Just outside Telluride Labor Day weekend, I almost collided with a bear cub that ran in front of my car. Minutes later, on the sidewalk at the Telluride Film Festival, I almost collided with Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, there for the world premiere of the movie they wrote and he directed, Frances Ha.
The film is kind of like Girls meets Annie Hall in a black-and-white Manhattan, though it still felt fresh and not derivative of those works. Gerwig's Frances is a convincing, winning creation, an earnest and awkward apprentice dancer struggling to find a foothold on the edge of adulthood in New York. At the pivotal age of 27, she's still in the about-to-burst bubble of post-college self-invention.
With its capering New Wave pace and clever, playful repartee, it's a likely art-house hit, a wry and knowing portrait of Frances and her college roommate-for-life, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). When Sophie abruptly decamps to Tribeca with the Galapagos-vacationing, leather-couch-buying boyfriend both women used to love to mock, Frances couch-surfs into an interesting crowd, including Adam Driver as a guy more charming than his Girls role as Lena Dunham's character's love interest.
Less fun and charming but also great was Michael Haneke's Amour, a grueling meditation on the indignities of aging and the courage love requires, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes earlier this year. Ex–L.A. Weekly critic Scott Foundas aptly introduced the film by saying what he said Haneke would say if he were there: “Have a good and disturbing screening.” With rigorous, subtle performances by still-living legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, it is filled with achingly long and poetical shots of the couple in their stately apartment as strokes ravage her and he heroically, heartbreakingly copes. A deeply felt meditation on the strange beauty of human fragility, it's not nearly as perfect as Sarah Polley's Alzheimer's drama, Away From Her.
Fortunately, Polley was at Telluride with another nearly perfect film, Stories We Tell, an impeccably crafted documentary that puts together the fascinating puzzle of her complex family history. Her mother, Diane, a highly magnetic drama queen glimpsed in a profusion of brilliantly edited old Super 8 film, was the first woman in Canadian history to lose custody of her children (Polley's half-siblings) in her first divorce. Then she married Polley's father, her emotional opposite, though there turns out to be some doubt that Polley's dad is her biological father. When she died young, Diane left plenty of intriguing secrets, and Polley pieces them together in interviews of her witty, vivid clan and the late Diane's close friends.
Polley's family secrets can't hold a candle to the trauma of the ones in Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri's The Attack, based on Yasmina Khadra's acclaimed novel about a secular, whiskey-sipping Arab-Israeli, emergency room physician whose wife is accused of being a suicide bomber. When confronted with her body, or, rather, in one of the most stunning scenes I've seen this year, half of her body in the morgue, he goes on a passionate quest to find out how she was blamed for the crime (blowing up a restaurant full of birthday-partying children who wind up in his ER). He must discover what kind of madness motivates the terrorists, and whether they have infiltrated his family.
The film's intelligence, economy of means, emotional power, and sheer importance made it my favorite at Telluride. Talk about the personal being political. Seeing an overly familiar tragedy through the lens of one family makes it more real than any news report could. Quite apart from its social importance, The Attack is a damn good, pulse-pounding mystery.
Telluride doesn't quite have a theme, but many of this year's films deal with terror. Assassination and wars haunt Deepa Mehta's adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children; Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers, about Israel's anti-terrorist police; the Italian bank-bombing drama Piazza Fontana; The Act of Killing, a documentary with reenactments of the 1965 Indonesian massacre; and the fest's most likely Oscar nominee, Ben Affleck's Argo, about the 1979 Iran crisis. Even though it's storybook, box-canyon hamlet far from anywhere, Telluride's festival is a snapshot of the world today.