From Julia Child to Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana, the best of the 2021 Telluride Film Festival

During the 48th Telluride Film Festival’s final screening of “Belfast,” I did something I’d learned from a 9-year-old mentee years ago: I looked at my fellow filmgoers as they looked at the movie.

I watched the beam of light throw itself upon the movie screen. Telluride’s Galaxy theater — an elementary school gymnasium converted for the purposes of the annual fest — was nearly full.

Like the lion’s share of the movies at the five-day fest, “Belfast” warranted the attention of its audience. My glance away wasn’t out of tedium. Not even close. It’s simply that the audience deserved a moment, too.

Like most of the cultural events that had come to mark the transit of seasons, the Telluride Film Festival didn’t happen in 2020. Not even virtually. (And whether the fall movie season goes uninterrupted seems a fragile proposition thanks to the ebbs and flows of COVID-19.) To make this year work as an in-person-only gathering, Telluride required pass-holders to present proof of vaccination; proof of a PCR test 72 hours prior to the fest’s start; and, for some soirees and celebrations, rapid antigen tests. Masks were a must in theaters.

More than 80 films — features, shorts, new work and revivals — screened. Receiving tributes were director Jane Campion; actors Riz Ahmed and Peter Dinklage; and film scholar, author and ace interviewer Annette Insdorf. Other guests traveling to Telluride included Helen Mirren, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kenneth Branagh, Maggie Gyllenhaal, director Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), who was the fest’s guest director.

Some movies received their world premieres, among them: Branagh’s “Belfast”; the sci-fi teasing “Encounter,” with Ahmed as a father trying to protect his young sons from an alien invasion; Joe Wright’s vivid musical “Cyrano,” starring Dinklage as the famed letter writer; “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” the ridiculously charming animated feature about the viral sensation of the title; Reinaldo Marcus Green’s likely Best Pic contender, “King Richard,” serving up an ace Will Smith in the role of Venus and Serena Williams’ formidable, driven dad; and the engaging period dramedy “The Duke,” about the real case of a stolen painting, with Jim Broadbent as the unlikely thief and Mirren as his gruff wife.

This image released by Netflix shows Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from “The Power of the Dog.” (Kirsty Griffin/Netflix via AP)

Several features by prominent directors premiered earlier this summer at the Cannes Film Festival and were sought out by festgoers and press, not least to glean their part in shaping this year’s awards season. Among them: Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”; Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch”; Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero”; and Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God.”

Cannes, Venice, Telluride, next week’s Toronto International Film Fest and the New York Film Festival feed fall’s frenzy of Oscar prognosticating. Buzz built in the mountain towns for Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer” (which I did not get to see). As soon as he strode across the dirt in front of a massive Montana ranch house, Cumberbatch’s dark cowboy in “The Power of the Dog” felt indelible. Smith’s channeling of exacting pops Richard Williams is a shoo-in for best actor nominations. (Closer to home, Telluride — along with the Aspen FilmFest, Sept. 21-26 — hints at what may be featured when the Denver Film Festival begins Nov. 3.)

Kristen Stewart stars in “Spencer” as Princess Diana. (Shoebox Films)

FOMO set in when it became abundantly certain that there were more good movies than could possibly be seen in a long weekend. My own fear of missing out hit its height around Saturday evening. That is the downside of a well-programmed fest. Missed and not happy about it: British director Andre Arnold’s debut documentary, “Cow,” about a mama separated from her calf, which I feared would put me in too sad a moo-ed; Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon,” with Joaquin Phoenix as an uncle whose road trip with his young nephew alters his reality; and the much-chattered-about “Nuclear Family,” Ry Russo’s doc about her two mothers’ ugly custody battle with her donor-father.

The boon of deft programming is how it rewards personal curation. The festgoer begins to create resonances, starts to build a festival-within-a fest, one with its own sense of things. Fathers became a theme. Voices became a thing. Our painful moment — the pandemic, Afghanistan — found echoes onscreen.

From left: Judi Dench as Granny, Jude Hill as Buddy and Ciarán Hinds as Pop in director Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast.” (Rob Youngson, Focus Features)

As for “Belfast”: Branagh’s film, which had its world premiere at Telluride, is a lovely, joy-and-sorrow-laced remembrance of his childhood in the titular Irish city set in 1969. The actor has aged out of portraying his own father, so Jamie Dornan handles that task with beautiful resolve.  Fans of the television series “Outlander” won’t be surprised to learn Caitriona Balfe is magnetic here as Ma. Branagh’s undivided attention as director-writer yields a poignant portrait of a neighborhood at the start of its undoing by sectarian violence. In one scene, the camera floats over a stone wall and into the neighborhood of row houses, and the movie switches from color to black-and-white, a fact that had some critics comparing it to “Roma.”

The cast does loamy, amiable work as a Protestant family being pressed to side against their Catholic neighbors as the Troubles begin to roil Northern Ireland. That Branagh’s memories can be upbeat reflects perhaps the age at which he and his family relocated to England. He was 9. The entire ensemble, starting with wee Jude Hill as Buddy and extending to Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as his grandparents, inhabit their roles with care, nuanced humor and affection.

“The Hand of God.” Like Branagh, Paolo Sorrentino also revisits his youth. This funny, bittersweet drama recounts the Oscar-winning director’s coming of age in Naples, Italy. Not unlike “The Great Beauty,” this movie, too, pays homage to maestro Federico Fellini. There are surreal gestures: a character called the “Little Monk” makes an appearance as does a gentleman who identifies himself as San Gennaro. But it is Sorrentino’s loving depiction of Fabietto’s parents that might break your heart and evokes Fellini’s earlier work. Sorrentino’s go-to actor, Toni Servillo, portrays the teenager’s father and Teresa Saponangelo his mother. Fillipo Scotti carries the ache and joys of the sensitive son with the keen eye and abundant love for soccer legend Diego Maradona.

In “Julia,” the woman who introduced French cooking to the American masses gets a fresh close-up. (WGBH-TV, provided by the Telluride Film Festival)

“Julia.” Documentary duo Julie Cohen and Betsy West — “RGB” and “My Name is Pauli Murray” — have delivered another deep and pleasing portrait of a culture-altering force. In “Julia,” the woman who introduced French cooking to the American masses gets a fresh close-up. When WGBH-TV hired Julia Child — at her own prodding, mind you — in 1963, it set the course for how public television would do cooking shows. While at 6-foot-2, Child held her own in a room full of men — whether it be at the Cordon Bleu cooking school or the WGBH studio — it is her voice that endures. Dan Aykroyd teased that trill in an SNL skit, but Child’s voice still brings an un-ironic smile. Making a nice side dish to “Julia” was Lisa Hurwitz’s “The Automat,” about the once new-fangled restaurant chain Horn and Hardart and the ways its automated cafeterias changed food culture and fed customers’ memories.  And what could be more amazing than having Mel Brooks kick off and conclude — with a song! — your first documentary?

“Marcel the Shell with Two Shoes.” Another voice ruling the fest was Jenny Slate’s in “Marcel the Shell with Two Shoes.” The actor — who co-wrote the mockumentary with director Dean Fleischer-Camp — lends an impossibly touching timbre to Marcel in this funny, melancholy and celebratory mixed live-action-animated feature. Isabella Rossellini does wonders as the wee mollusk’s grandmother.

Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary about his friend Amin, “Flee,” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. (Provided by the Telluride Film Festival)

“Flee.” Sometimes a masterwork gets lost in a festival’s deluge. I remember coming out of January’s virtual Sundance Film Festival liking Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary about his friend Amin, who fled Afghanistan with his family. It turns out that “liking” didn’t do justice to this visually rich, emotionally resonant retelling of a refugee’s harrowing and affecting sojourn to a real home.

“The Velvet Underground.” Aural acuity meets dazzling vision in Todd Haynes’ documentary about the rock band of the 1960s and ’70s peopled by Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison. The music makes its own case. But it’s Haynes’ use of the visual vernacular of the avant-garde filmmakers of that period, Andy Warhol among them, that puts Haynes’ first documentary high on the list of his most commanding — and demanding — films.

Mary-Louise Parker is one of 24 actors who bring Peter Hedges’s Zoom film, “The Same Storm,” to life.  (Provided by “The Same Storm”)

“The Same Storm.” You wouldn’t have been blamed for fretting after reading the capsule blurb for writer-director Peter Hedges’ omnibus film about life during COVID-19. Even so, you likely would have wanted to kick yourself if you decided to forego one of the festival’s most uplifting, humane movies for that reason. The cast is ridiculously gifted in this gem of a movie composed of related vignettes set during that first crushing wave of the pandemic. It is a Zoom-crafted creation. A first shout-out doesn’t even get at all talent onscreen — among them Elaine May, Sandra Oh, Mary-Louise Parker, Daphne Ruben-Vega, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston — in part because it doesn’t celebrate names you may not be as familiar with (like K. Todd Freeman, Noma Dumezweni and Moses Ingram).

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