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George Eldred and Laura Thielen in their home theater, the Wheeler Opera House. 

Image: Karl Wolfgang

Editor's Note: It is a great honor to introduce George Eldred and Laura Thielen as Aspen Sojourner's official film columnists. Together, they have spent more than 30 years in the film festival world, including 20 years at the helm of Aspen Film, and a lifetime discovering movies. Since their departure from Aspen Film in 2015, their respected, artistic eye for bringing the best of the best in independent cinema to the Roaring Fork Valley has been sorely missed. We look forward to sharing regular coverage from their frequent travels and new project, Flickering World, a website and podcast celebrating cinema culture, slated to launch in 2017. 

Fall heralds many things: cascades of mountain color, first glimpses of snowy peaks, sweet tastes of the harvest crush. For film lovers, it is full-on festival time, when the floodgates open for hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of big fall previews, award winners from the international circuit, and brand-new work. We spent four morning-til-night days in Telluride and another seven at the Toronto International Film Festival, fondly known as TIFF. It was heavenly. Moving from screen to screen required a continual shifting of gears, calibrating our eyes and minds to each story unfolding before us. How to distill such an immersive celebration of cinema for others? Here are some of our favorites that will be rolling into theaters and steaming on-demand in coming months, when we’ll happily watch them again.

Moonlight

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Moonlight follows a young African American growing up in Liberty City, a poor, cracked-up, bully-rife Miami neighborhood. Plumbing Chiron’s journey of self-discovery—as youngster, teenager, and 20-something man—writer-director Barry Jenkins’s choices are masterful for their gentle grace and unblinkered exploration of family, friendship, race, and sexuality. Adapting MacArthur Fellow and friend Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, he draws sensitively textured performances from three terrific young leads, each negotiating the precarious realities of their harsh surroundings. But the larger voyage they take is an interior one that we haven’t experienced in quite this way before. Camera, editing, and score sustain an emotional arc that’s as authentic as it is richly complex and deeply felt. From the reeling opener to its piercingly tender last shot, Moonlight is a profound, powerful experience. Gauging the tremendous warmth generated at its Telluride world premiere, the film is destined to seep under the skin, attaching firmly to the heart.

Release: October 2016 (A24)
Trailer: Click here 

La La Land

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Set in a sparkling, lollypop-hued SoCal fantasia, La La Land is Damien Chazelle’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-winning Whiplash. Once again, he pulls back the curtain on a young artist’s quest (this time two) but in a completely different, equally inventive way. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as a struggling jazz pianist and aspiring actress whose paths cross as they pursue artistic dreams, negotiate careers, and confront their own hearts. Just as Whiplash enthralled by infusing its artist’s tale with the visceral edge of a sports thriller, La La Land beguiles with another audacious genre-bending choice—the musical—to explore poignant themes of identity, being true to self, creative expression, and the bittersweet choices engendered there.

Touted as a “millennial musical,” this modern love story left Tom Hanks, among countless others, vocally smitten when it screened at Telluride on the heels of its Venice premiere, where Emma Stone won Best Actress. When we caught up with it at Toronto’s gloriously gilded 1,500-seat Elgin Theatre on a Tuesday morning, we were greeted by a signature TIFF experience: a line of chatty, excited ticket holders snaking around the entire block. Cinematic winks and iconic L.A. landmarks set the stage for song-and-dance numbers that evoked smiles, left a few tears, and drew rapturous responses that garnered this big-screen valentine TIFF’s prized People’s Choice Award.

Release: December 2016 (Lionsgate)
Trailer: Click here 

Graduation

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The Romanian New Wave is a prolific group of filmmakers who are creators of morally complex, unvarnished portraits of contemporary society. One of the most acclaimed, Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) arrived at Telluride and TIFF with Graduation. (TIFF also screened The Fixer and Sierranevada, thoughtfully absorbing works by compatriots Adrian Sitaru and Cristi Puiu, respectively.) Mungiu’s masterful social drama is a work of restrained, subtle observation, anchored by Adrian Titieni’s superb performance as Dr. Romeo Aldea, a father obsessively focused on his daughter’s academic success. He has always managed to avoid the day-to-day barter economy of favors, tips, and bribes that grease the social wheels. But when a traumatic event upends his plans for Eliza, Aldea frantically attempts to work the system, precipitating a chain of increasingly unsavory compromises that threaten to sink him in the moral mire he has sought to remain above. Though Mungiu deploys carefully crafted naturalism and deft storytelling to unsparingly probe his characters’ foibles and society’s flaws, he maintains an empathetic attitude whose deep humanism trumps cynicism or satire.

Release: 2017 TBD (IFC/Sundance Selects)
Trailer: Click here

My Life as a Courgette

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With raves out of Cannes and French animation fest Annecy (where it took top honors), My Life as a Courgette, Swiss animator Claude Barras’s first feature, is a visual delight. Brilliantly adapted from Gilles Paris’s YA novel, this stop-motion charmer is the gentle-hearted tale of 9-year old Icare, nicknamed “Courgette” (zucchini) by his alcoholic mother. Suddenly orphaned, the blue-haired, red-nosed moppet finds himself in a group home among a motley group of castaways and strays, all left to piece new lives together following family traumas. My Life as a Courgette walks a high-wire act, skillfully blending its sometimes dark subject matter with a buoyant, ultimately heart-lifting spirit. Sweet, funny, and real, this tale of childhood innocence and resilience is Switzerland’s beguiling Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film.

Release: 2017 TBD (GKids)
Trailer: Click here 

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

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At the other end of the animation world’s visual and attitudinal spectrum is My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, graphic novelist Dash Shaw’s (Love Eats Brains, Bottomless Belly Button) zany debut feature, which follows Shaw’s alter-ego hero, Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), as he endures the petty humiliations and daily anxieties of a nerdy high-school sophomore. Shaw’s style, an exuberant mixed-media collage, vividly enhances his story’s increasingly manic rollercoaster ride as it segues from teen-angst confessional into Poseidon Adventure–inspired disaster movie when Dash’s school, in fact, begins sinking into the sea. A world premiere at Toronto, the film does not yet have distribution but is screening at the New York Film Festival (as are most of these) and judging from its TIFF critical reception, other fest screenings should follow.

Release: TBD
Trailer: Not yet available

Jackie

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A triptych of iconic “portraits” on view at Telluride (Clint Eastwood’s Sully) and TIFF (Oliver Stone’s Snowden and Pablo Larrain’s Jackie) all offer interesting perspectives, especially in this season of character assessment. The most surprising, oddly stirring of the three is prolific Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s first English-language film, Jackie, which took home TIFF’s Platform Prize.

Foregoing familiar biopic tropes for a stylistically adventurous take, Jackie draws on a mosaic of memories from the Camelot years while reimagining the chaotic week following President Kennedy’s assassination through the eyes of the First Lady as wife and mother. Center stage is a raw, beautifully layered performance by Natalie Portman, who slips as effortlessly into Mrs. Kennedy’s fiercely keen intelligence as into her pink wool suit and pillbox hat. Invasive close-ups, hand-held camerawork, and Mica Levi’s haunting score plunge us into a time and ensuing tragedy many still recall. Unsettling and provocative, yes. But also a mesmerizing portrait of grief, vulnerability, and self-determination at the intersection of private and public life.

Release: December 2016 (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Trailer: Not yet available

I Am Not Your Negro

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Of the many notable documentaries screened at Telluride and Toronto, Haiti-born filmmaker Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is most likely to leave an indelible impression on viewers. And it should. The backbone of this powerful essay about race in America is a searing 30-page manuscript written in 1979 by writer and political activist James Baldwin about the lives and assassinations of three of his friends, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Peck sets Baldwin’s impassioned eloquence (spoken by Samuel L. Jackson) to a carefully orchestrated visual score of archival footage, popular culture clips, and historical photos ranging from the Jim Crow era to ’50s and ’60s Civil Rights protests to the Black Lives Matter movement, giving Baldwin’s views on race and American culture a disturbingly prophetic relevance to today’s events. Of all the films we saw, this was certainly the most important. TIFF audiences thought so. too. I Am Not Your Negro received the People’s Choice Award for Documentary at its world premiere outing in Toronto.

Release: 2017 TBD (Magnolia Pictures)
Trailer: Not yet available

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