WSJ | Telluride: Good Movies, Welcome Back
Either no one has noticed or no one has complained, but for longer than I’ve chosen to admit—at least publicly—my annual roundups from this lovely little town in the Rocky Mountains have followed the same template, and the same emotional arc: “After a grim summer at the movies, the Telluride Film Festival has restored my faith in the medium.”
The template still applies, though with ominous adjustments. Grim can’t begin to convey the essence of this year’s soul-chilling summer at the movies, a near-interminable stretch of stinkers with precious few signs of life from mostly clueless studios. Telluride has provided reason for hope, as always, but hope tempered by an awareness that the theatrical medium is increasingly threatened by a whole constellation of cultural forces. (A crucial trend that usually eludes industry analysts is young people’s resistance to the notion of spending two hours in a public space where they’re not supposed to talk or check their mobile devices, whereas TV, streaming services and YouTube offer them a choice of binging on their favorite shows and movies or consuming them in small doses.) All the more reason, then, for movie lovers to cherish and support the good stuff as never before. And some of the features at Telluride this year weren’t just good but, dare I say it, perfect in their various fashions.
First and foremost for me in the perfection category was Kenneth Lonergan’s“Manchester by the Sea,” a searingly beautiful film set in a Boston suburb starringCasey Affleck—a perfect performance—as a closed-down loner who has suffered terrible loss and may or may not find his way back to embracing life. Perfection on a different scale, in a different place—Europe in the wake of World War I—is achieved by François Ozon’s “Frantz,” a drama that poses the same question in the person of a grief-stricken young woman played exquisitely by Paula Beer. If there’s a false note in “Graduation,” a Romanian film by Cristian Mungiu, I didn’t notice it—I found only truth and humanity in the tale of a decent man who loses his moral compass when he tries to enhance his daughter’s chances of getting into a prestigious college.
The most obvious category for “Moonlight” is Black Film, or more accurately Great Black Film—but even that doesn’t do justice to this second feature by Barry Jenkins, a profoundly moving study of a frightened, near-silent young boy coming into manhood in contemporary Miami and shutting himself off from a long-ago love. There are many passing marvels in “Moonlight,” but the most remarkable thing about Mr. Jenkins’s movie is how vividly you can see, at the end of an almost total transformation, the tender child in the flint-hardened man.
The festival was graced with a trio of strong documentaries about jazz. John Scheinfeld’s“Chasing Trane” evokes the career of the singular saxophone virtuoso John Coltrane.Janus Køster-Rasmussen’s “Cool Cats” amounts to parallel portraits of two superb saxophonists, Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon, at a time in the 1960s when both men fled racism and a failing jazz scene in America for the frigid weather and warm welcome of Copenhagen. While it’s technically correct to call “I Called Him Morgan” a documentary, Kasper Collin’s brilliant film plays like first-rate drama as it tells the tragic story of Lee Morgan. He’s the bop trumpet prodigy who died of wounds after his common-law wife, Helen More, shot him on a snowy night in 1972 in a jazz club in New York’s East Village. The tragedy was shared; Helen, as the movie makes clear, was a compelling figure in her own right, a woman of depth and passion who rose from rural poverty in North Carolina.
In a tactical departure from its traditional role as a high-altitude Brigadoon for cinephiles, the festival featured a mainstream Hollywood production that goes into wide release this week: Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” which starsTom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed his airliner in the Hudson River in 2009. The tactic is debatable, but “Sully” is very good, and I’ve reviewed it at greater length in the online Journal. A debut film at the festival, Otto Bell’s “The Eagle Huntress,” will open theatrically toward the end of October, when my review will run in this space. Here again the technical category is documentary—the subject is a 13-year-old Kazakh girl, Aisholpan, who yearns to become the first female eagle hunter in her family of nomads on the immense Mongolian Steppe. I have some reservations about the film’s yearnings to become an inspirational feature, but the vistas and cultural insights are fascinating and Aisholpan is simply, though not plainly, enchanting.
A sense of duty sent me to a couple of films that turned out to be exceptional, notwithstanding my misplaced doubts. Pablo Larraín, the Chilean director of the smart and exciting “No,” has taken surreally poetic liberties in “Neruda,” which is set in 1948, when Chile’s celebrated poet and Communist senator was charged with treason and went into hiding. (He’s played by Luis Gnecco.) Mr. Larraín’s political phantasmagoria is framed as a chase and told from the perspective of a beguilingly articulate cop, played byGael García Bernal, who refuses to believe that he’s a supporting character, let alone a product of his quarry’s imagination. The running time of “ Toni Erdmann,” a German comedy by Maren Ade, is almost three hours, yet every one of its 162 minutes is justified by the counterpoint between Winfried, a Falstaffian eccentric played with epic gusto byPeter Simonischek, and his daughter, Ines, a corporate executive played by Sandra Hüller,whose performance is no less remarkable for being a study of control freakery.
A presentation that runs more than three hours, Bertrand Tavernier’s “My Journey Through French Cinema” had me mesmerized from start to finish. I thought I was fairly well versed in the great films of France—my cinema journey began in earnest when the French New Wave hit American shores—but I had lots of other thinks coming as Mr. Tavernier, the filmmaker who directed Dexter Gordon in “’Round Midnight,” made his way through decades of lore with the scrupulous judgments of a scholar and the zest of an unquenchable fan. I’d also had more than a casual acquaintanceship with Czech cinema, but none of it prepared me for the joyous originality of Karel Zeman’s 1962 feature “TheFabulous Baron Munchausen,” a live-action/animation hybrid, gorgeously restored, that opened up possibilities and provided artistic templates for such subsequent innovators as Ray Harryhausen, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Wes Anderson.
The danger of reveling in great films of the past is nostalgia; their moments are gone, and will never return in the same form. But nostalgia got surprising new twists from two films that could hardly differ more in form or content.
One of them is “California Typewriter,” a documentary by Doug Nichol. It’s about typewriters, exactly as you guessed, along with people who love them, continue to fix them (the film takes its name and focus from a typewriter shop in Berkeley), and collect them. The lovers, and users, include David McCullough, Sam Shepard and John Mayer.The collectors include Tom Hanks, who was ubiquitous at the festival in the flesh as well as on the screen. The point of it all isn’t just nostalgia, though I must say I was smitten anew by the sight of Smith-Coronas, Olympias, Olivettis and Selectrics I once owned, but the palpable pleasure of using a machine to put ink on pieces of paper that can outlast the fugitive data on a hard drive.
The other retro revelation, a lollipop-colored musical called “La La Land,” was the hit of the festival, and no wonder. The writer-director, Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), has created a film so daringly retro that it looks and feels brand new. Emma Stone is Mia, an aspiring actress who works in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who can’t make a living playing the music he loves. Whatever nostalgia one may have for the glory days of Hollywood musicals can’t conceal the fact that the co-stars are less than consummate singers and dancers, and the score is far from sublime, but that doesn’t matter in the end. (If you remember the winsome loveliness of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” you’ll understand why.) What matters is the movie’s renewal of a promise that movies used to make as a matter of course—come see this and you’ll forget your cares and woes. That, as they used to say, is entertainment.