Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

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Over Labor Day weekend I saw a dozen movies at the Telluride Film Festival. That’s par for the course; you can ask my fellow cinephiles who made the seven-hour drive from Boulder through the gorgeous, late-summer Colorado mountains.

The festival runs every Labor day weekend, from Friday through Monday, and you can sneak in an extra movie if you show up on Thursday. The festival offers a nice mix of upcoming Oscar hopefuls, restored classics, and current independent films from around the world. You’ll find documentaries, feature films, and programs of shorts. There are tributes to filmmakers and actors, and each year, Telluride invites a guest director to program a half-dozen of his or her favorite films.

Movie Habit writers Andrea Birgers and Nick Reed wait in line for a movie
Movie Habit writers Andrea Birgers and Nick Reed wait in line for a movie

Although I could afford a pass, I made a conscious decision to buy tickets. Going without a pass means you are always in the second line, in danger of not getting in to see a movie if the first line is full. Going without forces me to be more open to chance and fate. And since (almost) everything at the festival is interesting in its own way, buying tickets with cash ensures an unpredictable weekend. It also ends up costing less than half as much as a pass.

Since you can’t see everything, and since there are so many ways to choose movies, if you talk to any two different attendees and you’ll hear about two very different experiences.

Here is mine.

Sets and Subsets

You can find the complete Telluride program on-line. Compare that to my own personal subset of film programming: Frozen Dreams, Kisses, Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love,The Last Command, Happy-Go-Lucky, O’Horten, Pirate for the Seas, The Great Sacrifice, Zizek/Sellars conversation, Seconds, The Good The Bad The Weird, Flame and Citron, and the short silent film program called Laughing ‘Til it Hurts.

In past years, that list would be longer by one or two titles, but on both Sunday and Monday, my night-time movie fell through. It’s often a relief to be limited to “only” three movies a day. Watch too many movies in too short a time, and you simply can’t make sense of them all, so a little down time is probably very healthy.

Nevertheless, my best day at the festival — possibly my best day ever in Telluride (movie-wise) — was Saturday, a day I saw four movies, all somewhere between good and excellent.

Four’s a Charm

On Saturday I didn’t get turned away from any of my first-choice movies. Without a pass, I could already claim that day as a minor victory. More importantly, though, I saw two favorites from the festival, plus two good movies to boot.

The first of the “merely” good movies was Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, about optimism, friendship, and the teacher-pupil relationship. In a Q&A session after the movie, Leigh said he deliberately set out to make an “anti-miserablist” film, which drew laughs from a Telluride audience used to despair and misery. (When you asked anyone who saw Hunger what they thought, instead of “good” or “bad” you’d hear “depressing.”)

The other good film was Bent Hamer’s O’Horten, about retirement, and how endings are also beginnings. Hamer first appeared on my radar with a quirky comedy called Kitchen Stories (Netflix it!). O’Horten has the same dry Scandinavian sense of humor that mixes humanism with absuridism. Some of the funniest “jokes” in the film are hardly jokes at all, but rather unspoken insights into the workings of the quirky minds of the characters.

The Lost Command

The first movie of my Good Saturday was the best of the fest. It’s called The Last Command, and it was made in 1928. On the surface, it’s a movie about a Russian general who fought against the revolution. On another level, it’s a movie about movies; our protagonist was that general, now convalescing in Hollywood, trying to get by on a movie extra’s pay. The movie draws parallels between royalist Russia and Hollywood that are subtle and darkly funny. It’s also a movie about ironic revenge, and to work it in, the movie had to open a few plot holes, but the tradeoff is worth it. On top of it all, the film (projected on a very big screen from a clean 35mm print) was accompanied by The Alloy Orchestra, a three-piece ensemble who added a rich, dark soundtrack to the film that gave it some extra weight.

The Last Command is a movie that has been on my list for years, but I had never been able to find it. I’ve been scouring TCM’s monthly schedule, I’ve been checking our local silent film series, I’ve even tried to rent a VHS tape that was issued before there was such a thing as DVDs, but our local video store (with more than 50,000 titles) didn’t even have it. It’s a movie you simply cannot see, unless you have powerful cinematic contacts. Or unless you pick the right year to go to Telluride.

The last film of the day was my runner-up for “best of the fest.” It’s called Pirate for the Seas, and it deserves its own story. Come back to Movie Habit in a few days to find out why.


A few other movies deserve mention, if only because I’m inclined not to mention them.

The Good The Bad The Weird is the most expensive Korean film ever made. The director introduced the film by downplaying its importance and highlighting its raw entertainment value. I didn’t dislike the film, but compared to friends who called it a highlight of the festival, I was pretty unmoved. The movie is not as Sergio-Leone-like as the director and some festival-goers would have you believe. And even so, it doesn’t compare well to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. I think the movie would have been more fun if it hadn’t boldly proclaimed itself the heir to a genre masterpiece. It was fun, rousing, adventurous, and funny. But I find myself in the grumpy minority not impressed by its pure, sometimes sloppy, energy.

Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love was one of the most promising titles of the festival, not least because Youssou would play a concert after each screening of the movie. He has an amazing, powerful voice, and the documentary actually has a story to tell, rather than just 90 minutes of footage. As good as the movie and concert were, his music is simply not my cup of tea. I like it, but you probably won’t find it on my iPod.