For seven years, I was a volunteer at the Telluride Film Festival. I fell in love with a tiny mountain town and worked with a lot of great people. It's the most "high-brow" festival I've ever been to, but I loved every minute of it.
Unfortunately, 2007 was the last year that I got to go. The 39th festival just ended last weekend and it got me thinking about all of the great films that I saw in that little box canyon in the San Juan Mountains. Hopefully, I'll get to go to the 40th (and expanded by one day) festival next year.
I've tried to keep to the lesser known films.
Everybody knows that Lost In Translation and Amelie were great.
But how many of these have you heard of? You should've heard of all of 'em.
NOBODY KNOWS (2004)
Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Based on a true story, Nobody Knows is about a 12 year old boy (the amazing Yuya Yagira who won numerous awards in 2004) who has to take care of his three younger siblings when his shiftless young mother leaves them on their own. (All of them have different fathers, by the way.) She does it all the time, but usually leaves them enough money and food to get by. This time, though, she doesn't really seem to be coming back.
Did she finally meet a man that she could be with? Does he not like kids? Where is she?
This is a heartbreaking film and one that keeps coming back to me even eight years later. How can a mother do this to her children? Koreeda's film doesn't even pretend to have the answer. It only shows us what can happen when she can.
TOUCHING THE VOID (2003)
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Based on book by Joe Simpson
I really had no intention of seeing Touching The Void. It's a documentary about mountain climbing. What does that have for me besides some potentially pretty scenery?
At one point during the festival, though, this movie filled a void. (ah-HA!!) There was nothing else that I had ANY interest in seeing, so I went to see this one. It ended up being one of the best films I've seen at Telluride.
It's a doc with lots of reenactments that could have been cheesy. Instead, they're as harsh and gripping as any narrative film could have been.
The story is of two friends who decide to climb a particularly perilous mountain. Just the two of them with a third guy watching base camp. They make it up, but one of them breaks his leg on the way down. Never one to leave a man behind, the healthy man lowers his friend to safety, climbing down to him at every ledge. Unfortunately, the broken man falls down one ledge and has no way back up. His friend has to make a decision: kill himself getting his probably dead friend back or cut the rope and make it down himself.
Breathtaking and (I hate this phrase, but here it is) edge-of-your-seat thrilling, Touching The Void can only be seen to be believed.
THE CUCKOO (KUKUSHKA) (2002)
Written and directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Best of lists don't often have comedies on them, but I try to be a little different. WWII films don't tend to be comedies, but other countries tend to be a little different from the US.
The Cuckoo is about two soldiers from different sides of the fight: one Finnish and one Soviet.
They both escape from their captors only to meet in Lappland, the nearly deserted backwaters of northern Finland. They also meet Anni, a Lapp woman who doesn't know them as enemies. They are just two guys who don't seem to be able to get along. Not only that, but none of these three people speak the same language. They just talk/yell at each other with no idea what the other is saying.
It could be a heavy-handed comment on war and the futility of communication during said war.
Fortunately, though, Rogozhkin keeps a light touch throughout the film and doesn't pull things in directions that it doesn't need to go to make its point. This is a funny film with great performances by all three actors, especially Anni-Kristiina Juuso, who has basically disappeared from acting after making her debut here.
LONESOME (1928) (screened in 2006)
Directed by Pal Fejos
Written by Mann Page/Edward T Lowe, Jr/Tom Reed
This is the only retrospective film that I'm putting on the list. Why would I choose an old movie when I saw so many great new films at the festival? Because this one was just that amazing and I think more people should see it.
In 1928, Hollywood was reeling from the advent of sound, but they hadn't quite learned how to incorporate it into all of their films. Lonesome is a hybrid film and, to be perfectly honest, the sound segments are the ones that fall flat. The film should have been completely silent.
Be that as it may, Lonesome is an amazing film. It's about two lonely people who accidentally meet at Coney Island one Saturday. They lose each other in the crowd, not knowing if they will ever see each other again…but really sincerely hope that they will.
What's so striking about this movie isn't the comedy (although, it is very funny) or the early use of sound, but the absolute realism. We've all done the silly stuff that Jim and Mary do and we still feel just as lost in a big city as they do before they find each other.
This movie was very hard to see for a long time, but it has since been released by the fine folks at Criterion. See it soon. See it often.
THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007)
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Written by Ronald Harwood
Based on book by Jean-Dominique Bauby
This is the most well-known of the films on my list, but it holds a special place in my heart since it's the last film that I saw at Telluride. It's also another one of those films that I wasn't all that interested in to begin with.
After all, it's just another movie about a person who overcomes a disability, right?
Well, kind of, BUT, this disability is pretty insurmountable and the performances are absolutely pitch-perfect.
Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric, possibly better known as "the bad guy from Quantum Of Solace) was the playboy European editor of the fashion magazine Elle. His life was nearly destroyed after a massive stroke that took the power of all movement away from him.
The only part of his body that wasn't paralyzed was his left eye. Of course, he wanted to die. Of course, his speech therapist convinces him to live on, helping him communicate with only his eye. Between the two of them, they write his life story, the book that this film is based on. She reads the alphabet to him and he blinks when she gets to the letter that he wants to use.
It's exhausting. It's harrowing. It's amazing. It's…horror of horrors…life-affirming.
Amalric was nominated for (and won) plenty of awards, but none of that prepares you for the power of this film. If you haven't seen it yet, see it now. It's better than you think it should be.