Who says Netflix movies are bad? Streamer packs a punch at Telluride Film Festival

By Justin Chang

TELLURIDE, Colo. — There’s a scene in “The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s darkly funny, emotionally lacerating directing debut, that struck a particular chord with me and perhaps a few others who saw it here at the Telluride Film Festival. Leda (Olivia Colman), a literature professor vacationing in the Greek isles, is at the pictures one evening when several young men burst into the theater, laughing and roughhousing and drowning out the film entirely. After trying in vain to get them to quiet down, Leda stands up and screams at them at the top of her voice — if I recall correctly, she threatens them all with castration — but gets only jeers and insults in return.

Even before the disruption takes place, Leda is already pretty rattled, for reasons that are gradually unpacked with all the emotional precision you’d expect from Colman and a startling, nerve-jangling command of the medium from Gyllenhaal. Adapting a 2008 novel by Elena Ferrante, she tucks several stories into the movie’s busy but intensely focused sprawl: a European getaway from hell; a time-shuffling drama of adultery and abandonment; an under-the-skin portrait of desperate, frustrated motherhood to set beside “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” The achievement of “The Lost Daughter” — which also features sharp performances by Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson and Dagmara Dominczyk — is to take impulses and behaviors that Gyllenhaal described at a post-screening Q&A as “aberrant” (or at least perceived as such) and to expose their core of all-too-relatable emotional truth.

Which brings us back to that outburst in the theater — not the aberrant behavior Gyllenhaal was talking about specifically, but an intensely relatable moment from the festival-goer’s standpoint. One of the pleasures of seeing a movie here in the rarefied environs of Telluride, which places the art of cinema on a pedestal 8,750 feet above sea level, is the audience’s unfailing reverence for the theatrical moviegoing experience — a reverence that the festival has made central to its admirable and somewhat self-admiring mission. You won’t find too many people texting (or roughhousing) their way through the screenings here, and the only castration threats tend to emanate from the movies themselves. Sometimes they’re not just threats: I’m thinking of a scene in another festival highlight, Jane Campion’s 1920s frontier saga “The Power of the Dog,” in which Benedict Cumberbatch graphically divests a bull of its testes.

More on that movie in a moment. At the mask-and-vaccine-mandated Telluride 2021, a welcome rebound for the festival after last year’s COVID-canceled edition, the screenings were marked by not just reverence but gratitude — a newfound appreciation for public rituals we once took for granted and may never enjoy to quite the same extent ever again. Telluride, like other festivals from Cannes and Venice to Sundance and Toronto, invariably figures into an endless debate over the superior aesthetic merits and unsustainable commercial viability of theatrical moviegoing in our streaming-dominated, pandemic-devastated reality. To attend these festivals is to enjoy the privilege of seeing movies under optimal conditions and being able to give them your full attention — and also to bemoan the fact that most people will probably have to make do with an inferior home-viewing experience.

That’s almost sure to be true of “The Last Daughter” and “The Power of the Dog,” both of which are being released by Netflix. If Gyllenhaal’s movie is a paean of sorts to thrillingly, unapologetically unruly women, then Campion’s welcome return to feature filmmaking (it’s been 12 years since “Bright Star”) is a tightly coiled rope of gnarled masculine repression. Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, it stars a frightening, superbly nuanced Cumberbatch as an ill-mannered 1920s rancher who’s viciously contemptuous of his brother’s new wife (a fragile, heartbreaking Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee, quietly astonishing), and whose animosity soon flares into full-blown emotional warfare. Gradually peeling back every psychological layer with a ruthlessness that doesn’t preclude compassion, “The Power of the Dog” is set in Montana but was (gorgeously) shot in Campion’s native New Zealand — a not-unusual feat of filmmaking sleight-of-hand that slyly enhances the story’s theme about the deceptiveness of even the most rugged surfaces.

Pictorial splendor is also on display in another Netflix title, “The Hand of God,” a lovely semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama from the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”). In this moving tragicomic work, Sorrentino pays loving homage to the places and people that shaped his youth: his home city of Naples; his family, especially his parents; and, of course, Fellini, an influence acknowledged both directly and tonally. Sorrentino’s signature stylistic virtuosity, on display in movies including “Il Divo” and “Youth” and in HBO’s “The Young Pope,” feels gratifyingly reined-in here; there is still great beauty, but of a more modest and personal nature. The most lustrous surface we see belongs to the Gulf of Naples, a shimmery recurring image I’m glad to have seen on the biggest screen possible.

In keeping with past awards-season practice, Netflix is planning at least some theatrical exposure for these and other festival-premiering titles. The sad truth is that even the movies here that are planning comparatively robust theatrical runs — such as “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh’s well-received black-and-white portrait of his Northern Ireland childhood, which Focus Features will release Nov. 12 — may well attract a lot of their eyeballs on streaming or VOD platforms, including from some members of the motion picture academy.

There will be exceptions, of course. A few movies every year buck the downward trend and become sustained theatrical hits, and while I’m lousy at making predictions, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them were “Julia,” Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s affectionate ode to the life and culinary legacy of Julia Child, which Sony Pictures Classics will release Nov. 5 in theaters. A natural companion-piece to “RBG,” their earlier portrait of a pop-cultural sensation and feminist trailblazer, “Julia” is straightforward but delectable bio-fare, served up with enough buttery gastro-porn to qualify as the year’s most emulsionally satisfying documentary.

Adopting a similarly if justly flattering view of its subject is “Fauci,” John Hoffman and Janet Tobias’ solid profile of America’s best-known infectious disease specialist, which National Geographic will release in theaters Friday, ahead of an October bow on Disney+. Whether audiences will get past their pandemic fatigue and show up remains to be seen, but the movie’s most emotional, least hagiographic passages focus on the years Dr. Anthony Fauci spent butting heads and ultimately joining forces with activists fighting the AIDS epidemic — a period as crucial to his legacy of public service as his well-documented COVID-19 work.

Whether in theaters or on home TV screens, these documentaries will find their audiences. So will one of the festival’s biggest nonfiction hits, “The Rescue,” the latest from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (of the Oscar-winning “Free Solo”), about the daring 2018 mission to save the lives of those trapped in a cave in northern Thailand. Here’s hoping similar attention awaits some of the Telluride-premiered documentaries that, as of this writing, are still awaiting distribution. I’m thinking especially of “Bitterbrush,” Emelie Mahdavian’s captivatingly immersive look at two young women rounding up cattle in some of the most remote stretches of the American West, and “Procession,” Robert Greene’s typically atypical film about six men recounting their childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

If you’ve seen Greene’s earlier documentaries “Kate Plays Christine” and “Bisbee ’17,” his conceptual boldness and uniquely collaborative methods will seem not just familiar but entirely apt here. The survivors we meet don’t just share their terrible stories; they write, direct and even appear in filmed re-enactments of them, asserting power and authority over memories they spent much of their lives trying to suppress. Greene has always been fascinated by the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of role play, especially in commemoration of tragedy, but “Procession” has a particularly bracing directness, a refusal to distance or over-intellectualize pain. What begins as an anxious, sometimes awkward exercise in performance therapy gradually evolves into a cumulatively shattering vision of male friendship and strength in the face of evil.

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