It started from a photo we took while waiting in line to see Pablo Larrain’s Spencer at the Galaxy theater, a middle school gym that moonlights (literally) as a theater during the Telluride Film Festival. A group of Oscar bloggers huddled under an arch to shield their delicate alabaster skin from the bright Colorado sun. Someone mentioned we should all take a photo while we had time. It included Sasha Stone, Mark Johnson, Erik Anderson, Matt Neglia, and myself.
When Matt shared the photo with his team over at Next Best Picture, apparently many asked, “Who’s that guy next to Sasha?”
When Matt explained that it was me, many of them looked me up on Twitter, some followed me and some discovered they were blocked by me.
They weren’t the only ones.
During the pandemic, I kind of went a little mad. Not homicidally mad, of course, but less than sane for sure. Locked away from the world and the big virus. Isolated from humanity aside from casual online conversations. And, yes, angry at everything and everyone on Twitter. Many were blocked with little-to-no justification.
Matt actually called me out on it when I realized he was standing right there next to me, and I didn’t even follow him on Twitter. So, I followed him.
“YOU DO CARE!” he exclaimed like two seconds later.
Well, of course I care. Now. Back in humanity. Vaccinated. Relatively safe.
See, none of this was ever intended to be personal. I was being petty and weird, something that happens to me when I’m inside for far too long. I’m the kind of guy that, when it threatens to snow for more than 2 hours in North Carolina (which shuts down the entire city of Raleigh, I kid you not), I immediately go out to dinner. Go shopping. Get outside. Do anything I can to avoid cabin fever. With COVID-19, I did whatever I could to not go all Jack Torrence. I got outside for hours at the time, but I had little real person-to-person contact.
Until the Telluride Film Festival.
Going into the festival, I had no idea what a healing experience it would be. It sounds schlocky, I know, but it’s absolutely true. Being in a crowded theater (masked, of course) sharing in the communal experience of film watching was something I’d not experienced in a year and a half. It wasn’t my first time in a theater during the pandemic, but it was the first time I’d been in a theater that full. It was also the first time I’d actually been able to talk to people face to face about film, about the Oscars, about Telluride, about their lives, and about their families. I spent a lot of time with the people I read every day online – Sasha, Mark, Erik, Matt, Clayton Davis – and I found them to be incredibly decent, kind, and enthusiastic people. We aren’t always what our online personas make us out to be.
And it was a nice surprise that one of the best things I took away from the Telluride Film Festival was a sense of being a part of that community, a community that allowed me to put my mistakes of the past year behind me and begin to mend fences a bit.
So, thank you, Matt and others, for being understanding and really cool about my momentary lapse of sanity. Thank you, Telluride Film Festival, for helping me do it in such a gorgeous environment. And thank you Sasha for bringing me to it. Hopefully, I was able to contribute in a meaningful way.
Or, at least, I didn’t annoy you.
And oddly enough, I don’t even have a copy of that original photo.
Aside from social gathering, I did happen to see seven movies at the festival. That pales in comparison to what many others accomplished during the festival, but it was enough for me. I’m not one that can see five or six in a single day. I’m old, and my long legs can only take so much old-school-theater-seat torture.
Every film I saw had at least some merit to it. I only actively disliked one — not because of the filmmaking or performances in it but because the subject matter was much too difficult for me personally. Not every film I saw will be contending for Best Picture, and that’s totally fine. Not every film at a film festival intends to be an Oscar player, although most do.
My first day in Telluride was impacted by rain. Not a lot of rain, but persistent enough to make me very cold and very damp considering I could not enter our condo until much later in the afternoon. I found a nice lunch spot, sat down, and did some writing for a few hours. I lugged my suitcase through the streets, mortified at the sound it made and how out of shape I felt in the thin mountain air. Eventually, I got into the condo, and everything improved dramatically. Once Sasha, Mark, and our friend Michael Grei arrived, we embarked on dinner at a restaurant next door to our condo.
I tried to be good. I really did. I tried to only drink water as instructed by so many online. Yet, when AwardsWatch’s Erik Anderson arrived, I felt like drinking. That’s not a comment on him directly, please and thank you. That’s more of a comment on the celebratory air he brought to the table. So, yeah, I had three Moscow Mules. And then we went grocery shopping for our breakfast, lunch, and dinners for the week. Of course, that mean I bought nothing but apples, oranges, and candy. That’s what drunk shopping does to me.
Anyway, I’m supposed to be talking about the movies, right?
After the Patron’s Brunch on Thursday morning (an incredible event high on a mountain attended by festival patrons, media, and filmmakers), our first screening was Encounter. The film stars Riz Ahmed as a father trying to protect his children from a potential body snatchers scenario. Encounter proves one thing to me without a doubt: Riz Ahmed can just about do anything. His remarkable performance anchors a film that most likely needed a few rewrites to smooth out some of the rougher edges. Yet, by the end of the film, you realize that you’re in the hands of both a talented director (Michael Pearce) and a very talented actor.
The evening brought the world premiere of MGM and Joe Wright’s (Atonement, The Woman in the Window) Christmas musical Cyrano, starring Peter Dinklage as the legendary title character. I’m already on record with my thoughts on the film. What I didn’t mention in the review was many scenes, particularly early in the film, physically took my breath away. Maybe it was the altitude. But there are scenes in this film that are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I know many who loved it. I know many who did not. But, for me, this is absolutely Joe Wright’s best film to date. You can feel the desire to celebrate community and theater and filmmaking and life bursting from every image, every sound, every movement — an anti-COVID film for sure as each scene is packed with people singing, drinking, laughing. It was the best way possible to start the festival.
Friday morning brought Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. Here’s where early morning, cramped seating festival viewing can truly hurt a film. I could not wait to get out of the film when it screened. I sat in the middle of the row surrounded by people. I could not move my legs. My knees started to ache and burn about 30 minutes into the film. I was in misery. As such, I did not react well to the film on first screening. However, after thinking about it non-stop since then, I do now understand that it’s a very, very good film. A deeply personal film. A resonant film that treats difficult subject matter with a lightly sweet and comic tone. Erik Anderson said it best when he praised how the film shows art – cinema, theater, music, dance – healing the characters in the film (see, there’s a theme here). It’s a truly special film that, as I write this piece, could win Best Picture. It’s the only film I’ve seen so far this year that adhere’s to Sasha’s time-honored adage: Oscar’s Best Picture is generally the film you can sit anyone in front of and they’ll get it. Belfast is that and so much more.
Notice how we’re not stopping for food. You generally don’t eat at film festivals. Lots of walking. Lots of sitting. Little eating.
After Belfast, we lined up for the film that probably received the most broadly rapturous response on Thursday night: King Richard. I’m not a sports person, let alone a tennis person. I don’t particularly like or watch sports movies, so it’s remarkable that King Richard kept me largely engaged (in better seating, mind you) for its 2.5 hour running time. The film is one of the more broadly appealing films I’d seen in the festival, and that’s mostly because the Richard, Venus, and Serena Williams story is so compelling, so inspiring, that’s it’s nearly impossible to dislike it. Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, and Saniyya Sidney are all very good and could warrant awards attention. The film, were it to be released outside of a pandemic, would easily gross over $100 million, maybe more. It’s a broad piece of old-fashioned, feel good entertainment.
After two heavy films, Sasha, Michael, and I retreated to the condo. We ate dinner at a local pizza place and, per Michael’s request, endured the Amazon Cinderella movie. That is all I will say about that.
Saturday brought three films and my final full day at the festival.
First up: Spencer, easily my second most anticipated film of the festival as I’m a sucker for royal drama. Everything you’ve heard about Kristen Stewart’s performance as Princess Diana is 100% true. She’s a revelation in the role and will likely win an Oscar for it. It’s very, very early, of course, but she’s on a trajectory to win. Judging from the many events she attended in both Venice and Telluride, she’s absolutely in it to win it. And good for her. She’s endured the slings and arrows of millions of negative stories, and she’s fully entitled to savor this sizable victory. The film itself is a bit prickly at times, a bit hard to take at others. Yet, it’s a very well done portrait of a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It dramatizes all of the emotional states that accompany that diagnosis. If you’re willing, then it’s a great ride. It won’t be for all tastes.
A side note on Spencer. I sat next to Erik Anderson who sat next to Matt Neglia. Just before the film began, Erik turned to us and said with chagrin, “I can’t believe I’m watching Spencer sandwiched between two heteros.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. We laughed, and I told him I would clutch my pearls at the appropriate times if that made him feel better. Afterward, Erik became overcome with emotion, an apt reaction to an emotionally harrowing film. But we were there for him to help him through the moment. That is, until we realized we had about 30 minutes to get to our next screening. Then, he had to sprint to catch up. But we made it in Sasha’s Jeep with Matt Neglia bouncing around in the back.
That’s something I will never forget.
We sprinted to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, a film I wanted to see because of its cast (Olivia Colman mostly) that received positive reviews out of Venice. This is where films becoming tricky as sometimes they really work for some and really not for others. For me, The Lost Daughter is one of those movies where all the individual pieces align – solid direction and acting – but the overall message is just too unpleasant. It triggered me in ways I’m not ready or even really want to explore. I suppose that means it was effective, but I do not wish to revisit it any time soon.
Finally, I closed my festival experience with the film I’d most highly anticipated, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. The word masterpiece gets tossed around a lot. Usually, most films don’t deserve that branding. This one does. This is her finest film, and I love The Piano. But she, along with a handful of other women directors, works wonders within the Western genre. She uses its tropes to explore masculinity so effectively that it makes you examine your own reactions to what happens on screen. Things that seem silly on the surface become an examination of why you think that particular moment is silly. The acting is fantastic with Benedict Cumberbatch giving what is easily a career-best performance. It’s a difficult but honest film. One that I cannot wait to revisit.
So, that effectively marked the end of my experience at the Telluride Film Festival. It was a bittersweet ending to be sure because, while I had an amazing time, I was also ready to go home. Fortunately, the memories and films experienced there will all stay with me, all living rent-free in my head until next year.
If you do have the chance to go, I would highly recommend it. It’s the best festival I’ve ever been to with so many great films and great people to share them with.
So great, in fact, as to leave me literally breathless.