TELLURIDE, Colo.—Want to know what movies you’ll be talking about in 2008? Want to know who’ll be holding Oscar statues?
Check out which movies were hits at the recent Telluride Film Festival. If you don’t think the festival carries much clout, look at last year’s program: Among the dozens of films premiered at the festival were “Little Children,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “The Lives of Others,” “Babel” and “Venus.” Flash to the 2007 Academy Awards and you’ll find those films racked up 13 Oscar nominations and won three.
Simply put, the Telluride Film Festival is one of the best places in the country to get a sneak preview of many of the year’s best films.
I braved long lines, short sleep and hungry bears (only at Telluride) to see what this year’s festival had to offer and what films you should look for in the months to come:
“Juno”—This was my favorite film of the festival by a mile. It’ll remind you a little of “Napoleon Dynamite” and a little of “Rushmore,” but it’s easily a better—and funnier—movie than either of those. Ellen Page knocks it out of the park as a sassy 16-year-old who gets knocked up. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are outstanding as her parents. A few of the cinema snobs at the festival turned up their noses at something so “commercial,” but we’d be living in a poorer world if anything this smart and funny didn’t have wide appeal. Check it out when it opens Dec. 14.
“The Band’s Visit”—Everyone at Telluride fell in love with this charming comedy about an Egyptian police orchestra’s visit to an Israeli cultural center that quickly goes awry. It’s sweet without being saccharine and sad without being maudlin and funny without being crass: In other words, the perfect small film that doesn’t reach too far or aim too low. Stars Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz, as the band’s conductor and the Israeli restaurant owner who takes him in after the band is stranded, are wonderful.
“When Did You Last See Your Father?”—There wasn’t a dry eye in the house at the end of this sweet, sad movie about a man (Colin Firth), saying goodbye to his dying father (Jim Broadbent). Both actors offer rich, poignant portrayals of their characters’ difficult relationship. As dark as the subject matter seems, it’s a warm, funny film that could well earn Oscar nominations for one or both actors.
“Steep”—Mark Obenhaus, the director of this documentary on the history of extreme skiing, set out to make a ski film that would speak to a general audience. I don’t know if he quite hit that mark, but serious skiers will appreciate the history and anyone with eyes will be blown away by the footage, both the still-amazing archival stuff and the mindblowing new shots. An avalanche that nearly kills skier Andrew McLean near the end of the film is one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen on film. A special screening at the festival, it opens in major cities Dec. 21, and in ski towns thereafter.
“The Counterfeiters”—Every screening of this Austrian film sold out at the festival. Honestly, it’s not all that, but it is a solid film. It’s the true story of a Russian Jew pulled out of a concentration camp to run a Nazi effort to forge British pounds and American dollars. Director Stefan Ruzowitzky lets that killer premise unfold in a slow burn, gradually letting his anti-hero, Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) find his moral center.
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“Margot at the Wedding”—With Nicole Kidman, Jack Black and Jennifer Jason Leigh starring in this drama, there’s a good chance this film will make its way into local theaters when it opens Nov. 16. That doesn’t mean, however, that you’re obligated to see this funny, but deliberately off-putting drama about a pair of troubled, feuding sisters (Kidman and Leigh). Fractured families are a drama staple, but director Noah Baumbach seems to delight in leading the audience right up to the edge of sympathizing with his characters, then turning away at the last moment. Festival audiences just didn’t know what to make of it.
“Rails and Ties”—Nepotism must be alive and well in Hollywood, because only Clint Eastwood’s daughter, Alison, could cast Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden to star in her first movie. It’s not awful, really, but often trite and predictable. Too bad, the premise had promise—Bacon as a train engineer unable to connect with his dying wife, then has to deal with death in another way after his train kills a woman parked on tracks.
There are only so many seats in Telluride’s theaters, so here are movies everyone was talking about, but I couldn’t get to:
“Into the Wild”—Director Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 best-selling nonfiction book was the hottest ticket at the festival. People were coming out of the theater bawling—and fans of the book know why. I won’t ruin it for people who haven’t read it, because this is one of the few films from the festival that’s certain to get a run in the multiplexes (on Sept. 21).
“Blind Mountain”—People were calling this Chinese film the most depressing flick in a festival loaded with heavy material, but they also said this story of a young woman forced into marriage is a beautiful and powerful film.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”—Fans of serious cinema raved about this challenging film from Julian Schnabel (it opens Dec. 19). Much like festival honoree Daniel Day-Lewis’ “My Left Foot,” “Diving Bell” tells the story of a man overcoming enormous physical challenges. It’s the true story of Jean–Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who is paralyzed except for blinking his eye, yet manages to write his memoirs.
“I’m Not There”—Some festivalgoers loved this experimental biopic of singer Bob Dylan. It had a lot of people shaking their heads, but others appreciated the unique approach. Director Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven”), used six actors to play Dylan at different stages in his life, including Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett (seriously). Fans of experimental cinema and Dylan should check it out Nov. 21.