On a clear cool night last Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, I stepped out of the first U.S. screening of Arrival, a movie about space, time, and alien contact, and boarded the free town gondola to ride up the hill to my hotel. As we climbed over the tops of aspen trees and the Victorian rooftops of the former mining village nestled in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, I sat in silence and gazed up at the stars, which seemed brighter, crisper, and closer than they ever had before.
I’ve attended Telluride three times as a staff film writer for the Los Angeles Times and will return again this year for my new gig, as the Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair. Film journalists like me are first attracted to the festival for the impeccable taste of its programmers—Telluride audiences were the first in the world to lay their eyes on recent best picture winners Moonlight, Spotlight, and Birdman. But what keeps us coming back is the unique magic of the event, the natural beauty of its setting, and the intimacy of a festival where movie makers and movie lovers stand elbow-to-elbow in line at the picnic.
The festival’s weekend-long passes sell out quickly each year in early March. But spontaneous cineastes can pick up tickets to individual films for $25 each just prior to show time. There are also free open-air screenings in the town’s Elks Park, as well as free seminars and conversations.
Part of the charm of Telluride is that it’s such a colossal pain in the butt to get there, and those who make the trip tend to be a self-selecting group. VIPs fly private into Telluride airport. Civilians fly commercial into Montrose Airport, about a 90-minute drive from the village. Personally, I drive 12 hours from Los Angeles, stopping for a night in Arizona’s Monument Valley to pretend I’m an extra in a John Ford movie. The next morning I head into Telluride, stopping for a coffee at the Pony Expresso in Dolores, where it’s not unusual to see cowboys driving a herd of cattle up I-145.
I usually try to arrive a couple days before the festival begins to adjust to the altitude and enjoy the rugged beauty of the place before the crowds descend, often opting to pick up breakfast at the Butcher & Baker Cafe in town and hike 2.5 miles up to Bear Creek Falls to stretch my legs. I buy an amazing hat at one of the shops on the town’s historic main drag, Colorado Avenue, and inevitably leave it in one of the festival theaters by the end of the weekend. So I’ll hat shop again this year, perhaps at Black Bear Trading Company.
Once the festival is underway, I catch a foreign film in the tiny, exquisite Sheridan Opera House, built as a vaudeville theater to serve the mining community in 1913. I meet a filmmaker for a $5 Jack Daniels at the town’s oldest bar, the historic New Sheridan, serving since 1895. I check out an open-air Q&A in Elks Park, where in 2015 I listened as Meryl Streep made a case that Pope Francis should take up the Equal Rights Amendment. And I pick up something delicious to pop in my bag for a between-movies snack at the Friday afternoon farmer’s market.
Among its many charms, Telluride is a dog town, with canines allowed to ride on the gondola, stay in many hotels and dine on the patio at various restaurants. So I bring my lab-Doberman mix, The Dude, who is welcome at the Telluride Mountain Lodge, where he likes to stretch out in front of the fireplace after a long, arduous hike, perhaps to the crystal blue Ice Lakes in Silverton or the deserted mining camp on Tomboy Trail.
On my last night in Telluride, I always eat dinner at Allred’s, watching the sunset over the village from the dining room windows at 10,551 feet. There’s a piano player in the bar, a good wine list, and a friendly group looking to tell me which movies I’ve missed.