By Matt Neglia
2019 was the first time I had ever attended the Telluride Film Festival. I should’ve attended many times before. Whether it was because of the cost or the lack of self-confidence that I could belong there amongst other critics who are so integral to shaping the early Oscar narratives, I stayed away. I became addicted to the open mountain air, the rush of seeing many of the best films of the year in such a short period of time (only four days over the Labor Day Weekend), the sense of community amongst the many film lovers who attend the festival, whether they’re fellow Oscar bloggers, film critics, patrons or filmmakers. Of all of the film festivals I’ve attended, it’s by far the best one. So, it gutted me to find out that the 2020 festival would be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, two years later, I finally returned to Telluride, Colorado, and somehow managed to eclipse my previous experience. This is a recap of that journey.
Twenty-four hours before I stepped on a plane to fly out to Telluride, I got my negative COVID19 PCR test results back. A requirement for this year’s festival, along with being fully vaccinated, there was always a black cloud of doubt hovering over me as to whether or not if the trip would actually happen. Then Hurricane Ida hit New York, bringing a massive rainstorm along with it. The streets were flooded, the rain was pouring hard, and my flight was delayed an hour. Thankfully it wasn’t any more than that; otherwise, I would’ve missed my connecting flight to Durango Airport. However, I had other troubles once I landed. This was the first time I had flown into Durango Airport, and little did I know that a Lyft or taxi service wouldn’t be available to take me to the hotel I was staying at for the evening. My traveling companion, Jorge Birnam, had taken the rental car back to the hotel a few hours before I arrived, and I assured him I’d be able to find a ride to the hotel, but this was easier said than done. After famously experiencing trouble leaving the mountains of Telluride back to the airport in 2019, you’d think I would’ve learned by now that service car rides are scarce out there. Well, fool me once and fool me twice, I suppose. Jorge was asleep, it was past midnight, and I was stuck at the airport, ready to fall asleep. Lucky for me, there was an older couple who were gracious to let me ride with them, and I made it to the hotel by about 3 am. I remember it wasn’t until 4 am that I finally fell asleep, but the next thing I knew, it was 6 am, and it was time to hit the road.
Those who have already listened to the NBP podcast this week know that I recorded Jorge and I’s conversation on our way to Telluride. We talked about the lineup which had just been announced the day before, our expectations for the festival, our fear that seating would be restricted due to the pandemic, and more. When we arrived at the festival, the constant question on our minds was, “What will be the patron screening?” Well, after checking into our hotel and making our way to the Warner Herzog theater, we finally got our answer: director Michael Pearce’s follow up to his directorial debut “Beast,” the Amazon Studios film “Encounter.” This took us both by surprise as “Encounter” was set to be one of the Tributes at this year’s festival for leading actor Riz Ahmed, who couldn’t attend the festival for undisclosed reasons (Olivia Colman and Will Smith are two other notable stars who could not participate in this year’s festival). The Telluride Press office gives accreditated media passes to attend each of the three tributes (the other two being to Peter Dinklage for “Cyrano” and Jane Campion for “The Power of the Dog“) and four additional passes which help us to “cut the line” if we feel we’re not going to get into a screening in time. So, it felt odd to be rendering one of the tribute passes null and void since the press office wants us to use them but more on that in a minute. When the lights came up, the reaction to the film was divided, but it seemed to do what it intended to do, welcome us back to the mammoth (by their standards since an extra day was added) festival with a bang!
I followed that up with an impossible task, having to choose between the four major world premieres of “Cyrano,” “Belfast,” “C’mon C’mon,” and “King Richard.” By this point, I must’ve made my schedule for the five-day festival at least six times, but I finally settled on a schedule which would ultimately allow me to see seventeen movies when all was said and done. So, I went a bit unorthodox with my schedule, where I started with the Peter Dinklage tribute for Joe Wright’s musical adaptation of “Cyrano” and ended with “King Richard.” Had I tried to see “King Richard” earlier in the weekend, I would’ve had to have sacrificed a film, thus knocking me down to sixteen films in total, and my mantra is when I’m at a film festival, I’m there to see the movies. I’m not there to attend parties (although I must admit, they are memorable and fun); I’m not there to relax, take my time, have long sit-down dinners, or conduct interviews. No…I’m here to see five films a day, to run around like a crazy person from venue to venue, and to make the most of my time and money. Others don’t share in my mentality, and that’s ok. Perhaps when I get older, I’ll slow down and take things at a lighter pace. But I’m not there yet. As for “Cyrano,” I really enjoyed Peter Dinklage’s performance. He carried that entire movie on his back with his charismatic and heartbreaking performance. Others were more enamored with the film overall than I was, so we’ll see how all of that pans out, but for now, I think Tyrion Lannister will be receiving his first Oscar nomination, one he should have received many years ago for “The Station Agent.”
After “Cyrano,” I ended day one with the follow-up film from the Oscar-winning “Free Solo” directors, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “The Rescue” based on the miraculous true story of the rescue of a junior association football team from an underwater cave in northern Thailand. While “Free Solo” was the more impressively shot film, “The Rescue” has a much more expansive story, with more likable characters and some stunning re-enactments, which fooled me into believing they were actually real. The story is told from the perspectives of the divers who saved the children and their coach. One of the divers was actually in attendance, and the experience took my breath away with how much effort was put in not just by them but by hundreds of people from all over the world. This will definitely be in the race for Best Documentary Feature.
The next day, I woke up bright and early, grabbed my coffee, and went over to see Ashgar Farhadi’s “A Hero.” The line was short, so I felt like I had a great shot of getting in until I found out that a group of fifty students was heading into the screening, so I ended up using one of my passes and got in to see the film. I was pretty determined to catch this one, considering it’s not playing at NYFF and not playing digitally for TIFF (only in-person). So this was my only chance to see Farhadi’s latest early, and I was certainly glad I did because I think it’s his best since “A Separation.” I could see it contending for Best International Feature Film and possibly for Best Director (there always needs to be at least one foreign language nominee every year nowadays) and Best Original Screenplay.
After this, I caught the new Mike Mills film “C’mon C’mon” starring Joaquin Phoenix in his follow-up to his Oscar-winning role in “Joker.” This could not be any further away from that terrifying portrayal. Here, he is warm, sweet, funny, and natural. It’s his most affecting performance since “Her.” While I think it might be too subdued for the Academy to invite him back so soon, watch out for Mills’ screenplay, which focuses on how children can teach adults about parenting and the ways of the world around them to land in the Best Original Screenplay category possibly. Special shout out to the score by the Dressner Brothers, which is ethereal and soothing.
Next up was a big one, Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand Of God,” which was hyped up to me considerably before the festival, and the reactions out of Venice a few days earlier only seemed to push that belief further. It came as a considerable surprise to me to find that I was underwhelmed by what is undoubtedly Sorrentino’s most personal film but also maybe too personal to the point that it might alienate others. It feels like Sorrentino made a film for himself and no one else, in contrast to another personal project from a filmmaker based on his childhood which played at the festival. While I still feel it may get the Italian selection for Best International Feature Film, I pretty much removed it from all other potential categories after viewing.
The disappointments continued on from there as the “surprise screening” of Telluride this year was revealed to be Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch.” This was by far one of the toughest tickets to get ahold of for the festival, and I just barely made it into the screening at the Herzog, even after coming out from “The Hand Of God,” which had just played there right before. I’ve been 50-50 on Wes Anderson’s filmography, where some of his films have really worked for me while others have not. Count this in the category of films that didn’t work for me and, in my opinion, might be his most inaccessible yet. Lacking any kind of narrative throughline and so overwhelming to the point of exhaustion, “The French Dispatch” tried the patience of the Telluride audience in a way I rarely see at the festival. With the audience super into it by the beginning, they were wholly deflated and anxious for it to be over by the time we got to the end. Despite this, it might be Wes Anderson’s most visually dazzling film yet, which is quite an achievement in itself when you take into account the rest of his filmography. Nominations for Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, and Original Score all feel like solid possibilities.
I finally ended day two with Céline Sciamma’s “Petite Maman,” which was screened earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival. Having just recently watched “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” I had a deeper appreciation for Sciamma’s latest, which I might not have had otherwise. Unexpectedly moving and mercifully short at less than ninety minutes long, it may not be the masterpiece that “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” was. However, it still brought the house down at the Sheridan Opera House and got us all home before midnight. Going to sleep (my first substantial evening of rest) that night and thinking about this special movie was a relaxing way to cap off day two.
Day three was undoubtedly the biggest day I had at Telluride. It was another five-movie day, but I knew the lineup would be more stacked in terms of quality based on a combination of Oscar-buzz and raving reviews from Venice for some titles. Things kicked off with “The Electrical Life Of Louis Wane” from Amazon Studios, which featured Benedict Cumberbatch playing yet another socially awkward eccentric genius. Creatively filmed by director Will Sharpe, with gorgeous costumes and impressive hair and makeup work, this was a traditionally structured biopic but told in such a unique way that it managed to work for me more than others. Claire Foy also delivered a standout performance in it despite only being featured in half of the film.
Next up was probably my most anticipated for the festival and the film which stood at the top of the mountain as the best of the film festival for me by the time it was all over, Pablo Larrain’s brilliant, exquisite and wholly unique biopic “Spencer.” Blending fact and fiction over a Christmas weekend spent up in Sandringham House; the film contains the performance of the year and the best performance of Kristen Stewart’s career as Princess Diana. With sumptuous costume design, incredible cinematography, and another terrific score from Johnny Greenwood, every element in Larrain’s latest worked for me above and beyond my wildest expectations, and I’m saying this as a huge fan of “Jackie,” which this will inevitably draw comparisons to. With moments of horror, triumph, and a lump in my throat by the end, “Spencer” became the first film I gave a perfect rating to since 2019. I fully expect, and hope for Oscar nominations across the board for this one.
It was all downhill from there (not really), as I hopped in the back of Sasha Stone’s car with her, Mark Johnson, and Clarence Moye from Awards Daily and Erik Anderson from Awards Watch. Literally, in the back with my head banging against the roof of the car from all of the bumps in the road as we raced from “Spencer” to “The Lost Daughter.” We made it just in time (and with a bit of help from our friends at Netflix) and sat down for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut. It’s challenging subject matter, to be sure, and it indeed divided the audience on how it tackled its themes centered around motherhood. However, Olivia Colman’s performance was a true highlight and maybe even the best of her career. The entire ensemble, which also contained Dakota Johnson and Ed Harris performances, was fantastic, but this was the Olivia Colman show. She over-delivered with a nuanced performance that had to walk a very fine line. Even if the Academy doesn’t go for this movie in the way that Netflix is hoping for, Colman should not be overlooked.
We went from one Netflix film to another with “The Power of the Dog” and a tribute to Jane Campion. The reel of clips they showed before the movie, and Q&A (moderated by Rebecca Keegan) started only highlighted what an incredible talent Jane Campion is and how she deserves more accolades than we’ve given her over the years. You could tell that Jane Campion felt uncomfortable with all of the praise and having to explain her work, but she was high in spirit through it all. Plus, the work speaks for itself, and that only continued with “The Power of the Dog,” which is her best film since “The Piano.” A breakdown of oppressed sexuality and toxic masculinity in 1925 Montana, the film features probably the best performance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s career and a scene-stealing Kirsten Dunst. Both of them feel Oscar bound, and while the word amongst film critics was that this was the best film of the festival and deserves to be in the Oscar conversation for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Score (for Johnny Greenwood once again), the Patrons were less than enthusiastic claiming the film to be too slow and challenging. It’ll be interesting to see if this trend continues throughout the fall film festivals where “The Power of the Dog” is the only film set to play at all of them.
I ended day three with Kenneth Branagh’s most personal and best film to date: “Belfast” starring Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, and newcomer Jude Hill. Shot in gorgeous black and white, the film recalls Branagh’s childhood growing up in Belfast, Ireland, known as “The Troubles,” where there was violence between the Catholics and Protestants living in the area. The film is sweet, entertaining and captures his memories with vivid detail. Backed by a Van Morrison soundtrack and some startling images, “Belfast” was the film that appealed to most Patrons I spoke to, cementing its status as a crowd-pleaser and a very likely Best Picture nominee. While Jamie Dornan received much attention because he was present at the festival alongside Branagh (I got to meet both, and they were true gentlemen), Caitríona Balfe stole the show for me. If she and the rest of the cast are campaigned supporting (Hill is the lead), then expect at least one or two acting nominations to go along with nods for Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, and Sound.
Day four was a lighter day for me on the movie side of things as I unexpectedly received invitations to attend a few parties on Sunday. While my schedule got thrown off by these invitations, I was not about to pass up the opportunity to meet Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jane Campion, Kodi-Smit McPhee, Kenneth Branagh, Jamie Dornan, Pablo Larrain, Jonas Poher Rasmussen (director of “Flee“) and Kristen Stewart (I also had random encounters on the street with Joe Wright, Haley Bennett, and Simon Rex). While I got the incredible opportunity to meet all of them this day, my mentality of placing the films first and foremost robbed me of a chance to meet Kristen Stewart as I had to run to my next screening, which was Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket.” But before that, I saw the Un Certain Regard winner from Cannes, “Unclencing The Fists,” earlier in the morning. This was the film which disappointed me the most at the festival. I’m not sure why most European filmmakers are so apprehensive about using scores in their films, but this was another case where the runtime seemingly was never going to end. The story was nothing I hadn’t already seen before. I respected what it was trying to say, and at least Milana Aguzarova’s lead performance made everything bearable. But back to “Red Rocket.” What a blast this was! I’ve always enjoyed Sean Baker’s films, but this was anchored by a charismatic and outrageous performance from Simon Rex, which catapulted this to another level. Baker has such a talent for showcasing people you wouldn’t expect to commonly see films centered on, with unknown or unorthodox casting choices. Simon Rex gives one of my favorite performances of the year as a porn star who returns to his Texas home. He should be in the running for a Best Actor nomination, but my gut says this will only land with the Gotham and Indie Spirit Awards.
At the end of a long but more relaxing day, I settled in for a film that had garnered a tremendous amount of buzz the day before on social media from some other prominent film critics, “Marcel The Shell With Shoes On.” This was the discovery of the festival for me as I had little to no knowledge of its existence before the festival and had not even planned on seeing it. I couldn’t be happier that I actually did, as the film ended up becoming one of my favorites overall from the festival. Cute, warm, filled with humor, and unexpectedly moving in ways that I can’t even begin to describe, this personified shell is given life by Jenny Slate’s phenomenal vocal performance as he contemplates some grand philosophical questions on a search for his missing family. The audience laughed, and they cried. You could feel the buzz in the air for this one as every audience member was charmed and delighted by what they had just seen. I highly urge everyone to seek this out if it receives distribution.
And then, we came to the end—Monday morning. As I had l planned, I ended my run at Telluride 2021 with “King Richard,” starring Will Smith as the father to tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. It was the perfect note to go out on as the film played better than expected for me with heart, humor, the right amount of drama, and some excellent performances not just from Will Smith (this is one of his very best), but from the entire cast. This was a better-than-average sports drama, so well put together by director Reinaldo Marcus Green that if it makes a ton of money over the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend upon its release, I think we may be looking at a sure-fire Best Picture nominee. Will Smith is now officially the frontrunner for Best Actor, and particular note should be paid to the supporting performances from Aunjanue Ellis and Jon Bernthal. With all of these possible nominations and an uplifting original song by Beyoncé titled “Be Alive,” which plays over the ending credits, expect to see “King Richard” reign supreme this fall and well into the winter.
As I rode the gondola from the Chuck Jones cinema back down the mountain, I took a moment to soak everything in. To appreciate how lucky I was to be back, how hard the festival had worked to put this together and how fortunate I am to be doing all of this, to begin with. After I stepped off the gondola, I made my way to the Labor Day picnic, where free food is served to all of those who attend, and I spent the afternoon with friends and colleagues reminiscing on the magical weekend which had transpired. We all said our goodbyes hoping it would not be another two years before we would see each other again. I made my way to the airport, back in the car with Jorge, where we recorded the second part of our podcast, recapping the weekend just as I’ve done here. As I watched the mountains whisk on by, I could feel a sense of joy and heartwarming happiness, which I had not felt in a long time. Yes, there were masks. Yes, I got tested more than once (and a third time once I got home). Yes, it was a more extended festival than usual. But the movies are what will keep me coming back for years to come and, of course, the friends I watch them with along the way. Here’s to this year’s Oscar season, which Telluride kicked off unbelievably, and to the next time I return to the happiest place on earth.
What Oscar narratives did you feel were formed over the past weekend? Are there any films from Telluride which you’re looking forward to seeing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Matt and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @NextBestPicture