This year's guest curator Slavoj Zizek -- described by a festival goer as monstrously self-centered and by a festival director as "the greatest living philosopher" -- provided a slate of movies that blew the minds of absolutely no one. Perhaps I'm applying my experience to everyone else's. But whatever. Let's not indulge the lesser aspects of the fest. Here are the five things I liked about the 35th Telluride Film Festival, in order from less to more.
5. Slumdog Millionaire. Met by ovations and cheering. It is the ultimate feel-good film, made by erstwhile feel-baddie Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later). An Indian boy goes the distance on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" His success on the game show is rooted in seemingly random experiences in his childhood. It's a kinetic, Dickensian adventure movie, flashing backward and forward but never losing its firm, steady grip on a contrived-yet-compelling story. This should be a hit.
4. The Last Command, a 1928 silent film featuring a live original score by the Alloy Orchestra. Emil Jannings won the first-ever Oscar for best actor for his larger-than-life performance as a mutinied Russian general who ends up playing a background soldier in a Hollywood war film. One of the title cards says (and I'm paraphrasing): "From the backwash of a crumbled nation comes another extra who is hungry for a bite of Hollywood." It's all very savvy and self-reflexive, even though studios themselves hadn't been around that long. Did I mention the live accompaniment rocked? The Alloy resurrects ancient movies one by one.
3. Kristin Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long. A tricky role, a home-run performance. It's all internal here. KST plays a woman fresh off a 15-year jail sentence. And boy, she does not want to talk about it. But the ways in which she keeps herself walled off and then lets in a little light...well, it's elegance and control and precise execution.
2. Jean Simmons. I knew next to nothing about this British actress going in to her tribute, but felt enlightened and grateful (and heretofore ignorant) coming out. Simmons got her big break as a teenaged Estella in David Lean's Great Expectations and deserves to be 100 times more famous than she is today. Maybe her looks were too much like Vivien Leigh's or her voice too much like Audrey Hepburn's, but Simmons' past stardom didn't evolve into sacred legend. It's tempting to define her by the men she has played against -- Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, Paul Newman in Until They Sail, Marlon Brando in Desiree and Guys & Dolls, Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, Dick Van Dyke in Divorce American Style, Gregory Peck in The Big Country, Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum in The Grass Is Greener -- for who can match this list and still be as unfamous as she? But Simmons, with the aura of a child and the snap of a python, holds her own against each. The festival showed a medley of clips, but the most arresting was from The Happy Ending, in which she plays a bored housewife. Couldn't find a clip of it on the YouTubes, so here are some from Guys & Dolls (1955), Until They Sail (1957) and, to shake it up, Star Trek: The Next Generation.
1. Prodigal Sons. If you see it under the right circumstances, this one could be life-changing. The film's greatness comes not from the craftsmanship (it was shot and edited cheaply, as if on a whim), but from the content. Director Kimberly Reed has so, so much to work with here. She hit documentary gold. The film's site has no word on future screenings. Hopefully it'll arrive at a theater near you sometime before the world ends.
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