Hot Stove #105 – 2019 Telluride Film Festival

For the baseball/but-not-movie fans of Hot Stove, feel free to hit delete now. Otherwise…

For our 9th year in a row, Rita and I attended the Telluride Film Festival. We were joined by our friend Avie Sullivan who was attending Telluride for the first time. She did great – saw 17 films (Rita and I settled for 14, still enough to qualify for what Rita calls the “Sport of Extreme Sitting”). The weather was grand, sunny and ranging from the 50s to the 70s, so standing in line between movies was a pleasure.

Tuesday to Friday Afternoon: The festival is always held on Labor Day weekend, but we go in three days early to take in the mountain scenery and get acclimated to the altitude. We buy an “ACME” pass that admits us to all films shown at the 500-seat Chuck Jones’ Cinema which is located in Mountain Village where we stay in a rental condo. The other eight movie venues, ranging from 65 to 650 seats, are in downtown Telluride, a 12-minute gondola ride from Mountain Village. Below, Rita and Avie in the gondola cab headed downtown.

We often go downtown for dinner on the days before the movies start. We also head down first thing Thursday morning to pick up the program – our first notice of what will be showing. One of the unique features of Telluride is that the films are not announced in advance (unlike Venice, Toronto and most others). But the curating is always excellent, so it’s not an issue. Below, the obligatory photo on the street with the banner and mountains.

There are often author events during the festival at the local bookstore. On Friday morning, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado was there to sign his book. In case you missed it, he is one of the “did not qualify for the debate” candidates in the race to be the Democratic nominee for President. The name of the bookstore is cool – see the top of the banner – “Between the Covers.”

Rita and I continued our annual tradition of Friday lunch at Rustico with Savannah friends Fran and Myron Kaminsky. They have “Festival” passes and see their films downtown, and we text back and forth on what we like (or don’t).

Friday Evening: The festival gets fully underway on Friday evening. Our first feature film at the Chuck Jones was the world premiere of Waves, a highly anticipated film written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Some of the buzz is from the casting. Sterling K. Brown (from TV’s This is Us) and Renee Elise Goldsberry (the original Angelica in Broadway’s Hamilton) play the parents in an African-American family where their overachieving high school son and daughter each suffer downward spirals.

Other buzz came from the fact that the screenwriter/director is all of 30 years old. This is his third film, but the first with a big budget. He came to the Chuck Jones stage to introduce the cast members and talk about his film. He could not keep from crying, overwhelmed with the premiering of his first major movie.

Rita and I had a sense of déjà vu. Three years ago on a Friday night at the Chuck Jones, the young director Barry Jenkins was on hand to introduce the world premiere of his first big film: Moonlight. It went on to win the Oscar for best picture. If some of the reviewers are right, Waves could follow that same path.

But it won’t be on my best picture list. This means I am not in sync with many reviewers, but one did capture my thoughts with an apt word – overwrought. I agree that the acting is superb, and if there was an Oscar for an ensemble cast, that might be an appropriate nomination. I just thought the narrative had some holes that were not overcome by the acting and a good score and cinematography. I repeat, this director is 30 years old – we will hear more from Mr. Shults.


The second movie we saw Friday night was Tell Me Who I Am. London filmmaker Ed Perkins was there to introduce his film about twin brothers Alex and Marcus Lewis. Alex was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident at age 18, and when he awoke from his coma, he recognized and knew the name of his brother…but absolutely nothing else. Over the years, Marcus recounted stories to Alex about their earlier life, but left out some of the dark parts. Alex felt that some matters were being held back and pushed for more. When the brothers were almost 50, Marcus finally agreed. Their emotional and redemptive conversations are the subject of this moving film. A nice surprise for us: Alex and Marcus were there and came to the stage after the movie. Lots of tears in the audience.


Saturday: Telluride honors two or three people a year with a tribute, usually paired with a new film coming out. Our Saturday morning started with a tribute to Renee Zellweger, well known for roles in such films as Jerry Maguire (“You had me at hello”), Cold Mountain (Best Supporting Actress Oscar), and Bridget Jones’s Diary and Chicago (best actress nominations). The tribute started with clips from several of her movies, followed by an interview on stage by NPR’s Davia Nelson.

We were then treated to Renee’s new movie, Judy, as in Judy Garland. The primary storyline is the attempted comeback by Judy in a series of London performances near the end of her career (and life – she died at 47). Zellweger is terrific. There will be an Oscar nomination. I’m going to borrow Joe Morgenstern’s take on Zellweger from his review in the WSJ: “Singing in her own voice, body hunched and eyes squinting against the light, she summons up the desperate fervor of a woman who has lived most of her life on parallel starvation diets, one lacking for food and the other for love.”

Next up was The Two Popes. LOVED IT! Most of the movie involves (fictional) conversations between outgoing Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and incoming Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Both actors are at the top of their game, but the biggest star is the screenwriting. Funny, insightful, intellectual…soccer, music, etc. A Jesuit smorgasbord.

The screenwriter? New Zealander Anthony McCarten, who wrote the screenplays for the movies that featured three of the last five winners for best actor: The Theory of Everything (Eddie Redmayne as Steven Hawking), Darkest Hour (Gary Oldman as Churchill) and Bohemian Rhapsody (Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury). McCarten may do it again with Jonathan Pryce. It’s not that Anthony Hopkins is not also good, but the Jesuit Francis, just like in real life, is more popular and gets better lines than “God’s Rottweiler.”

Did I tell you I LOVED IT! That was also the response of most of the people we talked to in line. One of the joys of Telluride is talking with others in line as we await the next movie. This can be with complete strangers or folks who we have met in previous years. There is also a nice contingent of friends from Kansas City, and some are shown below (Elaine Eppright, Kristi Wyatt, Cyd Slayton, Madeleine McDonough, Jo Ellen Smith and Melanie Eppright).

Rita and I then took a break by skipping the new Terrence Malick film A Hidden Life. Not big fans of his work. We heard mixed reviews. It’s three hours long. Cyd Slayton called it visual poetry. I’ll think about it.

Next up on our agenda was Lyrebird, set in Holland at the end of World War II. The film is based on the true story of the hunt for collaborators who were involved in the looting of art during the war – in particular a rare Vermeer that had been sold to Hermann Goering. This is a fascinating story that is not matched by its execution on the screen. It has a good twist that makes it different from the other “Monuments Men” stories, but some scenes struck me as cartoonish (especially the courtroom scene near the end; maybe it’s the lawyer in me). No Oscars.

Parasite was the last movie on the schedule for Saturday night. It did not start until 10:15. It would not be over until after midnight and then would be followed by a Q&A with the director. It is a South Korean film with subtitles. Should we go?

Yes! And are we glad we did. It was no surprise that the movie was good. It won the Palme d’Or as best picture at Cannes earlier in the year. The film is about a poverty-stricken family that manipulates a rich family in hilarious ways. Then a big surprise turns it all around. Maybe a contender for best picture and a likely winner for best international feature film. Highly recommended. Below, the Q&A featured actor Song Kang-ho (center) and director Bong Joon-ho (right) and their excellent translator.


Sunday: Sunday started with another tribute, this one for actor Adam Driver who had two films at Telluride. This was a repeat of the tribute he got the previous day in one of the downtown theatres – where Martin Scorsese made a surprise appearance to honor Driver (below). We did not get Scorsese, but did watch clips of Driver movies and then his interview conducted by Rebecca Keegan of Hollywood Reporter.



The tribute was followed by a screening of The Report, starring Driver as Daniel Jones, a relentless investigator for the Senate Intelligence Committee chaired by Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening). Jones spent years investigating the CIA and developing “The Report” on the attempted cover-up of the torture program after 9-11. The movie is reminiscent of Spotlight and All the President’s Men, except that it is a Senate staffer digging for the truth rather than journalists. I thought the movie was very good, but it might not reach the level of Spotlight (a future Oscar winner when we saw it at Telluride in 2015). [Just before the screening, there was an introduction of several people involved in the film. They turned out to be sitting in our same row. These included the real Daniel Jones and former Colorado Senator Mark Udall who was on the Intelligence Committee and instrumental in the public release of “The Report.”]

Movie #2 on Sunday was The Climb, a buddy movie that started on a high and then, for me, slowly faded. It was not a bad movie, but I’m not going to type any more words about it.


In 2014, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were paired as Steven Hawking and his wife in The Theory of Everything. They are now co-starring in The Aeronauts, sort of a road-trip film, but in a hot air balloon. Redmayne portrays James Glashier, a British meteorologist/aeronaut who was a pioneer in weather forecasting. Much of his work was done while ascending in a hot air balloon that was often co-piloted by aeronaut Henry Coxwell. They broke the altitude record in an 1862 flight, and that is the trip that is dramatized in the movie. But Coxwell is jettisoned for the movie and replaced by the fictional Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) who is a composite of early female aeronauts. Fictional it may be, but Jones keeps you on the edge of your seat with her heroic work as the balloon is swept up in storms. I enjoyed the movie. Below, at our screening, Redmayne (at the mike), director Tom Palmer and Felicity Jones.


For our fourth movie of the day, we returned to subtitles in the Spanish film Pain and Glory. Famed director Pedro Almodovar casts Antonio Banderas as an aging filmmaker who worries that his creative career is at an end. He reencounters people from his professional and romantic past, and also has flashbacks to his childhood and his mother (Penelope Cruz). I really liked the movie, and the buzz in the lines gave me confirmation. I will not be surprised to see a nomination for best international feature film, but still think Parasite will get that Oscar.

There was no thought of skipping the late movie that would take us past midnight. It was Ford v Ferrari, the true story of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) bringing on designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to build a race car to rival Ferrari. Shelby recruits maverick race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to help test and then race the car. This leads to battles with the suits at Ford who think Miles is not their type. This is a really good movie, both for the characters and the racing scenes. The big question will be who is selected to be the movie’s best actor candidate – Damon or Bale. I’m a Damon fan, but my vote on this one is for Bale. To summarize – I LOVED THIS MOVIE!

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Monday (Labor Day): Rita, Avie and I took a movie break and rode the gondola downtown for a “Conversation” at the courthouse. There are seminars and conversations sprinkled throughout the festival, and we picked one featuring documentary filmmakers Ken and Ric Burns. This is an intimate setting with about 60 people in the courtroom. The Burns brothers talked a lot about growing up together and how they took different paths to filmmaking. Ken Burns is a long-time supporter of Telluride and last year previewed his Vietnam series. This year, he was previewing his eight-part series Country Music which will start on PBS on September 15. Ric Burns also had a film at Telluride, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life. In the Q&A, I asked them what to expect next. Ric is working on “driving while black,” and Ken ticked off several projects, including Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Benjamin Franklin and the Holocaust. An hour well spent.


We then headed to the Labor Day picnic at Elks Park. We usually miss this because we are up the mountain at Chuck Jones watching a movie. But since we were already downtown, we took it in.

Rita and Avie then stayed downtown to see Family Romance, LLC, a U.S./Japanese documentary about a company that rents surrogates for clients (such as a date for a family function or the missing father of a child). The movie was filmed and directed by Werner Herzog, a filmmaker with a long history at Telluride. He was instrumental a few years ago in helping the festival add a new venue – an annual temporary conversion of the local ice hockey rink to a 650-seat theater – named for Herzog. Not only that, he was in his namesake theater for the screening and gave what Rita thought was one of the best Q&A sessions she has seen. As for the movie, two thumbs up from Rita and Avie.

I returned to the Chuck Jones to see Adam Sandler in a non-comedic role. In Uncut Gems, he plays a gem dealer and compulsive gambler who chaotically deals with hoodlums, other gem dealers, family, mistress and former NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself). The movie was manic and loud for the whole 135 minutes. On the line between fascinating and irritating. Sandler is getting some accolades, but I’m not so sure about this one.

Rita and Avie returned to the Chuck Jones, and we all saw Motherless Brooklyn. Ed Norton wrote, directed and stars in the film. He plays an eccentric private detective whose mentor (Bruce Willis) had rescued him years before from a Brooklyn orphanage (the “motherless” part). After the Willis character is killed, the chase is on to find the killers. The film is based on book that sets the story in the 1990s, but Norton pulls it back to the 1950s to produce a movie in film noir style. As he drives around in his 1957 Chevy, he encounters hoodlums, bad cops, corrupt officials and some nice folks in Harlem. The key official is Moses Randolph, wonderfully played by Alec Baldwin. This is a thinly disguised version of Robert Moses, the infrastructure king of New York made famous by Robert Caro in his book The Power Broker. The overall cast is good, and I liked the style of the movie. Might not rise to Oscar level, but a nice night at the cinema.

We filed out of the Chuck Jones and got back in line for what would be our final movie of the festival. I snapped this photo of sisters Sally and Susan Stanton who are also part of the Kansas City contingent. This was Susan’s 25th consecutive year at Telluride (since 1995). Sally also has a long string that dates back to 2002. They are well known at the Chuck Jones for being among the first in line.


The final movie was Marriage Story. It also screened at the Venice Film Festival which started a few days before Telluride. It is not uncommon for actors and directors to attend both, setting up some jet lag as they hop on international flights. Below, Laura Dern, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson at Venice before they headed to Telluride.

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The film was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, and it is actually a story of a divorce, not a marriage. Adam Driver portrays a playwright who is married to an actress (Scarlett Johansson) who has given up her film career in L.A. to work with her husband’s theater company in New York. She gets an opportunity to do a pilot for a TV series in L.A. and takes the couple’s son with her. This is not good for the marriage, and they decide on a “friendly” divorce. But then it gets not-so-friendly, bringing on the lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda, all getting some great lines). Driver and Johansson each deliver impressive monologues that highlight the excellent screenwriting. All of the actors, including the relatives in L.A., are a treat. This movie is getting a lot of good buzz. I heard some negative comments, but I come down on the side of a very good movie. In the mix for a number of Oscar nominations.


Errol Morris Spots: Errol Morris is well known for his documentaries (The Thin Blue Line; Fog of War) and is a frequent presence at Telluride. This year, he contributed several 30-second spots that were run before many of the feature films. His cause is climate change, and his intent is to capture “the absurdity and the desperation of our current situation.” He laments the polarization of the politics, “If Al Gore, said the earth was round there would be political opposition insisting the earth was flat.”

The spots feature Admiral Horatio Horntower, an admiral of a fleet of one and perhaps the last man on earth. The “blithering idiot” is played by Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), and he shares his floating iceberg with a series of animals (penguin, lion, walrus, seagulls). Morris has posted some of the spots on a YouTube channel (click here).



The Big Picture (Or Maybe Not): The key word at the festival may have been Netflix. They had 4 of the 35 entries of featured shows. Two will be in the running for best picture (The Two Popes and Marriage Story), and one (Tell Me Who I Am) may get a documentary nod. The fourth was not a theatrical film, but a partial showing of a new streaming series, Inside Bill’s Brain, Decoding Bill Gates.

For those of us at the Chuck Jones, there was an added meaning. Our theater had for years been sponsored by EY, the accounting firm. This year, the sponsor was Netflix and they added a new perk: free candy, popcorn and pop. Bring on the calories and diabetes.

Amazon had two films: The Report and The Aeronauts.

Which brings me to Steven Spielberg. He thinks that films primarily meant to be screened on TV should not be eligible for the Oscars. That’s what the Emmys are for. The major theater chains agree with him. For example, AMC will not show a movie unless there is a 90-day exclusive theatrical run before the movie is streamed. That’s why the Netflix film Roma did not have wide distribution last year even though it was in the thick of the Oscar race (it missed out on best picture, but did collect four Oscars). A good example from this year is The Aeronauts which was going to have an initial run in IMAX theaters before streaming. But Amazon decided against a long theater run and IMAX backed out. That’s a shame – this movie is perfect for IMAX.

Spielberg and his allies tried to get the rules changed last April, but lost the battle. Netflix and other streamers have become a force in the filming business, and most actors, filmmakers and technicians appreciate the extra opportunities. Streaming has also been a boon for independent filmmakers. And many more fans will end up seeing the films – Netflix now has 60 million domestic subscribers.

The Academy is likely just accepting the reality of the business by sticking with the token eligibility qualifications for the Oscars: A film need only to run at a theater one week in Los Angeles, three times a day to a paying audience. It can start streaming as early as the first day it runs in the L.A. theater. In practice, Netflix and Amazon are giving some nominal exclusive time to theaters. For example, The Two Popes will open in limited release in theaters on November 27, followed by the streaming premier on Netflix on December 20.

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My take: I still enjoy the theater experience, but appreciate the explosion of content that Netflix and others have created. My advice: Get out of the house for films that are made for communal viewing or have effects that are best shown on the big screen. The Two Popes will be so much better when you can laugh with hundreds of other cinephiles.  I’m confident Ford v Ferrari will not seem as grand in your living room, and since it is a major studio film, it will be in for a long run at the big theater chains.


And the Oscar Goes To…: It’s a little early to make a final list of Oscar favorites. Those of us at Telluride need to be careful to not be biased by the high we get from the altitude and attitude in the lines at the Chuck Jones. Last year, we left thinking that First Man was a sure thing for multiple Oscar nominations, and it bombed (with the help of some Swift-boating).

If it was just Telluride, my best picture list would include The Two Popes, Ford v Ferrari, Marriage Story and Parasite (purposely leaving out Waves where my opinion may be in the minority). But Telluride is only a slice of the movie year. Reviews out of Venice and Toronto are already adding titles for consideration. And Scorsese will open the New York Film Festival with The Irishman (yet another Netflix film). Looks like a good year for the movies and Oscar predicting.

Lemonade Time: We usually have flown in to Durango or Grand Junction to get to Telluride. This year, we decided to try Montrose which is closer, but has a reputation for cancelled/delayed flights. We got there fine. Not so good getting out. Our flight was delayed in increments all afternoon, meaning that we would miss our scheduled connecting flight from Chicago to KC (usually it is Denver for connecting, but United Airlines in their wisdom switched us – another bad story that I will not tell now; just know that Rita and I are united against United).

As we waited with other disgruntled passengers in the terminal, this lemon turned into lemonade. Stranded with us were Alex and Marcus Lewis, the twins in the silhouette photo above that goes with the movie Tell Me Who I Am. This led to a delightful exchange of conversation, not only about them, but their reaction to the festival. They were charming. They were also starstruck because they had gone to the industry and patron parties and met many celebrities. They are clearly enjoying their new fame. They said the book they wrote about their experience will soon be reprinted and show the “Now a Movie” info on the cover. Marcus gave Rita his business card for their primary business, Fundu Lagoon Resort, a vacation property in Zanzibar.

When we boarded the plane, the twins ended up across from us, just one row back. More talking. They were also missing their original connection, but like us were getting a later flight home. They were headed to London, but would be losing their first class seats from the earlier flight. United against United. We hope they made their new connection. It was tight. We got the last flight out of Chicago to KC and landed at KCI about midnight.

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That’s a wrap.