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Rocky Mountain High: An Introspective on the 46th Telluride Film Festival


2019 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: The 46th Telluride Film Festival came and went in the blink of an eye, just as it always does each Labor Day weekend. And just like every other time I’ve come to the little silver mining village in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, the majesty and grandeur of the locale never ceases to amaze. This Telluride, however, was a tad different than the past four I have attended. Different for some reasons good. Different for other reasons not so much.

Up until last year, Telluride had a ten-year streak where the eventual Academy Award for Best Picture stopped here first (from “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2008 through 2017 with “The Shape of Water”). “Green Book” broke that streak, instead premiering at the rival festival in Toronto just days later. Leaving last year’s fest, I was hopeful I had seen the Best Picture winner with Damien Chazelle’s “First Man.” While I was in love with the film, I remember getting the vibe from several people that feared the run at Telluride had come to an end. They were right.

I am sad to report that I do not believe we will begin a new streak of Best Picture winners this year either. While the slate at Telluride might never have been as deep with good movies, I believe it fell desperately short on great ones. Some will argue the merits of Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite,” Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes,” or Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves” as legitimate threats to bring home the big prize. I’m not going to be one of them. While I greatly enjoyed all three (and a few more), I just don’t smell Best Picture here in the thin, Rocky Mountain air.

In past years, films like “Spotlight,”“La La Land,”“Arrival,”“Moonlight,”“Manchester By the Sea,”“The Shape of Water,”“Hostiles,”and “First Man” were all movies I fell in love with and championed throughout the entire season, recommending them to anyone who would listen. This year, for the first time, I leave Telluride without such a film. It’s a barren feeling.

That said, I do think we have seen a slew of likely acting nominations, and, perhaps, a win or two among them. What a terrific year it was in that regard. From Adam Driver’s heartbreaking performance in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” to Renée Zellweger’s return-to-form revelation in Rupert Goold’s “Judy,” the theme this year seemed to be actor-driven. In this regard, the festival soared.

And the stars came out for this one, perhaps more than I have seen before. Along with Zellweger and Driver, we had Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Adam Sandler, Antonio Banderas, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Jonathan Pryce, Sterling K. Brown, Lucasmarty Hedges, Greta Gerwig, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Guy Pearce, Vicky Krieps, August Diehl, Jon Magaro, and Song Kang-ho, among others.

We had breakthrough performers Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Adele Haenel, and Orion Lee (who I shared a shuttle with back to Montrose). We had directors Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Noah Baumbach, Bong Joon-ho, Fernando Meirelles, James Mangold, Ken Burns, Kelly Reichardt, Rupert Goold, Trey Edwards Shults, Scott Z. Burns, and Celine Sciamma. We even had a Randy Newman sighting. One of my more memorable Telluride moments came with mega-producer Kathleen Kennedy, who sat next to me for “Parasite.” She was as pleasant and down-to-earth as could be, and we chatted at length prior to the screening.

As usual, gala co-directors Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger put together the best run and best produced experience one could hope for at a film festival. From their marvelous tributes (Zellweger, Driver, and Philip Kaufman), to their insightful looks back on historic film, to their generous spotlight on the filmmakers of tomorrow, Telluride remains the one film-going experience I simply cannot go without each year.

Another bonus this go-around was having three Awards Circuit representatives at the fest. Each year, my biggest complaint is that there are simply too many wonderful films to seek out and only three and a half days to do it. That problem was simplified with additional boots on the ground. With me this year were Editor-in-Chief and Owner, Clayton Davis,cdmj and staff writer J. Don Birnam. This allowed me to sail past my normal eight or nine films screened to a personal record of eleven.

It also allowed me the opportunity to finally meet our fearless leader in person. Words can’t express the gratitude I have for the man, and it was nice to share some time with him and take in a movie or two together.

I also got to meet Awards Watch’s mischievous Erik Anderson, Awards Daily’s boy-genius Marshall Flores, and Next Best Picture’s energetic Matt Neglia (who I actually met at the Hampton’s festival last year), and hang out with my yearly roommates Michael Grei and Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone.

While I am leaving without a film to champion – my top six could literally be rearranged in any order – I leave with one of the more monumental experiences I’ve ever had at Telluride. From the incredible moment with Kennedy to my first go at the Patron’s Brunch, to twenty minutes of listening to Scorsese wax poetic about Agnès Varda, to finally meeting the one and only Clayton Davis, Telluride did once again what it never fails to do: provide enduring and remarkable memories that will last a lifetime.

My rankings of the eleven films I saw at the 46th Telluride Film Festival (with links to our coverage, and my star-rating in parentheses):

    1. The Two Popes (3.5 stars)
    2. Marriage Story (3.5 stars)
    3. Parasite (3.5 stars)
    4. Ford v Ferrari (3.5 stars)
    5. Waves (3.5 stars)
    6. The Report (3.5 stars)
    7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (3 stars)
    8. Judy (3 stars)
    9. First Cow (3 stars)
    10. The Aeronauts (2.5 stars)
    11. Varda by Agnès (2 stars)

Other films I missed with links to our reviews: Lyrebird; Pain and Glory; Motherless Brooklyn; A Hidden Life 


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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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