Movie Picks for the Year: A report from the Telluride Film Festival

By Phyllis Spiegel
   The 42nd annual Telluride Film Festival (this writer’s18th consecutive one) did not have one entry that generated universal positive buzz as in past years, such as Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech or Argo.
   But there were a number of movies to look forward to. This year there were more divergent views about individual films than I remember.
   Perhaps my most emotional moment all weekend came after the showing of He Named Me Malala, a documentary by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman) about Malala Yousafzai, who as an 11-year-old girl living in an obscure rural village in Pakistan was shot in the head by Taliban gunman. Her offense? Speaking out against a policy forbidding girls to attend school.
   We see Malala going through painful and difficult recovery in the U.K., left with some physical after-effects of the shooting. But not enough to stop her from speaking out throughout the world for girls’ right to education, trying to live the life of a normal teenager and becoming the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. While the film itself is inspiring, bringing Malala, an extremely poised and articulate young lady, to the age of 17 when one of her concerns was whether to attend Oxford or Stanford, it was what followed that was truly important.
   The audience was advised in advance not to leave the theater up on the mountain until after the credits because “there was a surprise coming.” With documentary filmmaker and Telluride regular Ken Burns on stage with Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, an activist educator, and director Mr. Guggenheim, Malala was Skyped in on the big screen from Birmingham England where she’d just taken the final exams that qualify students for different colleges.
   Mr. Burns and Mr. Guggenheim, both of whom are fathers to daughters, were visibly emotional as Malala marveled at the enthusiastic audience of 500 as the camera panned out. Mr. Burns posed a question from his 10-year-old daughter, Olivia, to Malala: “What happened to the guys who shot you?”
   ”I totally forgive the people who shot me; I do not need revenge,” Malala replied from across the ocean. “I learned tolerance and patience and kindness.”
   Then her father wowed the audience when he told us that the Swat Valley looked exactly like Telluride, and that before the Taliban took over, their home town was also a tourist destination and a ski resort. “Now, behind every tree, is a Taliban with a gun,” he said, imploring us to be thankful for this beauty and for being safe and free. “This is the right place to show this film,” he said; “you’re so lucky. Our beautiful Swat Valley became a hell for its own inhabitants.”
   Here’s an overview of the festival, then some details about specific films:
   My own picks for not-to-miss films I saw over Labor Day weekend in this beautiful canyon high in the Rockies are: Suffragette, Room, and Steve Jobs. More about those soon but first, I urge you to see these on a big screen in a dark room, surrounded by strangers.
   There are others to enjoy in your living room with a glass of wine. Tikkun, with its stifling of everything human, is not an easy film to sit through but it is an authentic depiction of the power of a stringent religious bureaucracy over the individual and family.
   Several themes recurred in widely divergent films from different countries. The extremes of the parent-child relationship are graphic in the total attachment of mother (Brie Larson) and 5-year-old son, (Jacob Tremblay) in the screen rendition of Emma Donahue’s breathtaking novel, Room, in which the characters are imprisoned in the shed of a lunatic kidnapper.
   Parent-child relationships also are key to the ultra-Orthodox Hassidic family in Israel we meet in Israeli director Avishai Sivan’s Tikkun, where any form of touch, recognition of one’s body or visible emotion is forbidden. This taboo reaches to the father physically restraining the mother who is forbidden to go to her dying son.
   Then there’s the power of the man over women — subjugation of women by the law, the government, the enemy, business and society. Suffragette, Carol, He Named Me Malala, and Tikkun all illustrate this historic phenomenon.
   Suffragette, written, produced and directed by women, tells the surprisingly little-know story of Emmaline Parkhurst’s campaign in early 1900s London to improve women’s lives by giving them the power to vote.
   After 50 years of non-violent protest, Parkhurst (played by Meryl Streep) escalated the activities to civil disobedience. The script focuses on a group of underpaid, harassed and abused women working in a laundry who risk life and family and endure frequent beatings by police and jail sentences — all for the cause.
   One of them, Maud Watts, played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan, endures the heartbreaking loss of her son because according to law, children were the property of the husband and hers couldn’t handle caring for the boy when Maud’s political activities kept her away from home. Beautifully filmed with scenes of Derby Day, inside Parliament and authentic newsreel archives, in my opinion Suffragette is Oscar worthy in many categories — best picture, cinematography and best actress for Carey Mulligan.
   Ms. Streep, on hand for the premier showing, said that the rights of women are still not where they should be. “One percent of the top 1,200 films last year were directed by women,” she said. “Girls often take the prizes in film school and then they don’t get hired.” She reached out to the many film decision-makers in the audience to bring more women into the industry.
   Todd Haynes’ latest, Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara depicts an authentic recreation of the New York City of the ‘50s with many of its hot spots such as The Oak Room of the Plaza. Ms. Blanchett, a wealthy, sophisticated married woman who is the loving, devoted mother of a little girl, loses her child when her husband discovers that she is having an affair with Mara, a shop girl and aspiring photographer.
   The city of Boston and its close-knit Catholic communities are crucial to the plots of two festival films that I am calling “cousins.” They feature scenes of the same South Boston neighborhoods, characters who grew up there in the “projects” with the church in high authority. A major theme of both is people protecting their own, despite knowledge of serious criminality. It might even be the same church edifice that appears in both films.
   Spotlight is a fast-moving, high-power newsroom drama recreating actual events. The Boston Globe is obstructed throughout its investigation of child abuse by Catholic priests by prominent citizens whose first loyalty was to the church, rather than to the victims. Good Catholics felt the church could do nothing wrong and kept silent for decades, resulting in the church practically running the city and the courts.
   But a relentless editor (Michael Keaton) of the paper’s investigation team doesn’t give up. The excitement builds as star reporters, played by Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, wear down the lawyers who they reported were a “cottage industry,” building their own coffers by getting settlements for the victims in exchange for promises of silence. Liev Schreiber is the new editor who decides that the story is more than the victims — he wants his staff to concentrate on the church’s cover-up of the crimes. Stanley Tucci plays one of the lawyers who represented the silenced victims and eventually cooperated with the reporters.
   In Black Mass, two FBI agents who grew up with master criminal Whitey Bulger (a superb Johnny Depp), put loyalty to a childhood buddy ahead of job and duty. Bulger, who served terms in Alcatraz and Leavenworth, was back on the streets for years, seemingly with free rein, running racketeering, extortion and murderous acts of extreme violence.
   This movie is not for the faint of heart. My own eyes were covered for more than one third of it. When government was finally closing in, Bulger escaped and was on the lam from 1994 when he learned that the government was closing in, until spotted in Santa Monica in 2011, brought back and sentenced to two life terms plus five years and fined millions to compensate victim families and government. The film also stars Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon and Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s “good brother” who became a Massachusetts state senator, and later held important posts in education until he was removed because of contact with his criminal brother. This one will open very soon in theaters.
   I’m a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s writing on The West Wing and Newsroom and he doesn’t disappoint in Steve Jobs, a searing portrait of the tech innovator, showing all of his idiosyncrasies and then the surprising turnaround toward Lisa, the daughter he’d not acknowledged when he gets to recognize her strengths. Michael Fassbender stars, with Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogen.
   Although I believe the movie theater is the ideal place to see most films, if you like to or need to see them at home, you’ll have some fun with Marguerite, a French film about an aspiring diva in 1920s France with no voice but great wealth. She buys her way into concert halls and charity functions and deludes herself into thinking she’s a great talent.
   The sadness comes from friends, staff, spouse and a teacher who, terrified of telling the truth to this delusional woman, all go along with her madness, applauding wildly instead of laughing inner face. Catherine Frot, a character actress with more than 90 film and TV credits, keeps us laughing. How difficult it must be to produce those vocal screeches so off-key! Feasts for eye and ear are the English estate background, costumes, and some authentic music as well as scenes of the new jazz scene in Paris. This silly but delightful film builds to a conclusion that is traumatic but totally logical.
   45 Years, with terrific stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, as a couple planning a celebration of that anniversary in rural England when something from the long ago past surfaces and threatens the relationship. Writer-director Andrew Haigh’s film was one that had very diverse opinions from viewers. To some I spoke with it was one of their top picks; others, along with this writer, dismissed it as draggy and unrealistic. You can decide for yourself.
   An interesting little documentary, Hitchcock/Trauffaut traces conversations about film making over a period of time between a young Francois Truffaut and a much older established Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock appeared to be a tyrant on the set — orchestrating every move of his actors, never allowing for a suggestion or an idea from anyone else. Other luminaries who weigh in on Hitchcock are Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and David Fincher.