Whether reached by ground or by air, the expedition to the small mountain town of Telluride, Colorado is inevitably long, turbulent, and disorienting. But patrons wear their cumulative tales of prop planes and shuttle busses like merit badges, completing the pilgrimage year after year to the annual film festival on Labor Day weekend. The town’s isolation keeps the festival relatively small, and its low-key Western vibe fosters an atmosphere of fleece-clad egalitarianism over black-tie elitism. Slightly woozy at nearly 9000-feet, industry personalities and celebrities alike all but blend in with the plebeians so that the focus becomes—as it should be—on the films themselves.
Word of mouth is the most influential force at the festival, and few films were trailed by such uniform enthusiasm as Pablo Larraín’s No. The third installment in the director’s Pinochet-era trilogy after Tony Manero and Post Mortem, No unfolds in the weeks leading up to Chile’s 1988 referendum—the vote that would determine whether or not Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship would maintain its rule for another term. Taking the political advertising campaign as its point of entry into tumultuous historical events, No stars a tactfully reserved Gael Garcia Bernal as Rene, an up-and-coming ad-man who hesitantly agrees to head up the leftist cause.
Committing to a 1980s television aesthetic, Larraín makes the bold choice to shoot his story with a low-res look evoking obsolete news video. Other than a few sequences that feature a naturally backlit Bernal slaloming through suburban streets on his skateboard, an era-appropriate rat-tail trailing in his slip stream, the film is a self-declaredly “ugly” piece of cinema. But the choice of format is essential to No’s success; if at times slightly nauseating, the thickly granulated images ensure that the audience is as fully submerged and invested in the historical moment as the characters are.
Rene’s ‘No’ campaign neatly packages its democratic plea within the visual rhetoric of Americanized pop culture—namely unusually tall Chilean ‘everymen’ flashing the thumbs up on rollerblades and a catchy jingle that was fervently adopted by late-night hot-tubbers for the remainder of the festival. The dated ads imbue the film with a slightly uneasy humor that entertains as much as it warns against the unholy matrimony between politics and advertising.
Ginger and Rosa
Also firmly rooted in a bygone but still resonant era is Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa. An elegant reverie of limp-haired, long-limbed female adolescence set in the atomically threatened 1960s London, the film’s main attraction is a truly astounding performance from fourteen-year-old Elle Fanning as the red-headed waif-like Ginger. A budding poetess who divides her time between “roving about” with her sexually precocious friend, Rosa (Alice Englert), and attending pacifist rallies, Ginger’s world is irreversibly fractured when her self-righteous leftist father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), moves out of the house and gives in to his inner Humbert Humbert.
Nearly every frame in this film is worth hanging above the mantelpiece and an entourage of immaculately styled supporting vets (Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt, and a characteristically confrontational Annette Bening) provide an added delight. Most importantly, though, Potter captures the ephemeral tone of girlhood with great depth and precision, never trivializing the emotional impact of young female friendships that can blend steadfast love, confused eroticism, and immense cruelty.
Flaunting its freedom from romanticism, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha also features female friendship at its center. The film stars Greta Gerwig as Frances, a 27-year-old woman struggling to find both an existential and economic foothold as her slightly ill-paced trajectory toward adulthood veers off course from that of her sexless life partner, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). The black-and-white Nouvelle Vague aesthetic is well suited to the film’s constant undercutting of would-be cinematic vignettes. Whether dancing street side with limbs akimbo, urinating off a subway platform, or sleeping through the duration of her spontaneous 48-hour Parisian sojourn, Gerwig’s performance as the fetching oddity with a furrowed brow allows a post-ironic poignancy to permeate the film’s web of caustically comic one-liners.
At Any Price
Another heavyweight contender at the festival was Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price. A contemporary mid-western take on Death of a Salesman, the film stars Dennis Quaid—all dimples and cheesy smiles—as Henry Whipple, an Iowan farmer who maintains his forcibly gregarious mannerisms in the face of fiscal and familial discord. In comparison with Bahrani’s earlier work (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop), At Any Price takes a decidedly mainstream turn into the realm of high-speed car races, Zac Efron’s feathery lashes, and Heather Graham’s cleavage.
Efron delivers a staid and surprisingly dark performance as Dean, the prodigal son who abandons his NASCAR dream to take over the family farm, but there are a few too many narrative threads that either feel loose, superfluous, or overtly commercially driven. The unsung hero is relative newcomer Maika Monroe, who plays Dean’s devoted but defiant long-locked girlfriend, Cadence, to great avail. Though it is certainly entertaining and has a refreshingly murky sense of morality, Bahrani’s latest suffers from the same fatal flaw as its protagonist— namely, taking the business mantra “expand or die” a little too deeply to heart.
By far the most unsettling film at the festival was Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing. Seven years in the making, Oppenheimer gets up close and personal with a group of retired Indonesian gangsters responsible for the mass purging of communists in Indonesia in the late 1960s. Though all of his interview subjects are former members of the country’s vigilante military Pancasila Youth Party, Oppenheimer’s camera sticks particularly close to Anwar Congo, the silk suited boss who is more than willing to describe—and even re-enact—his monstrous past.
Directing a small, sadistic coterie of party alumni, Congo proudly stages his memories in the vein of a Hollywood gangster film with seemingly no remorse—in one scene he appropriately sports a shirt that reads “APATHETIC” in big, white capital letters. The elaborate re-enactments are so profoundly viscerally and ethically disturbing that they make the snuff scene from Benny’s Video seem like good wholesome family fun. The glimmer of repressed guilt glimpsed at the film’s end hardly assuages the moral nausea that lingers long past the closing credits—but this may be a good thing.