Moving Mountains: A Recap of Telluride


“And if these mountains had eyes, they would wake to find two strangers in their fences, standing in admiration as a breathing red pours its tinge upon earth’s shore. These mountains, which have seen untold sunrises, long to thunder praise but stand reverent, silent so that man’s weak praise should be given God’s attention.” ― Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road

There is a calming and gentle contentment in having lived out a dream.

When Clayton told me earlier this year that I would be going to Telluride to cover the festival for the Awards Circuit, I admittedly half-believed him. For one thing, I had never been to a major film festival before, nor am I in any way a critic. I have always considered myself to be a passionate film-goer, one who always just happens to have an opinion and an affection for ranking just about anything – from movies to favorite salad dressings. But a critic? Absolutely not.

For another, Telluride? Of all places, Telluride? If I could pick one festival in the world to attend, it would be exactly that one. I’ve always lost myself in the pictures of the tranquil and mountainous landscape, as well as the diaries of those who attend – most notably those of Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone.

So when things started getting serious – flights and lodgings booked, festival passes purchased – I started to believe this all might actually be happening. It wasn’t until I woke up to find a giant rock wall staring back at me through my window that I finally accepted the fact that I was there.

While waiting for my connecting flight from Denver to Montrose, I noticed a familiar face. Although she was trying to be incognito – with her hoodie pulled tight around her unmade up face – there was no disguising the absolutely gorgeous Brie Larson, someone I was so enamored with in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 that I named her the breakthrough star of 2013 in my fifth annual post. With other now-big names like Miles Teller, Margot Robbie, Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar Isaac, and Michael B. Jordan making that list, I felt reassured of my selection when I saw her mesmerizing performance in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. If you aren’t sure who she is, trust me, you will soon. I spoke to her for a few minutes while waiting to board our flight, as pleasant and down to earth a girl as you can imagine. You could see that she doesn’t quite know how big a star she is – and certainly doesn’t seem cognizant of how enormous she’s about to be. Or perhaps she just hasn’t let that change who she is. I knew from there this was going to be an amazing adventure.


On Friday morning, I strolled through the streets of Telluride, captivated by the mountains that hedged the altocumulus painted skyline. I had never in my life witnessed such an amazing work of art as this quaint, rustic town. It would be several hours of trekking and praising this gift before our press orientation would start. In the room were faces I had known for years via the web and social media: Kris Tapley of Variety’s In Contention, Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, Anne Thompson of Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood, and Tomris Laffly of Film Journal. For someone who has been blogging for six years, and following the Oscar madness for nearly 20, it was a surreal moment for me, to say the least.

We were all briefed on what to expect from the festival before being marched up to the Chuck Jones Cinema for our not-so-secret screening of He Named Me Malala. Meryl Streep was in attendance, and everyone was abuzz to her presence. Then, out of nowhere I heard a voice call my name. My name is a pretty common one, so I at first assumed it was not meant for me, but I began to look around to see, nonetheless. To my surprise, the voice had, indeed, called to me, and I was being called to by the aforementioned Sasha Stone, who was flagging me over to see her. Now I’ll be forthright with you: Sasha is the first Oscar blogger I found online, and have followed her religiously since around 2004 – though I disagree with her as often as I agree (that’s half the fun, right?). So for her to be the one to recognize me first, and to call me to her, was nothing short of exhilarating. She gave me a hug and exclaimed that I was much taller in person than she would have imagined. I just stood there smiling like some dumb fanboy, not knowing what to say back. Malala was about to start, and she mentioned we would catch up at a showing later that night.

Following the film, we were honored to have legendary documentarian Ken Burns (Baseball, The Central Park Five) host a Q&A with Malala director Davis Guggenheim, and the subjects of the doc, Ziauddin Yousafzai and Malala Yousafzai, the latter via satellite. 

That evening, I met up again with Sasha at the world premiere of Suffragette, which was introduced to us by the film’s director Sarah Gavron and legendary actress Meryl Streep. Sasha and I discussed the film, its historic significance (produced, directed, written and starring women), and its chances in the Oscar race. I was excited not only for this extra time with Sasha, but also because I think I held my own in our conversation.


From there, Sasha took me in under her wing for the remainder of the fest, showing me the ropes and tricks of festival-going, introducing me to famous Oscar strategists like Cynthia Swartz (who later would thank me for my rave of Steve Jobs), and helping me reacquaint with Brie Larson following our screening of Room. I was also able to meet Tapley and Wells – Tapley had this immediately likable calmness in his demeanor, while Wells was like some fictional movie star from the 70s, someone that Thomas Pynchon might have written. I was also introduced to First Showing’s Alex Billington, an uber-intelligent guy who I could see myself being very good friends with under different circumstances, and Tomris and her charming husband Eric, who might just be the most amicable and adorable couple in the history of the world. They all graciously took me in and made me feel like I was one of them, like something out of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. We spoke of many things – the festival, the race, how hard it was to survive in this blogging industry nowadays. I am so thankful to all of them for making my first Telluride an experience I will never forget as long as I live.

There were so many other unforgettable moments, including singing “Happy Birthday” to Michael Keaton while he did push-ups prior to introducing us to his film Spotlight. I attended a tribute to Danny Boyle before his world premiere of Steve Jobs, in which he brought Aaron Sorkin, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kate Winslet, and Steve Wozniak on stage with him. I was fortunate enough to listen to astute Oscar-winner Charles Ferguson’s (Inside Job) discourse on the hard lessons he’s learned in life as he presented his doc Time to Choose, and then having the pleasure of carrying on a long solo conversation with him later at the Beasts of No Nation party. Speaking of, I was also privileged to shake Idris Elba’s hand and wish him a happy birthday prior to seeing him, director Cary Fukunaga, and breakthrough star Abraham Attah unveil their masterwork. I even bought Rachel McAdams a tea and snack and joked about how I would later brag about the opportunity to do so. Talk about another charming and pragmatic individual. I was additionally on hand for Scott Cooper and Joel Edgerton’s introduction of the “Whitey” Bulger crime/drama, Black Mass, and saw stars like Joan Allen, Laura Linney, and Rooney Mara walking the streets with me like commoners.

It was like something out of a dream, in totality. A perfect, unimaginable dream.

I need to thank a few people before putting a bow on my adventure, especially Clayton Davis – to whom I am eternally grateful, not only for the opportunity to attend and cover this fest, but also the joy of getting to write for such an amazing site with such a talented group of writers; my wife and children, for allowing me to vacate my role as husband and father for a few days to live out this fantasy; my best friend, Chelsea DalPra, who helped me plan the entire trip, drove me to and from the airport, edited all my posts (including this massive one!), and put together all of the pictures I took; and, finally, Sasha Stone, who I would have been completely lost without.

I have traveled back to the flat landscapes of the midwest, where the skyline touches the soil without interruption. I’ve returned to a place in Northeast Ohio that I call home – it is where my family lives, and thus, my heart. But I was once in the misty mountains of Southwest Colorado – in a place where film lovers like me from all over the world flock each Labor Day weekend. I have stood, pious and reverent, in the half-light of the San Juan canyon, and watched the effervescent waters of the San Miguel tumble and flow through the heart of the former mining town, where weathered ruins from a bygone era still remain.

As long as I live, I will never forget the time I went to Telluride.

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Written by Mark Johnson

Lover of all things film and Oscar. Fantasy sports’ equivalent of George Steinbrenner. Your very own Han Solo, making friends all over the movie-loving galaxy in spite of himself. When he’s not ranking just about everything or dominating boardgames, Mark is breaking down the Oscar race 24/7 with Rain Man-like stats and knowledge. In his downtime, you can find him commiserating with other Northeast Ohio sports fans because a hero isn’t complete without a little heartbreak. If Game of Thrones, Lost, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Survivor are your style, then congratulations, you have something in common with this inglourious basterd.


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