The forecast this Labor Day weekend for the Telluride Film Festival? Grim with a strong chance of complicated pleasures and brief moments of transcendence.
Sometimes we lovers of film must lean into the difficult (of which there is no shortage these days). This may be one of the lessons of the 49th Telluride Film Festival, which begins on Friday, Sept. 2, and ends Monday evening.
“It’s an interesting year,” said festival executive director Julie Huntsinger, on a call early in the week to discuss this year’s full program before its unveiling. “I feel like last year was open-hearted. There were tragic moments and interesting dilemmas, but I wouldn’t say anything was really just hard-core challenging.
“This year, so many movies are just in-your-face. They’re going to provoke so much conversation. They’re going to be divisive. I was telling somebody on our staff about this just yesterday, and she said, ‘I love it, I love it, I love it. That’s how it should be.’ ’’
If this turn to tough cinema sounds familiar to veterans of the festival, one known for its artistic heft but also weighty approach to a variety of subject matters, Huntsinger would concur.
“This year, we are back to our old tricks,” she said.
Count Cate Blanchett’s drama “Tár” among the works that are likely to have passengers riding the gondolas between town and Mountain Village in beg-to-differ mode. The two-time Oscar-winning actor is one of three tribute honorees. Blanchett portrays Lydia Tár, an orchestra conductor and composer of ferocious talent and fearsome temperament. (The music is composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, the first woman awarded an Oscar and BAFTA award for her score for “Joker.”) The drama also marks the return of writer-director Todd Field, whose embrace of psychologically wrenching drama and complex female characters was on display in his earlier films “In the Bedroom” and “Little Children.”
In addition to Blanchett, other guests expected to descend on the former mining town — maybe even landing at one of the world’s highest airports — include Robert Downey Jr., Sarah Polley, Frances McDormand, Mark Rylance, Bill Nighy, Anne Hathaway, Claire Foy, Léa Seydoux, Jessie Buckley and Judith Ivey.
Polley has quietly become a multi-hyphenate to reckon with, and she returns to Telluride as a tribute honoree as well as a performer in and the director of “Women Talking.” The movie is based on Miriam Toew’s 2019 novel about a group of Mennonite women who gather to address a series of rapes in their rural colony. The book itself is based on an incident that occurred in Bolivia in the early 2000s.
The winners of May’s Cannes Film Festival awards for acting, Song Kang-ho and Zar Amir Ebrahimi, will attend with their directors: Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Broker”) and Ali Abbasi (“Holy Spider”). Song plays one part of a criminal duo working an adoption scam. Ebrahimi portrays a fictional journalist in Abbasi’s true crime-thriller about a serial killer who targeted sex workers in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city. Between 2000 and 2001, the husband and father of three killed 16 women.
And then there are the bonafide luminaries of this cinephile gathering: the filmmakers. This year’s guests include Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Bardo”); Sam Mendes (“Empire of Light”); Mia Hansen-Løve, (“One Fine Morning”); Luca Guadagnino (“Bones and All”); Barry Jenkins (in his role as one of the shorts-program impresarios); and Sally Potter (who’ll be on hand for a special screening of her divine, gender-fluid 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando”).
While he doesn’t have a film in the fest this year, Mike Mills, the director of “C’mon, C’mon,” grabbed at the opportunity to interview Anton Corbijn onstage. Corbijn is director of “Squaring the Circle” about the British design firm Hipgnosis and its many iconic album covers. Among them: Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” Bad Company’s “Bad Co.” and Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same.”
A number of this year’s documentary films take on this roiling global moment, often by reminding viewers how rooted in the past it is: Ken Burns’ “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” directed with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein; Dror Moreh’s “The Corridors of Power,” about U.S. foreign policy and genocide; Matthew Heineman “Retrograde,” about the U.S. withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan; Steve James’ “A Compassionate Spy,” about Ted Hall, the youngest physicist on the Manhattan Project and his plan to share nuclear secrets with the Soviets; and Adam Curtis’ “Russia (1985-1999) TraumaZone,” which gathers footage and images from diverse sources for a fluid and humane collage of a nation’s collapse.
It’s quite possible that the talk-of-town guests will turn out to be Afghani Lt. General Sami Sadat and Afrobeat singer Bobi Wine. Sadat is the centrifugal force in Matthew Heineman’s “Retrograde.” Wine, a former member of Uganda’s Parliament — who, along with wife Barbie Kyagulanyi, piqued the ire of Uganda strongman Yoweri Museveni — stars in Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp’s “Bobi Wine, Ghetto President.”
One of the more touching throughlines can be found in the deeply personal ruminations on aging or dying parents by director Ondi Timoner (“Last Flight Home”), with Robert Downey Jr. (“Sr.”) and Marianne Wiggins’ daughter, Lara Porzak (“Marianne”).
As in years past, passes for the festival have long been sold out. But there are ways to be part of the fest, and some very special events are free and open to the public, including a screening of Kathlyn Horan’s “The Return of Tanya Tucker, featuring Brandi Carlisle,” about the coaxing of the legend back into (if not the spotlight) the recording studio. And Bobi Wine will perform a concert.
And, because Telluride fosters decades-long relationships with filmmakers, the fest will celebrate the 80th birthday of one of its most beloved — they even named one of the best theaters in the fest after him — Werner Herzog.
Fortunately for festgoers, the same filmmakers and actors who nudge viewers toward the hard work have made films that underscore that they need not be alone, and that movies — even the difficult ones — are there to push but also catch us. Dissident Russian filmmaker Kantemir Bagalov — who, along with romantic partner, director Kira Kovalenko, are this year’s guest programmers — said, “We believe that movies are little miracles that we desperately need right now.”
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