Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Waves (2019 Movie)

One of the best things about a festival as well curated as Telluride is that nearly every movie on the slate is somebody’s favorite. But even when the watermark is high, a few films still come away as winners — though TFF might be the only major festival in existence that doesn’t actually hand out actual prizes. (Instead, it just consistently, precisely predicts them.)

This year, it was hard to wander past the Warner Herzog Theater or stand on line at the Cowboy Coffee stand without a friendly stranger insisting that you haven’t really lived your best Tellu-life until you’ve seen Marriage Story or Judy or Pain and Glory. (And to different degrees, they were all right.)

Waves, from writer-director Trey Edward Shults (It Comes At Night), was one of those that regularly landed near the top of the “You have to see this movie” chain — though really, the Florida-set family drama is two movies: One, about Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school all-star quietly and then spectacularly crumbling under the pressure of his perfect life, and in the second hour, about his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell), feeling out her own way in the world alongside Lucas Hedges’ gentle high-school dreamboat Luke.

The first half features a lot more outright drama, bordering on the melo- kind — to the point that more than a few viewers were comparing the feel of it to This Is Us, and not just because Sterling K. Brown plays the hard-driving family patriarch. (It’s a fair-ish comparison, though Us hardly shares its kinetic visual style or the heady, Kanye- and Kendrick-heavy soundtrack). But it’s the second half, and phenomenal newcomer Russell (Lost in Space) that got me; a much wider audience can decide when it comes to theaters Nov. 1.

Even as movie stars and badge-holders flooded out of town and back to their real, post Labor-Day lives, hundreds still stayed for the final picnic, and to catch the films popular enough to earn additional screenings. It was a late-festival gift to finally get to see Céline Sciamma’s Cannes-winning fever dream Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a swooning same-sex historical romance so gorgeously shot that nearly every frame truly does feel like a painting. (Eddie Redmayne — here with Felicity Jones to promote The Aeronauts — sat rapt through it too.)

It was easier to admire than enjoy Verdict, a Kafka-esque tale of a domestic-violence victim navigating the Filipino justice system by first-time feature director Raymund Ribay Gutierrez (he’s only 25). And sweet to see families with takeout picnics, blankets, and rickety folding chairs gather on the Elks Park outdoor lawn for scrappy buddy-comedy-on-bicycles The Climb.

It was leaving the Herzog Theater for the last time, though, that offered a reminder of what a special place this is — not just for the quality of the bookings, or the chance to share an oxygen canister with an Oscar winner on a gondola (Renee Zellweger really is that nice, you guys, and she’s genuinely concerned about your lung capacity).

But to walk 50 yards out of a screening, and straight into this:

Telluride Film Festival 2019
Credit: Leah Greenblatt for EW

Just a little lake a few blocks from Main Street, shot on an iPhone 6 with a lens smeared by four days’ worth of handbag movie snacks.

That’s the kind of casual wonder that makes Telluride unlike any other festival — or place on the planet, really: a mile-high, casually mind-blowing monument to movie-making and world-building that, if you’re lucky enough to be here, you only have to stop and look to see.

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Waves (2019 Movie)
Director Trey Edward Shults front loads his story with so much feverish plotting and kinetic camerawork that that reach sometimes threatens to subsume it.
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