Notes on Telluride Film Fest: 2018 Fall Films with Buzz

Over Labor Day weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Telluride Film Festival, along with Venice and Toronto kicks off the race for the awards season

Award winner from Telluride include “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “Moonlight” and “The Shape of Water,” which screened there last year alongside fellow eventual best picture nominees “Lady Bird” and “Darkest Hour.” As a result, Telluride Film Festival, has now become where the Academy Award race really begins and where studios test out film buzz sometimes before heading to even the Toronto Film Festival.

Here’s a list of some movies I saw and enjoyed and you should check out this fall as they will definitely be getting some various awards buzz:

Movies

Roma

A visually beautiful film shot in black and white by the ever talented Mexican Director Alfonso Cuaron, whose talents are on display in such films like the recent Academy Award winning “Shape of Water”. Here he returns to his Mexican roots in a semi-autobiographical film about life growing up in Mexico in a middle class family. The story is told through the eyes of a Mexican indigenous woman, Cleo, who is the family’s housekeeper. The story is set against the backdrop of Mexican’s changing politics and how it affects the family, especially the life of the housekeeper.

Boy Erased

Is the story of teenaged boy, Jared, who is realizing he might be gay. However he is the son of a small town Baptist pastor and his devout wife in Arkansas. Based on a memoir of the same name, Boy Erased focuses on Jared and his parents reconciling him being gay which in their world is “sinful”.  Jared is sent to a gay “conversion therapy” day camp. Gay conversion therapy is controversial practice used to convert LGBT identified individuals back to being straight.  What I appreciated about this movie is its nuanced approach to the story. Instead of defaulting to making Jared’s parents out as hateful people who send him to gay conversion therapy, the film shows them as parents who love their child but are struggling with the teachings of their faith as it relates to sexual orientation. Even in the beginning, Jared himself is someone who thinks that by doing the therapy maybe he can correct himself. These emotional struggles of both Jared and his parents are difficult to watch on screen. As a result, the story packs more emotional punch than other films might on the subject because not only does it show you what gay conversion therapy is but what it and related homophobia does to those involved without being directly preachy.  The film is directed by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, whose first brush with social issues in film was in the recently award winning, “Loving” about the American interracial couple, the Lovings, who took their case fighting for the right to be married to the US Supreme Court.

Front Runner

For all you politico geeks out there, Director Jason Reitman has a film for you. Based on the 1984 Presidential campaign, about the man who was the Democratic front runner for three weeks after he announced, then US Senator Gary Hart. It chronicles the spectacular fall from grace and Hart’s campaign about questions over his personal life. The film provides for many of us living in the current 24/7 news cycle especially as it relates to politics the origins of the rise of a whole new era of tabloid-based political coverage. The scandal that took down Senator Hart was a perceived fling between him and a woman named Donna Rice, and possibly other women. In the era of Trump, it seems almost quaint now that this scandal ended Hart’s campaign. Reitman does a great job dropping you into the crazy that was and still is a Presidential campaign. He almost goes too fast to the point, you don’t always catch everyone’s name and their significance in the unfolding drama. Fun point: for those political geeks, you’ll enjoy the portrayal of a VERY young Joe Trippi (2004 Presidential Campaign manager for Howard Dean) who found himself playing a central role as the Hart scandal unfolded.

White Crow

If you love the ballet and have an appreciation of the finest ballet dancers in history and you love Ralph Fiennes, you will enjoy the visually appealing dance heavy biopic on the life of principal dancer and brilliant choreographer, Rudolf Nureyev. The life of Nureyev is nothing short of trailblaziing. He is regarded as one of the greatest dancers of all time sometimes called “The Lord of the Dance” . Nureyev went on to choreograph and train many great dancers after he famously defected from the Soviet Union in 1961. The beginning of his life did not promise such greatness, Nureyev was  born on a Trans-Siberian train, the son of an impoverished Tatar Muslim family in the Soviet Union (now Russia). Fiennes directs and stars in the film as Nureyev’s dance instructor and mentor, Alexander Pushkin, where he speaks lovely Russian. But the star of the film is professional ballet dancer, Oleg Ivenko who brings Nureyev to life as the famously difficult and independent personality he was while showcasing some of the moves that made Nureyev an international star. You get a sense of the man behind the legend who blazed a trail for many artists who came after him seeking creative freedom. 

Old Man & The Gun

This is Robert Redford’s swansong film. Redford plays Forrest Tucker, who in real life was a charming 70 something several times caught and several times escaped from prison professional bank robber. Tucker made headlines especially because he managed to charm his way into stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from banks with his friends called the “Over The Hill Gang” by the police who tried to catch him. Sissy Spacek stars as the woman who convinces Redford’s Tucker to consider slowing down his bank robbing ways. Danny Glover and Tom Waits are his fellow “Over The Hill Gang” members. You will laugh and be charmed especially at the wonderful chemistry between Spacek and Redford. As it is Redford’s swansong, Director David Lowery makes great use of Redford’s previous films as a tribute and a useful device to tell the story of Tucker’s long career.

Can You Ever Forgive Me

Directed by Marielle Heller, the film is based on the autobiographical story of writer Lee Israel who fell on hard times as a writer of biographies  of famous women and resorted to forgery to keep her bills paid as a writer in New York City. Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel does an outstanding dramatic turn where you get to see the funny she is known for only in great scenes with her friend Jack Hock played by the sardonically witty Richard E. Grant. It is an interesting reflection of the life after the success and the money that comes with it goes away.

The Favourite

Set in 18th century England in the court of Queen Anne, the last Stuart Queen on the throne of England, it is a fantastically funny and bawdy portrayal of life at her court. Olivia Colman, already primed to play the modern day Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s “The Crown”, plays Queen Anne.  Rachel Weisz plays her close friend, Sarah, Lady Marlborough, and American actress Emma Stone takes her turn as a British lady, Abigail Masham. This is not your dignified period drama but rather a look at the real life competitiveness between Sarah and Abigail for control of Queen Anne who was reaching a frail point in her life. The costumes are fantastic but director Yorgos Lanthimos known for delivering shock in his work, from his previous film The Lobster delivers an interesting interpretation on the relationship of three women. What I enjoy the most is the life at court of one of England’s few Queens and how very much of England’s politics was influenced by the women around her after her husband was long gone. 

Fistfuls of Dirt

A beautiful film intersecting with current events and magical realism Fistfuls of Dirt is about a boy and the mermaid he discovers in a surprising place: post Hurricane Puerto Rico. Not only does it focus on a Puerto Rican boy, Yei, ( played newcomer Julio Gaston Ramos) who struggles to keep him and his mother alive, but it centers on an Afro Puerto Rican community  often not featured in most popular culture portrayals of the Island. Watching this community struggle to stay alive both in spirit and physically is especially hard as we now understand the true toll of that storm a year later.

The film was shot entirely in Puerto Rico post the storm, so the debris scattered everywhere are not props but the state of Puerto Rico in real time. Ramos is a delight to watch as are his interactions with the mermaid he discovers and the adults in his life especially the mother he loves so dearly. Hoping very much to see it on the circuit for award season, because it is wonderful but Puerto Rico could use some visible celebration of its resilience and culture post Hurricane Maria

Why It’s Important the 2017 Oscar Noms Are More Racially Diverse

87thSome may ask, why does these Academy Awards matter? Well I was reminded of a conversation recently I had in my teens.

Oprah Winfrey had produced “The Wedding” a story from the famous Harlem Renaissance writer, Dorothy West.

The story was about 3 generations of black Americans who spent their summers on Martha’s Vineyard. They were educated and successful.

I remember talking to a white classmate about it and I asked of the Sunday night movies (when that was still a thing on network television) was she going to watch. She said she wasn’t sure. I said how excited I was to see the wedding.

She looked at me and very innocently said “I thought it was interesting, but I didn’t think it was realistic”.

I blinked.

And went on to say something informed about how there are actually successful black people in American life pre-Jim Crow.

She was surprised, very innocently so, I remember almost like yesterday.

It’s that conversation I think of when there is an argument about why it’s so important to show a diversity of life in America on the screen.

For better or worse, film and television has always presented a window to the outside world to many societies, particularly America.

Films showcasing African Americans not living in the hood, with single mamas was few and far in between. And while it’s a part of African American life, it’s not the only story.

When even the new President of the United States, thinks and says the only existence black people live in the US is “hell”. You know the importance of stories of black people, all communities of color being told.

So when the annual nominations of the Oscars debuted Monday, I was thrilled.

Because finally, the Oscars bought themselves a clue. #OscarsSoWhite didn’t need to be dragged out again for the 3rd year in a row on Twitter.

These nominations were racially diverse  the most it has ever been in the history of the Academy Awards.

Black cast led films, “Moonlight”, “Hidden Figures”, and “Fences”, nominated for Best Picture!  1/3 out of 10 nominees for Best Picture were movies highlight the lives and stories of African Americans.

This means three black producers also received nominations for making those movies happen: Denzel Washington, Kimberly Steward, & Pharrell Williams

Also African America Director, Barry Jenkins, was nominated for his direction of “Moonlight”. He will be only the 4th ever African American to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards.

Three black women nominated for Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, Naomie Harris, and Viola Davis.

Viola Davis made history by being the first black actress to be nominated by the Academy THREE times.

Joi Millon is the first black woman to be nominated for best film editing award with Moonlight.

Bradford Young was the first African America ever to be nominated for Best

black-peoplein-in-film
Collage of Black Actors in various roles in film. Photograph: via the Guardian

Cinematography for “Arrival”.

Three black documentary filmmakers were nominated for their documentary films: “I am Not Your Negro”, “OJ: Made in America” and “13th” from the celebrated director Ava DuVernay of “Selma” fame.

While there was no woman nominated for “Best Director” even though a movie directed by a woman was nominated for Best Picture (Arrival). This was a much improved year for the Oscar nominations and the changes they instituted last year to diversify the Academy (finally) and make younger actors and creatives member of the Academy, clearly made the difference.

We are wealth, we are middle class, we are poor, we are recent immigrants, we are descendants of slaves, we are woven into every fabric of America.

It’s time stories of black people and other communities of color have their stories told on a large scale on screen and and get the support they deserve.