The metaphor that kept coming to mind at the 40th Telluride Film Festival in Colorado Aug. 29 to Sept. 2 was provided by Alfonso Cuarón's film Gravity. In this magically imagined, 3-D epic, astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are menaced by the Kessler effect, in which colliding satellites cause a kind of chain reaction, a cascade of shrapnel that grows bigger and bigger, out of control.
It's a totally satisfying thrill ride — you've never seen a mise-en-scène like it. Like the 2011 Telluride hit Pina, about choreographer Pina Bausch, this film uses 3-D for more than just throwing objects in the viewer's face. The actors are choreographed in space, and the IMAX-like 3-D makes you feel inside that space. Gravity's astronaut adrift is more physically palpable than 2001's, or that of any movie I've seen.
The brilliant, marvelously acted mystery The Past, Asghar Farhadi's successor to his Oscar winner, A Separation, also puts you inside a Kessler cascade — a series of bad moves by good people in a scary space, a Paris apartment menaced by divorce. A woman (Bérénice Bejo) invites her estranged husband (Ali Mosaffa) to meet her lover (Tahar Rahim of A Prophet). But the new guy can't marry her, because his wife is in a coma, caused by semi-selfish actions by everyone, and billiard ball–like coincidences that make absolute logical and emotional sense. It's a great story with lifelike characters and veil after veil of revelations.
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Incendies director Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners is another unrelenting mystery driven by cascades of emotion. Hugh Jackman hunts the abductors of his daughter, and so does cop Jake Gyllenhaal. But Gyllenhaal also tries to prevent Jackman from harming highly suspicious suspect Paul Dano, or his mom, Melissa Leo — and struggles to contain his own rage. It's about the corrosive Kessler effect of violence on everyone, victims included. Prisoners justifies its 146 minutes — it has thriller propulsion coupled with a novelistic probing of motives. Gyllenhaal's weighted body language and tired, knowing eyes balance Jackman's full–freak-out performance, and Leo is great in a new way. Roger Deakins crafts the most haunting, beautifully indelible cinematography seen at Telluride 2013.
The Invisible Woman, with director/star Ralph Fiennes as middle-aged Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones as his teenage mistress, Nelly Ternan, is a gleaming period film about a fascinating, sinister romance. Like J.D. Salinger, the subject of Telluride documentary Salinger (also reviewed in these pages), Dickens was awful to women and devoted to his work. At a Telluride dinner, Fiennes told L.A. Weekly that Dickens was in a fury to be a success, haunted by childhood poverty. "He woke up in his 40s and realized he was supremely unhappy in his marriage," Fiennes explained. As Mrs. Dickens, Joanna Scanlan is superb in the scene where she meets Nelly, the smart, beautiful piece of space junk that collided with her life. Fiennes' Dickens is like a showman, stagey. Which he was, but I didn't feel like I ever got inside the romance. It's bloodless — no passion, please, we're British.
The characters in Palo Alto, by Francis Ford Coppola's granddaughter Gia Coppola, have more heart, and the 26-year-old, first-time director has a real touch with teen actors. The story, adapted from James Franco's fiction, is overfamiliar coming-of-age stuff, but the cast sells it. So what if Gia was born on third base — she got to home plate on actual talent. Emma Roberts has coltish, skittish charm as a kid with a cold, pot-smoking stepdad (Val Kilmer). Val's son Jack Kilmer is even better as the boy who loves Roberts' character but is so confused he lets a sad, loose girl (Olivia Crocicchia) blow him at a party. Crocicchia is the most affecting of the three. But it's all schematic, and Franco is kind of a blank as the soccer coach who seriously lets the heroine down.
The most stunning world premiere at Telluride was Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, which makes Django Unchained look a little silly. He makes you feel the whip, and the ruthless, cruel, social constraints of slavery. McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor as a Northern free man who is kidnapped and enslaved, Lupita Nyong'o as his fellow slave and Michael Fassbender as their rapist and Bible-loving owner should all be Oscar-bound. Horribly, it is a true story.