Telluride 2014: Cinema Thrives in Colorado - Another Fest Wraps Up

September 2, 2014

Telluride Film Festival

Out under the stars, breathing quietly, staring up in awe wishing they'd never go away… Aw yes, Telluride. I've spent the last five days in the mountains of Colorado at the Telluride Film Festival reminiscing with friends and colleagues every night over whether I should just drop everything, stay here, and move in. It's so damn beautiful. But besides all the stunning nature surrounding us, we're all here for cinema, for the love of film and the power it has to inspire us, transform us, define us, and entertain us. It always ends too quickly (one weekend is not enough!) and suddenly just like that it's over, I'm headed back to New York City for a few days before continuing up to Toronto for TIFF. What films did I see and love this year? Let's find out.

Telluride starts on Friday afternoon and lasts through Monday evening, with essentially three full days plus one half day of films. While badges/passes are expensive, it's worth it to attend and see whatever I can in a setting that is incomparable. The line-up is revealed the day before the festival and I expected a lot of major premieres - and boy did they deliver. Almost everything I saw I enjoyed to some degree, and can talk about all of them at length (if you want to chat about any, just hit me up @firstshowing). I always wish I could see more, but between TIFF and NYFF coming up, I can catch everything premiering this fall and focus on the most important ones at each festival. Telluride's selection usually has a theme (this year it seemed to be the struggle of the working class individual) and it's exciting to get in and start watching movies all day long.

Here's my list of the 9 films I saw, with my quick thoughts on each. Listed in order of most to least favorite.

The Imitation Game - Directed by Morten Tyldum - An astonishing and fascinating film featuring one of Benedict Cumberbatch's finest performances. Loved this film, from the score by Alexandre Desplat to the story and what it says about how anyone, even awkward goofballs, can change the world. [My Full Review]

Birdman - Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu - Bravo. Iñárritu's masterpiece about the struggles of artistic people. Set on a Broadway stage, with an engaging percussive score, breathtaking cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, and one hell of a lead performance by Michael Keaton. Loved it. [My Full Review]

Wild Tales - Directed by Damián Szifrón - Hilarious! Absurd! Insane! Brutal! Awesome! This fantastic Argentinian film lived up to the buzz and is a brilliant, cathartic experience about the ridiculousness of modern society. So happy I caught this. [Watch the Trailer]

Seymour: An Introduction - Directed by Ethan Hawke - A wonderful documentary about piano master Seymour Bernstein and how music is an emotional experience that everyone needs in their life. Seek this one out, it's one you won't soon forget after seeing it. [My Full Review]

Rosewater - Directed by Jon Stewart - Solid directing debut from Jon Stewart, more entertaining than introspective, but a good film anyway. Could've been better but it works well and Gael Garcia Bernal is fantastic as Maziar Bahari. Worth checking out. [My Full Review]

The Look of Silence - Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer - I honestly still prefer The Act of Killing a bit more, but a powerful follow-up to that film focusing more on the victims than the perpetrators of the killings in Indonesia. Our eyes tell so many stories and say so much.

Merchants of Doubt - Directed by Robert Kenner - A fascinating yet infuriating documentary about lobbyists and the ever-present political machine that denies scientific facts, all for the sake of capitalistic gain or political agenda. Upsetting but also with optimism at the end.

99 Homes - Directed by Ramin Bahrani - Not Bahrani's best work, but solid, another film that made me angry (for what it shows) and only sorta-kinda redeems itself by the end. Too much Wolf of Wall Street, not enough At Any Price. Outstanding lead performance by Andrew Garfield.

Wild - Directed by Jean-Marc Valleé - Not bad. Some parts of it work, others don't (I never bought into the relationship with her mom). It's an empowering film for women, but didn't do much for me. May only be for those who are fans of Cheryl Strayed's book that it's based on.

I was lucky enough to meet with Quebecois director Xavier Dolan (of Mommy, Laurence Anyways) and Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (of Birdman) for interviews while in Telluride. Both of those will be out in the next few weeks, stay on the lookout for more. In the meantime here's Xavier Dolan & me:

Alex Billington & Xavier Dolan - FirstShowing.net

If you've ever been to Telluride, you know it's impossible to leave without some kind of unforgettable stories (read this one about attending the fest in 1981, or anything Sasha writes at Awards Daily). This year I have a few to tell, but the best one involves Leonard Maltin and I am going to make a big fool of myself telling this, but that's why these stories are so much fun. I grew up reading Maltin's movie guides because my Dad would buy us each year's latest guide every Christmas. While I didn't always agree with his thoughts, I did know his name well and respected his wealth of film knowledge crammed into the increasingly thick book released every year. Maltin is a regular at Telluride (as was Ebert) and he still attends every year with his wife. I see him all over the town and, honestly, I'm too nervous to actually get into a conversation with him.

This year was a bit different because, as everyone knows, marijuana is now legal in the state of Colorado. I had picked up an edible from one of the local shops (Alpine Wellness) earlier and consumed a bit more than I should have before my very first screening of the fest - Jean-Marc Valleé's Wild. By the time I was riding the gondola to get in line, I was really floating, and I mean both literally and figuratively at that point. All I wanted to do was get in line, keep to myself, and go in and watch the film. But lo and behold, who ended up next to me in line? Leonard Maltin. But by then I was so overwhelmed and overly anxious, that I clammed up and couldn't say anything. I had this extravagant opening line in my mind prepared, something like "Hi, we used to get your book every year growing up, I respect your tireless passion, I'm nervous to say hi, glad to see you back here in Telluride, what films have you liked recently, sad to hear about your book ending, etc."

As much as I wanted to start a conversation with him, I just couldn't bring myself to speak up. I listened in as he chatted with other friends around and smiled and nodded. We kept exchanging glances until, after standing up, Leonard finally confronted me. He stuck out his hand: "Hi, I'm Leonard." But of course I know that, come on! Your face was on a book constantly available right next to the TV in my living room growing up. "I'm Alex," I nervously responded. Then I got a talking to: "You know we talk to people in line," he said. "That's what we do here [in Telluride]." Yes yes, I know Leonard, but I just ate that edible and I am unable to communicate clearly right now, mostly because I just want to get in the theater and start watching films. I didn't know how to respond, but I nodded, and preceded to ask if he'd seen anything already that he liked.

We talked a bit more before I, once again, just got too anxious to say anything else to him. And that was that. My brief conversation with Leonard Maltin, who I saw numerous times throughout the festival but every subsequent time, even without any THC in my system, I was still too nervous to say anything. I was too nervous to blurt out "you were my family's movie guide growing up!" even though it might've been a very nice sentiment considering this year it was announced he was ending that guide for good. Leonard, if you read this, I'm sorry. I really do respect you and wanted to say hi. It's kind of ironic that I can talk to actors and directors like they're my old pals, but Leonard Maltin? Can't even talk to him without flubbing my thoughts. Maybe one day we'll catch up again and laugh about all of this. Perhaps at Telluride next year…

On the other side of the spectrum is a story about how nice Telluride is. The festival on-purpose arranges their schedule so that popular films overlap, making everyone choose something else instead of going to all the big ones. As press, this is a bit troublesome because we have to make it to the "big" ones. On opening night I had to make it to Rosewater, but I also wanted to see The Imitation Game right before. There would only be 30 minutes between the end of one screening and the beginning of the other, and Rosewater was supposed to be a very hot ticket, impossible to get into unless you queued up hours early. As soon as I got out of The Imitation Game at the Werner Herzog Theatre, located on the opposite side of town, I ran out onto the street and started hiking (at 8,750 ft it's tiring) down to the other end of Telluride as fast as I could.

I kept looking for cars and noticed one skulking behind me, roving slowly. I was so anxious to make it into Rosewater I was sticking up my hands like I was trying to wave a car down (you never know, right?). All of a sudden the car behind me pulled up next to me, and the window rolled down. "Need a ride?" "Yes I do!!" Two locals, a heavily bearded fellow and his girlfriend, just happened to be driving through town. As much as this sounds like the beginning of a horror story, it actually worked out perfectly. They picked me up, I jumped in the back (which was packed with all their stuff) and they took me up to the Galaxy Theatre (an elementary school converted to cinema) dropping me off just in time to be one of the lucky 500 people who made it into the Rosewater premiere, which featured a Q&A with Jon Stewart, Maziar Bahari and actor Gael Garcia Bernal. Thanks guys, I owe you. I don't know even who they were, but they saved my ass big time.

It's these kinds of stories, these moments (and so many others including a few I can't share on here) that make Telluride such a memorable, beloved, and one-of-a-kind film fest - one of the best in the world. This year the heads of Cannes, Sundance, Fantastic Fest and other worldwide festivals were all in attendance. They come to see how it's done, how Telluride pulls off one of the best fests, and to watch, and learn. They also come for the films, for the chance to interact with cinephiles in a remarkably beautiful setting, and to meet up with friends, filmmakers and colleagues. That's why I'm there too – for all the friends, filmmakers, mountains, films, experiences, emotions, stars twinkling in the sky at night, and everything else in-between.

Thanks for another amazing year, Telluride. See you again in 2015. And special thanks to all my friends and colleagues who constantly remind me why I love the world of cinema so much: Cindi Rowell, Sasha Stone, Tomris Laffly, Eric Laffly, Anne Thompson, James Rocchi, Eugene Hernandez, Eric Kohn, Jeff Hill, Chet Mehta, Aseem Chhabra, Jeffrey Wells, Pete Hammond, Michael Patterson, A.O. Scott, Tim League, Angela Johnson, Michelle Hooper, Ryan Werner and everyone else I had the pleasure of meeting in the mountains.

Find more posts: Editorial, Indies, Telluride 14



Hey Alex, Just curious, what would it take to have a short film hosted on your site? You have hosted some great ones, shooting one in 4K for youtube as we speak.

Jorrell Mcdaniel on Sep 2, 2014


Inarritu looks so young to be such a skilled director. // Loved all the coverage AB! I hope you go next year. Everything sounded so grand.

DAVIDPD on Sep 2, 2014


Are you talking about the photo in the middle? That's Xavier Dolan, not Innaritu! 🙂 He's only 25! Still a very cool guy.

Alex Billington on Sep 3, 2014


Oh shit...I missed that bit...I guess I was too excited reading.

DAVIDPD on Sep 3, 2014

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