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Telluride Film Festival Day Two

Time slips away faster than you think, especially when all you want to do is sleep and watch the sky change. A 9am screening means getting up and out as early as you can, especially when you’re going to The Nugget, the teeny tiny theater on the main drag in Telluride. If you don’t get there early you will not get a seat. If you want to get coffee at the Steaming Bean next door that’s an even longer wait.

The fresh coffee inside the theater was as good as any I’ve ever had so I just waited and got it there. I spotted Kris Tapley from In Contention and Joe Morgenstern from the Wall Street Journal — I’d been tipped off by Tapley who is smart about picking which movies to see and when. If you ever attend a fest with Tapley, it’s not a bad idea to just follow him around if you can get him to tell you where he’s going. He was one of the first of our “Oscar blogger” community to come to Telluride and since then it’s morphed a bit into a pre-Oscar stop. This year, though, it feels less like a mini-Toronto and more like what it’s intended to be: smallish films attended by a faithful community of devotees.

The Central Park Five might end up being among the best films I’ll see here. Sarah Burns began studying the horrifying case of five black teens who were caught in Central Park the night a jogger was raped, bludgeoned and left for dead. After being kept up all night, with no food, no water and no lawyer, the teens started lying to get out of there. They confessed to a crime they never did because the cops and the DA promised them that’s what they had to do to get out of jail. It had become such a high profile case that they had to catch the perps, no matter if it meant coercing young men, aged 14 even, to falsify a confession. Without checking any of the hard evidence in the case first, the boys were charged, tried and found guilty. All the while, the press fanned the flames, the public was alarmed and angry, politicians used the case to urge for the Death Penalty (super-genius Donald Trump is quoted). The parents of the boys knew the truth but no one would listen to them.

When it came out seven years or so later that someone else committed the crime, the boys were quietly released. The film is as much an indictment on the press as it is on the legal system and it is a film everyone in America should see. It should be screened at high schools all over the country to drive home the necessity of civil rights, or lawyering up, and it makes a very good case for a lawsuit against the city of New York, a lawsuit that is, unfortunately, still pending.

Burns has passed on to his daughter his passion for his subjects. She worked on the story for five years before it was made into a film and when interviewed at the Q&A afterwards, it was clear that the filmmakers still cared deeply about the outcome. It’s a haunting, gripping documentary probably headed for the Kodak — hopefully it gets there because nothing will embarrass the New York City DA like a high-profile Oscar win.

After the Q&A I made my way over to the Palm. Since parking at my hotel was full I did what you should never do in Telluride — I drove from venue to venue. You can park anywhere for up to two hours so I had to keep moving my vehicle. Today I plan to find one spot and leave it because you don’t want to come here and not walk around. It defeats the whole purpose.

Ben Affleck drew quite the crowd at the Palm, where they were already lining up an hour before the show. Celebrities will do that, no matter where you are. Bring a star and people show up.

Argo turned out to be the most buzzed film of the fest so far, which only made it more intense of a proposition, getting in. Like The Central Park Five, Argo is a serious subject handled expertly by Affleck, who has been maturing as a director and seems to have finally become a great one with this film. Gone Baby Gone and especially The Town utilize Affleck’s talents well but they also anchor him to where he came from: Boston. He seemed to want to tell those stories. Of the two, The Town is the more accomplished because it really illustrates one thing Affleck is probably surprised that he’s really good at: suspense. Turns out, the best scenes in The Town are the ones involving the particulars of the robberies and car chases. Argo is a movie almost entirely about two things Affleck is especially good at: humor and suspense. It just so happens that this film finally hits those markers right on — and that is what makes Argo so good.

If you’re here to be on the hunt for “Oscar movies” you really only have to look for good movies. You aren’t supposed to go in expecting a movie to fit into a specific sized shoe. You are supposed to recognize how good something is and hope that the critics and Academy agree. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. Argo is a film that audiences and bloggers love. But that love will set it up as a punching bag for critics who either A) are contrarians to begin with, B) have now set expectations too high because of the early praise, and/or C) critics who hate how movies are buzzed now seek to harpoon the whole megillah. Then there just might be writers who honestly don’t like the film. Either way, it’s hard to get too excited about a movie for the Oscar race before most of the critics have spoken. They can and will make a difference in Argo’s trajectory. But all of that safe analysis aside, Argo is just a damned good film. To me, it’s up there with Beasts of the Southern Wild as one of the year’s best, and it joins Beasts and Moonrise Kingdom as the best bets for Oscar so far this year.

Watch for a separate review coming soon.

Affleck took the stage after the film with the LA Times’ John Horn to talk about the film and said that filming himself in it was awkward because every time he did another take of a scene everyone thought he was an asshole. One thing you get from conversations with Affleck, and here at the Q&A, is how naturally funny he is. That humor was brought to Argo, one of its many strengths. Affleck is one of those actors who stuns you in person. Some of them look as they do in film. Some look worse, some look better but Affleck, as most in the auditorium were whispering about, is tall, with broad shoulders and long legs — it’s almost painful to look at him. There is a moment in the film where he appears shirtless and no doubt that scene will have critics talking but my friend Glenn Zoller said to me afterwards that that scene will probably mean a couple million more for the movie.

Zoller, who has a home here and comes to the fest every year, said he saw Ben Affleck that morning carrying one of his daughters, with his wife, Jennifer Garner carrying their other daughter close behind — no paparazzi following them, looking like townies — except that normal people don’t look like they do. Zoller’s point: nonetheless, they seemed really down to earth. It’s an overused saying but when you think about what it really means it still holds — when you have your feet planted on the ground you have a better sense of things. This, I’m convinced, is how Affleck has managed to make the leap from actor to writer and now stick the landing as director.

He gave a lot of credit to screenwriter Chris Terrio during the Q&A, and to the DP and to the actors. He said, you know, maybe we should try taking this great script and just filming it as it’s written, without trying to make it “better.” In fact, the writing is much of what drives Argo past the point of just being really good to being great. One of the essential qualities to being a good director is being able to allow the brilliance of the script to emerge. Affleck does that. There are so many memorable lines in the film — many delivered by John Goodman and Alan Arkin — outright scene stealers. I’ll save my thoughts on it, though, for a full review.

After a long drive and two movies my eyes were starting to fail me. It’s a getting old thing, I figured. I had a short break before heading to the Galaxy for Hyde Park on Hudson. The lure of the town is always distracting here. With so many mom and pop shops, looming waterfalls and mountains, the town is telling you to relax and take it all in. But you have only a few days and a lot of movies to see so it’s go, go, go.

Bill Murray made a rare appearance at the Galaxy to help promote Hyde Park on Hudson. The elusive actor made the audience laugh by saying he’d never been to the Telluride Film Fest but that, he paused, he’d sure been to Telluride before. He stood alongside Laura Linney and the film’s director Roger Michel for a short intro to a packed house. The film itself is an interesting look at FDR’s romantic side, particularly his relationship with Daisy, one of his many female companions, played by Laura Linney. The more interesting part of the film is kind of a King’s Speech redux where FDR spends some time with King George. It might seem strange to disappear the love story to tell this other one, but it’s significant to see FDR in his wheelchair chatting up King George with his stutter — two disabled men who were ruling the world.

The film will play well with its intended audience and it will be especially interesting to fans of FDR. Murray’s performance is marvelous and subtle. Linney is quietly brilliant, as usual. The film’s ultimate fate will have to wait until after the critics have spoken.

I’d spent time earlier waiting in line with Peter Sciretta from Slash Film and Alex Billington from First Showing. I’d first met them last year when we were all headed up the gondola for a screening. I love talking to them both because to me they are really into film and can talk about them endlessly. Afterwards, as the rain came down like snowflakes (was it raining or was it snowing?) I caught up with them again to talk about the movie. We were joined by Marlow Stern of Daily Beast and the four of us stood in darkness catching up after a whole year spent doing other things. The occasional whiff of pot wafted in the air as people began milling in for the next screening.

By the end it was too late to grab a beer so we went our separate ways. I realized I hadn’t had any dinner yet so I parked my car on a side street and went looking for something, anything that might still be open. It was only at this moment that I realized I was in the kind of town where everything shuts down around 9pm on a Saturday night. Telluride at night isn’t like Cannes at night. The mountains and the altitude and the sinking light won’t let you stay up too late. There were a few people milling around. I happened to walk by some musicians playing in a shop for no apparent reason at all, a woman sitting alone talking on her cell phone.

I found a pizza/burrito place that was still open and I ordered something from them. It was the kind of place where they sell gluten-free pizza and homemade Telluride bread along with burritos, tacos and freshly made Cherry pie. By the time my order was up it was raining harder than it had since I’d been there. It felt like one long cry before the storm passed. Attendees of the outdoor theater could be seen scrambling back to their condos, soggy sleeping bags folded up in their arms, hair glued wet to their cheeks, a stunned, disappointed look on their face.

I covered my camera and made my way back to my hotel room. I’d seen three movies in one day, each of them telling important stories about hidden truths in America’s past. The truth that those five black teens weren’t “wilding” in the streets to usher in a new brand of law enforcement and still weren’t being compensated for such an unforgivable mistake, the truth of what it really took to get those hostages out of Iran that the public wouldn’t find out about until the 1990s. The truth that one of the nation’s greatest Presidents, FDR, kept his women and his affliction from Polio secret. Was it his own experience that imbued him with humanity and compassion? Did television ruin everything because, under 24-hour news scrutiny, FDR would never have become President today under ?

These thoughts tumbled through my head as I laid it down for a night of hard sleeping under the blackness of a Colorado night, with drops of rain falling on everything, washing it clean for another day.