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4 Movies At This Year's Telluride Film Festival That Pack An Emotional Punch

A main street in Telluride has a film festival banner stretched over the street with the mountains in the background
This year's Telluride Film Festival was back in person.
(Dana Ladzinski for LAist)
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Near the end of the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend, a festival host introduced the documentary If These Walls Could Sing as “joyous.” There was an immediate and audible sigh in the audience: For the next 86 minutes, festival guests wouldn’t have to worry about another Telluride title sending them into despair.

Do the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

Good movies don’t always make you feel good, and this year’s edition of the Telluride festival embraced that idea, almost to a fault. Yet despite a steady stream of challenging movies — with Sarah Polley’s drama Women Talking perhaps the most celebrated and emotionally demanding — the festival was ultimately exhilarating.

I saw more than a dozen Telluride movies, each of which was having either its world or North American premiere in the Colorado resort town. Some of the films likely will contend for awards, including the Oscars, in the months ahead. But their impact shouldn’t be measured by statuettes collected. A better metric might be how audiences were emotionally moved by the stories they witnessed.

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What follows are Telluride titles that seemed to have the greatest impact on audiences (including me):

'Good Night Oppy'

The documentary follows the brief but much-longer-than-expected lives of the Mars rovers Spirit and, as the title refers to, Opportunity. These two Red Planet visitors were supposed to work for about 90 days when they were launched into space in 2003. Despite horrifically cold Martian winters and blinding dust storms, both rovers kept going for many, many years. Good Night Oppy focuses on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team (based in Pasadena) who imagined, built, launched and worked with the rovers — and their relationship with the machines is not unlike a parent-child love story. Imagine a real-life Wall-E. But these robots are not immortal.

'Women Talking'

Polley, who previously directed Away From Her with Julie Christie, adapted Women Talking from a Miriam Toews novel of the same name. While the movie is a work of fiction, Toews said she was reacting to a true story of women being raped and sexually assaulted by the male members of a Mennonite community. While Women Talking avoids any denominational reference, it’s painfully faithful to the impact these assaults have on the women (who are blamed for being responsible for causing them). The women are forced to make a decision: stay, fight or leave, and their debate is, essentially, the movie.

'Wildcat'

The documentary Wildcat was perhaps the festival’s most emotionally wrenching. Harry Turner is a British soldier who served in Afghanistan and suffers from PTSD. As part of his emotional recovery, he travels to the jungles of Peru, where he ends up working with baby ocelots who have been orphaned by loggers.

Throughout Wildcat, Turner records not only his work with the cats but also his own serious mental health struggles. Turner’s candor prompted scores of Telluride guests to approach him and talk about their own mental health issues, which is a huge part of removing the stigma attached to the illness.

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'If These Walls Could Sing'

That audiences were ready for a documentary like If These Walls Could Sing is hardly surprising, given the films preceding it. The movie, from photographer Mary McCartney, revisits some of the recording sessions that unfolded inside Abbey Road, including a little band whose members included McCartney’s father, Paul, and a young Elton John (playing in a band for The Hollies).

As in real life, despair and joy sometimes go hand in hand. As John once sang, I guess that’s why they call it the blues. 

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn, entertainment reporter and host of our weekly podcast Retake, explores whether the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?