Nebraska. The Prisoners is interesting for its chilling portrait of true evil. Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways) and starring Bruce Dern, provides a thoughtful look at family and community. Both films fall short of the family-friendly category due to their R ratings.
If history is a guide, the stylistic innovations and moral debates occurred on screen at Telluride last week will be occurring in neighborhoods across the country in the months to come.