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True Stories of Political Oppression, Grief Recovery and Imitation Games

The first day of Telluride was a rough one. Most of us were doing the big three: Wild first, after the Patron’s Brunch, then taking the gondola back down, racing over to the Werner Herzog for The Imitation Game, and then zooming back across town to catch Rosewater. That was the plan. Some of us made it, some of us didn’t. The only reason I made it was with the kind help of The Wrap/Indiewire’s Chris Willman, who had a car by some miracle and shuttled a few of us across town.

In Wild, Reese Witherspoon plays a woman who is recovering from the death of her mother, and all of the ways that unbearable grief destroyed her life when she stopped participating in the world. She decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a two-month odyssey that is mostly left in the “more capable” hands of men. The silence of the trail, the endurance of the journey, the miles of untouched wilderness begins to uncover what’s been buried as she finds herself more than capable, ultimately, of accomplishing this seemingly impossible goal. Laura Dern plays her mother in flashback, a domestic violence victim who ends up raising her two children on her own, eventually going back to school to try to better her life. We learn through the film what her presence meant to her daughter, how strong that love really is. This is the worst nightmare for a parent — to imagine the grief of your children in the event of your death. Well, let’s say it’s the second worst nightmare for a parent.

Witherspoon is rough around the edges, raw as you’d expect, given Jean Marc Vallee’s style. She plays a slightly unlikable, prickly character who doesn’t mince words. We spend nearly the whole movie with her so the key to this film is whether or not her journey moves you, whether it connects on some meaningful level. I think the film achieves the goal it set out to reach and it’s refreshing, frankly, to see a movie that’s about a woman that isn’t necessarily about her relationship to a man. It is a film that celebrates the importance of mothers as teachers and isn’t afraid of the emotions that brings us. I personally have a mental roadblock against movies about a woman (or a man’s) inner journey to self-discovery. But it’s hard to complain about a film about a woman these days since we don’t really have the luxury of complaining. Plenty of people who came out of the Chuck Jones loved this film, including a prominant Academy member. I expect Witherspoon to be a strong contender for a Best Actress nomination, and perhaps Laura Dern for supporting. But this, like many films you see at a festival, will depend somewhat on how the critics respond to it, or if it makes enough money to silence them.

The Imitation Game, from Norwegian film director Morten Tyldum, is another true story. Alan Turing was a mathematician, philosopher, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist, educated at Cambridge and Princeton. He led the team that reverse-engineered the German’s Enigma machine and created a computational device to crack the impossibly complex codes being used by Nazi Germany during World War II. The film is an inspiring account of Turing’s genius in building a device that allowed the Allies to know which specific targets the Germans intended to strike, as well as the deplorable story of a gay man outed, convicted of “gross-indecency,” persecuted, and publicly humiliated. Just last year, on Christmas Eve, Queen Elizabeth II issued a pardon for Turing. Any more plot details would be to ruin it for you. It is an involving, touching biopic of a man who was probably autistic or certainly on the spectrum of Asperger’s. Though the film chooses not to explicitly depict Turing’s relationships with men as an adult, it does explore his same-sex attractions in boyhood. For this, we can expect push back from some in the gay community who might have hoped to see a more frank portrayal of Turing’s sexuality to drive the point home. While that aspect of Turing’s life might be interesting in a movie focusing on that angle, The Imitation Game has other things on its mind. It was a crime to be gay back then, so much so that just looking at another man could land you in prison, as it does with this character eventually.

But Turing (and this should go without saying) was more than just his sexuality. Gay characters, like women and other minorities, are often defined by their various communities as needing that to be the only thing and the most prominent thing that defines them. They must carry the burden of their communities — to right the wrongs of the past, to educate the public on the right way to think. It’s a heavy load and a lot of responsibility. What I liked about the films depiction of Turing is the way it’s mature enough to know that being gay is but one facet of a person’s life. Yes, it’s a movie about a gay genius, but his gayness is incidental to his genius. His work and his accomplishments were far more important to him that his sexuality, and those accomplishments are rightfully the movie’s true focus. The same goes for the female character — her being a woman wasn’t the only thing that defined her — in fact, her own sexual needs come second to her passion for her work.

The critics are already throwing around those irritating catch phrases — flawed and uneven — as though this film, or any film, was not a work of art but rather a new product off an assembly line, expected to adhere to an agreed upon standard. What is that standard? It is the uniform tastes of those who call themselves critics. Film criticism has changed too much, so dramatically, one has no choice but to trust oneself anymore. Sure, long reads by great writers are always going to be welcome, but this panel of jury members waiting with their thumbs up, thumbs down? Not my favorite thing about Oscar season. Let the wine breathe for a minute before you drink it down.

What I loved about The Imitation Game was the rich development of the characters, particularly the two leads — the sublime Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, and Keira Knightley, who plays what would have been Turing’s beard, had Turing been the kind of man to live that way. But to have a male lead in a film have interest in a female character for nothing more than her mind and her friendship? Practically unheard of in 2014. There is one scene with Knightley that was like knocking down every silly stereotype women in these types of films fulfill — the nurturer, the protector, the inspiration. No, this woman is there to do good work and to uncover the part of herself capable of doing that in an environment that was not friendly to unmarried women who were brilliant in math.

Cumberbatch brings bits of Sherlock into the role here, the part of that character that also chafes against social interaction while relying on his own connection to his high intelligence. But unlike Sherlock, Turing is far more vulnerable, and thus, much more sympathetic. Heartbreaking is probably the best word. Cumberbatch anchors this film through its rough patches, though I can see the reviews coming that talk about the “flaws.” We all look for perfection heading into the Oscar race (not our jobs), and thus, we sometimes collectively crush films that deserve consideration.

Knightley seems to be enjoying a fruitful career, given that she fits nicely into so many different types. All she ever really has to do is be her pretty self and she often fulfills what’s required of her. But every so often she steps outside her comfort zone and a strength emerges. She’s often fiery, and she’s often charming – but it is rare to see her handle so many conflicting feelings at once, her big brown eyes betraying hidden fragility. But it is Cumberbatch’s show, despite the strong supporting cast. You can’t take your eyes off him. It will be counted as one of the best performances of the year. As for the rest of its Oscar placements, we will have to wait for the reviews.

Finally, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater is the third true story of this first day in Telluride. To see this film and think it not Jon Stewart-y enough is to reveal how little one knows about Jon Stewart. To say this film would be ignored if Stewart hadn’t directed it is also wrong. It will be judged more harshly because Jon Stewart directed it. He is such a dominant presence in our American culture, so beloved, so funny, so woven in to how we interpret modern political analysis — it’s hard to separate Stewart from the brilliant film he’s made. Four years in the making, Rosewater was a labor of love for Stewart, whose own participation in the imprisonment of Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) might have been part of the reason he wanted to make the movie.

It’s a film about oppression of voice, the eternal and ultimately futile quest to destroy the brave act of bearing witness against corrupt regimes. The more people see it, the more they will know what the fuck went on in Iran during this time, but really, it is less about Iran specifically as it is about the nature of oppression and torture. Torture is not, Stewart said in the Q&A after the film, hidden away in grimy, dark rooms. It is institutionalized, accepted, and it’s everywhere.

Stewart approaches the work as he approaches his own career, refusing to define it as any one thing — humor is woven throughout, with much of the film looking like news footage we’ve seen and ignored every day of our lives as it blares out in monotone on international news programs like CNN. We just tune it out, don’t we here in America? Another day, another bombing. Another day, another journalist murdered. This matters to Stewart, the telling of this story. It is bigger than his own need to be validated as a director. It is about as far from an ego project as you can get. And even still, his primary goal will be to get his own celebrity out of the way to tell this story. Inexplicably, he more than accomplishes that here. Rosewater (along with Imitation Game) is not only one of the best films I’ve seen this year but one I will keep telling people to see and you know, the last thing I might say about it is that it was directed by Jon Stewart. Funny, that.

Stewart has already given back so much, when you consider everything he has done and continues to do just by being funny and occasionally biting and sometimes angry. But his sincerity here is equally effective in helping us edge closer to what is really important about our lives here and what isn’t.

All three of these films are anchored by vivid, memorable performances by actors who will likely be recognized by the end of the year, their true stories somehow shapeshifted into the Oscar publicity tour, one that is never easy to reconcile with the inside-out emotion the films themselves convey. A reminder that each of these films — and all great films — deserve to be regarded in terms above and beyond their “Oscar potential.”

So this is the good part. The bad part will be waiting on the reviews.

I will be writing longer pieces on all three of these films but this was my first take…