Brian’s Diary—Telluride 2021: A Relaxed Start to Awards Season

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Festiville correspondent Brian Formo returns to the mountains to experience new films from Mike Mills, Joe Wright, Kenneth Branagh and Reinaldo Marcus Green, along with a bespoke archival selection from Telluride bestie Barry Jenkins. 

The Telluride Film Festival is a unique experience among film festivals. The Colorado town is nestled in a valley at 8,000 feet, surrounded by mountains that hit just north of 14,000 feet in elevation. Like the location, the festival is tucked in between two other massive film festivals, Venice and TIFF, that invite millions of eyes via a high attendance of press, red carpets and fan attention. 

Telluride, on the other hand, is almost entirely reserved for the people who make it to the mountains. It does not even announce the films that are playing until the day before kick-off. This is the 48th edition of the festival (after one cancelled last year due to Covid-19) and every person you meet in town over Labor Day weekend, from vacationers to filmmakers, has either been coming for multiple years or, if it’s their first time, vows instantly to come back. 

The surrounding mountain peaks and the clear starry nights beg you to look up to your surroundings just as often as you look at the screen. All the venues are functional town spaces—like a high school gymnasium or an old Elk’s Lodge—that are re-shaped into 400-650 capacity theaters. The stars of the movies order coffee in front of you at local shops and dress about as normally as celebrities can, happy to shed the glitz and embrace the mountain life for a few days before hitting the awards circuit for months on end. 

All attendees stand in line together, giving ample time for people to talk about the films they’ve seen with queue-mates, who could be industry professionals, vacationing individuals, or fest volunteers. The vibes from morning until night are more relaxed, more interconnected, and more granola than any other film festival.

Guest Director: Barry Jenkins

I mention all of this because I am happy to return for my third Telluride film festival, particularly after a year off from festivals due to the pandemic (note: vaccination is required for a pass; daily tests for screenings without a pass). It’s my first time here since 2016. But I also mention this because this year the guest director is the Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins, who has been attending Telluride since 2002, when he was a student filmmaker. 

Jenkins returned for many years as a volunteer, then eventually as an emcee to introduce some of the films, and as a short film programmer. He’d been known to the town and festival-goers for fourteen years by the time the film that launched him to international stardom, Moonlight, had its premiere here. I went to A24’s post-premiere party for Moonlight, and it was one of the most magical Telluride moments of my life. I remember Mahershala Ali’s stunning, long, patterned black-and-white jacket being the best fashion I’ve ever seen in person with my own two eyes. Everyone was approachable and high on life. There was a sense in that bar in September 2016 that some lives were going to be very different from that night forward (the sheer scope of how different was beyond anyone’s expectations). 

Five years and a Best Picture Oscar later, Jenkins is back in Telluride, this time introducing films that he himself selected for their artistic importance. Although there are big awards contenders having either their world premiere here or their first showings in North American venues after their Venice or Cannes debuts, I made Jenkins’ selection of West Indies my first Telluride 2021 pick. West Indies is a 1979 Algeria-Mauritania allegory-musical in the French language, directed by Med Hondo. There are few prints left in the world. Jenkins’ first ask, or rather test, of the festival when they approached him to curate films was to track down a 35mm print of Hondo’s film. 

At the introduction of West Indies, Jenkins posed for a photograph with the 2021 students attending for the symposium and noted that some friends he’d made in 2002 at his own student symposium were attending the festival this year, too. He commended Telluride co-director Julie Huntsinger (a long-time Jenkins champion) on tracking down a print, but while spirits were high in the room, Jenkins wanted all to know that what they were about to see “was released 42 years ago and it was buried. Why? Because it’s a fucking grenade... It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see. And when we look at cinema history we don't get to see shit like West Indies. We erase this work, we erase these people, so I’m so glad Telluride found the print, they’re going to show the print, and y’all motherfuckers showed up [to make it] your first movie here.” 

The film is a beguiling polemic, set entirely on one stage even though it stretches in time from the slave trade to modern Paris, and into the covert meetings of the powers-that-be who desire to make a new form of slavery out of immigration. The stage setting lets the audience know that time is merely dressing things up—plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Watching this artifact surrounded by students, inside an old Masonic Lodge, was a transfixing, electric experience, complete with laughter and applause in the right spots. It’s a transgressive, darkly funny, and sharp-tongued cousin of such firebrand works as Putney Swope and I Am Cuba. Hopefully, locating this print is but one step in the process of making the film more widely available. (The screening itself was sponsored by the Criterion Collection, so watch this space.) 

Jenkins’ other Telluride selections include two films that I also highly recommend—Claire Denis’ Chocolat and Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston—in addition to a filmmaker spotlight on Kahlil Joseph, Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz’s Garden, and Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, which played at Jenkins’ first Telluride in 2002, after its Cannes debut.


Now to some Letterboxd reactions to a few world premieres at Telluride 2021. While I was watching West Indies, four films debuted at the same time, three of which I did see on the second day (more on them below). I missed Kenneth Branaugh’s Belfast, starring Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, and Judi Dench, so I will let Letterboxd member Lance St. Laurent chime in on the semi-autobiographical film about growing up in the capital of Northern Ireland during the fraught 1960s. Laurent compares the film to Cuarón’s Roma crossed with Billy Elliot, noting that it’s “warm, personal, and surprisingly robust stylistically.”

C’mon C’mon

Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon is his much anticipated feature film follow-up to 20th Century Women. Like that film, it’s a tender and honest portrait of parenting in a very specific era, except this one is set in the now, stars Joaquin Phoenix in his first role since winning the Best Actor Oscar for Joker, and is shot in black-and-white by Robbie Ryan. Phoenix plays a radio journalist who relieves his sister (Gabby Hoffman) from the parenting duties of her nine-year-old son (Woody Norman) while she has to try to convince her son’s bipolar dad (Scoot McNairy) to enter a psychiatric hospital. 

Letterboxd member G M Frieberg caught the film and called it a “lovely, small potatoes Boyhood-esque film with a great kid-actor performance and a very subdued and empathetic Joaquin.” Rachael also highlighted Phoenix, writing that this was her “favorite Joaquin performance in a while. Beautiful stuff.” St. Laurent declared it “another winner from Mike Mills. Funny, moving, extraordinarily observant and lived in.” And Matt Graminga predicts, in his five-star review, that “I have a feeling that in the coming months, a whole lot of people are about to have their heart strings mangled by Mike Mills and this entire cast.” 

I, too, found lots to love in Mills’ personal work, which he introduced as coming from a conversation with his son during bath time. After such a volcanic performance from Phoenix in Joker, it’s nice to be reminded that he has the range and charm to be warmhearted as well. C’mon C’mon is also screening at the New York Film Festival later this month.


Joe Wright’s Cyrano is an adaptation of the recent Off Broadway musical take on the oft-told tale of Cyrano, a poet who provides the words for a more traditionally handsome man to seduce the woman that he himself loves. Written by Erica Schmidt with original music by indie rock darlings The National, the musical adheres much closer to the structure of Edmond Rostand’s original 1897 play than more comedic adaptations like Steve Martin’s Roxanne and the current VOD offering, It Takes Three

There are sword fights, battles, gorgeous gowns, and the kind of chemistry you’d expect from the man behind the hand flex. Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett reprise their stage roles as childhood friends; he, the titular Cyrano and she the object of his unavowed affection. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. plays Christian, who receives Cyrano’s wonderfully beautiful words with which to woo Bennett, and Ben Mendelsohn is the rich man who desires to be wed to her immediately (and, in doing so, could save her family from debt).

Cyrano was shot on an Italian island in a bubble during 2020’s summer lockdown, and the sheer scale of costumes and sets—made during such uncertain and fraught conditions—is a marvelous feat of its own. Dinklage’s deep-voiced singing timbre is the exact wavelength of The National’s frontman Matt Berninger, making it the perfect accompaniment to The National’s score. Telluride attendee Megan screamed, “what a PRODUCTION! Peter Dinklage is incredible and I had a delightful time.” Lauren Anne declared that, after viewing, her Letterboxd account is now “a Peter Dinklage FYC account.” And Jacob filed a more mixed review that concludes, despite some misgivings, that “it should be seen and admired for what it is: a beautiful tale of love.”

King Richard

Speaking of FYC (For Your Consideration) campaigns, there might not be a larger one for Best Actor than Will Smith’s turn as the father of Venus and Serena Williams in King Richard. It might seem an odd choice to focus on the parent who helped train two of the greatest athletes of all time, but Richard Williams’ hype of his daughters was larger than life and behind that campaign was a complicated, stubborn man. It’s worth noting that the structure of the story puts Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and the girls’ mother and fellow coach Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) also distinctly in the center of the story, as the limited window afforded to the biopic is during Venus’ time on the Junior pro circuit. Jon Bernthal also gets a good supporting role as (one of) her put-upon coach(es).

Barry Jenkins praised Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film on Twitter saying that a “LOTTA folks are gonna find a healing in this film and its glorious tribute to Black parenting Black family and just an unshakeable Black SPIRIT.” Letterboxd member Jeffrey Harlacker calls it “a big and inspiring crowd pleaser with a great cast and fierce and funny lead performance from Will Smith.”

The French Dispatch

While not a premiere, it’s worth noting just within how Telluride operates that Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch had its North American premiere there with multiple screenings on Friday, despite not being listed on the initial list of films playing at the festival. Telluride loves to fill a few “TBA” slots with prestige titles that have debuted elsewhere and get attendees to shakeup their calendar plans with some fresh mountain high excitement. Because of this, I just wanted to highlight a few reactions straight from Colorado. First, TrashPandaFilms writes that “what the film lacks in rich character development and story it makes up for it [by being] probably Wes Anderson’s greatest display of technical prowess in staging, blocking, production design, camera movement, editing and color grading.” And Lance St. Laurent, who is all up and down the mountain at every screening, raves that “the anthology [format] allows Anderson to indulge any and all visual ideas in his playbook. An extraordinarily dense film, even for him, and nothing short of a flex from one of the American masters.”

Today marks the North American debuts of Pablo Larraín’s Spencer and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, mere days after their Venice debuts (so, too will another film that just debuted at Venice be announced at Telluride, likely today; no, not Dune). Stay tuned for that and more in my next dispatch from this wonderful festival.

Follow Brian on Letterboxd.