Telluride Film Festival celebrates 50 years with an A-list full of auteurs

Two specters hover above the Telluride Film Festival as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, starting Aug. 31.

Make that three.

Since last year’s installment, two of the festival’s quartet of visionary co-founders have died: Bill Pence, 82, and Tom Luddy, 79. Since SAG-AFTRA went on strike in July, questions have dogged the fall film festival circuit about whether actors would be able, or willing, to promote films from the studios represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

But any 50-year-old worth the candles on a cake can handle change and challenges. Julie Huntsinger, Telluride’s executive director for 13 years, was clear-eyed if giddy as she ran down the festival’s offerings, which include films having their first screenings as well as others that had their world premieres at the 2023 tone-setting Cannes, Sundance, Locarno or Berlin film festivals.

“People have really risen to the moment, and they’ve made some provocative, interesting, beautiful and stunning movies — and for our 50th, I’m so grateful for it,” Huntsinger said on a recent call. The Telluride festival officially released its lineup early Wednesday.

“Both Tom and Bill would have been delighted with this thing,” said Huntsinger. “It’s like they made a recipe that we keep on cooking and what has evolved are the ingredients. But the way we put the ingredients together is super tried and true. I’m happy to say that we’re seeing a return to more provocative cinema because, you know, I always say we just reflect what’s out there. There’s nothing we can do once the films are made. We choose what we believe are the best.”

What that means for film lovers headed to the box-canyon town beneath some of the nation’s most stunning mountains — as well as moviegoers curious about what’s in store for awards season — is that there is a strong slate of international films, including some strong American works. There are compelling documentaries to be sure, but this year’s narrative features hold great promise as well as complicated pleasures.

One can trace a tantalizing line of biographical films, serious or lunatic. Colman Domingo (last year’s Denver Film/Cinema Q Film Festival Ikon awardee) stars in “Rustin.” The timing is apt. Bayard Rustin was the architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which marked its 60th anniversary Monday. He was also a Black gay man. It’s directed by George Wolfe, who’ll be in attendance.

With their first feature film, filmmaking couple Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin tell the story of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, the open-water record breaker, starring Annette Bening as Nyad and Jodie Foster as her dear friend and coach. If an early email in my inbox from a vociferous Nyad-record denier is any indication, expect some controversy to trail the film like a shark.

On the cheekier side of biography comes Pablo Larraín’s “El Conde.” Premiering at the Venice Film Festival this week, the film imagines a different kind of vampire saga, this one featuring Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams shows his skills in his first narrative feature, “Cassandro” (a favorite out of this year’s Sundance), starring Gael García Bernal as the gay, lucha libre wrestling maverick, Saúl Armendáriz.

Telluride doesn’t hand out awards, but there are a number of films arriving with kudos. Among them: Justine Triet’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, “Anatomy of a Fall,” about a woman who must prove she didn’t murder her husband; Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” (Grand Prix Cannes), based on the Martin Amis novel, focuses on a concentration commandant who, along with his wife, create a sort of dreamy existence for themselves adjacent to Auschwitz; and Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki’s “Fallen Leaves,” (Cannes Jury Prize), a charmer about a couple who meet and connect one night in Helsinki, despite life’s obstacles.

Early word has it that Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending novel “Orlando” has inspired yet another thrillingly inventive film. Philosopher-filmmaker Paul B. Preciado’s hybrid documentary “Orlando, My Political Biography” joins Sally Potter’s 1992 romp about a character who leaps gender at the age of 36. For this personal-ruminative work (which won four Berlin Film Festival awards), the director, who is transgender, invited a host of transgender and non-binary people to read excerpts of the book and share their experiences.

So, about that A-List

Given the labor disputes in Hollywood, the festival has been mum about which actors may or may not attend. The list of directors, however, is muscular — not a surprise for a festival where the A-list has always prioritized auteurs.

Greek filmmaking master Yorgos Lanthimos is among three directors to be feted with a Silver Medallion. For his latest “Poor Things,” he’s re-teamed with star Emma Stone. She plays a Victorian woman who, after being brought back to life by a scientist (Willem Dafoe), escapes his “care” and joins a shameless lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) for a very un-Victorian journey. Stone and Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” was a 2018 fest favorite.

Also receiving a tribute is Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher. Although set in the 1980s, her “La Chimera” befits a time in which the provenance of antiquities has become a profoundly ethical issue. It’s about an English archaeologist who finds herself involved with a group of Italian tomb robbers.

When Huntsinger learned the festival had yet to host a tribute to German Wim Wenders, who’s been a guest of featured filmmaker a number of times, she couldn’t believe it. Wenders — maker of “Paris, Texas” and the transcendent “Wings of Desire” as well as the recent documentaries “Pina” (about the late Choreographer Pina Bausch) and the mildly unexpected “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” — has two new works screening alongside his tribute. “Anselm” reflects on the painter Anselm Keifer. The drama “Perfect Days,” set in Japan, follows a park restroom janitor, played by Cannes best-actor winner Koji Yakusho.

The festival and director Alexander Payne continue a love affair with “The Holdovers.” The dramatic comedy about prep school kids with nowhere to go features Paul Giamatti as the teacher they’re left to deal with. Multihyphenate Ethan Hawke will attend as both a featured director and guest programmer. “Wildcat,” his drama about the writer Flannery O’Connor and her first published novel, stars Maya Hawke (his daughter), Laura Linney and Liam Neeson.

Steve McQueen returns after 10 years (“12 Years a Slave”) with his documentary “Occupied City.” The four-plus-hour film engages the city of Amsterdam during the pandemic and also under the Nazi occupation. Out of Cannes, New York Times’ critic Manohla Dargis wrote, “With formal rigor and adamant focus, it maps — street by street, address by address — the catastrophe that befell Amsterdam’s Jewish population in World War II.”

This year’s selections, Huntsinger said, “stand up for brave cinema.” So, what else does “brave” look like?

Director Madeleine Gavin’s documentary “Beyond Utopia” follows a South Korean pastor who has created a clandestine network to help guide families out of North Korea to South Korea. Brave also finds an avatar in the director and subject of “Angel Applicant,” because authentic, memoir-based work requires emotional grit. Ken August Meyer uses the art of Paul Klee to ponder creativity, empathy and illness. Meyer, like Klee, was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease scleroderma. “Angel Applicant” screens in the Backlot, the festival’s free but in-demand program of gems.

Mentors in memoriam

Fittingly, this year’s festival is dedicated to founders Luddy, Bill and Stella Pence, and film preservationist James Card (who died in 2000). While Pence and wife Stella retired from the festival in 2006, Luddy remained a beloved and undeniable force.

“I feel like Tom tells me all the time in all these subtle, from-the-other-side ways that this is a very old-school Telluride program in many ways,” Huntsinger said. At the start of the 50th, the festival promises to be old-school in all the best ways, and then some.

“Having Tom as a mentor, and then a thought partner, I know how he thinks,” said Huntsinger, who’s proven over the years to be a wise protégé and an independent spirit. “We thought very similarly so that it’s not like I go, ‘Oh, my God, what do I do?’ He was pretty sick for about six years, and so it was so good to have his mentorship gradually give way and know I’m flying and it’s fine.”

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