A year ago, the Telluride Film Festival set off the early fireworks for eventual Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood") and screenwriter Diablo Cody ("Juno"). Can this weekend's festival do the same for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Flash of Genius" and "Slumdog Millionaire"?
Among North America's leading festivals, the Telluride gathering, which kicks off today, is clearly the most idiosyncratic. As organizers wait until the festival's opening day to announce the official schedule, attendees usually don't even know what movies they'll be seeing until they arrive in the mountain hamlet in Colorado.
Coming just days before the start of the Toronto International Film Festival, Telluride has become known as a launching pad for the fall movie season. In part because it shows a fraction of the titles that play in Toronto (or appear at May's Cannes Film Festival or January's Sundance), the Telluride slate is more aimed at cineastes than sales agents. But within its eclectic mix of several dozen films usually lurks at least one end-of-the-year breakout hit.
The festival, now celebrating its 35th anniversary, offers a lineup consistently populated with obscure foreign-language titles; in the past, some Telluride imports, like Germany's "The Lives of Others," go on to great acclaim, while others, such as Norway's "Insomnia," serve only as source material for American remakes.
But Telluride in recent years also has been distinguished for helping to set off the stratospheric trajectories of numerous critical favorites and art-house hits, including "Into the Wild," "The Last King of Scotland," "Little Children," "Capote," "Lost in Translation," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Walk the Line."
In the festival's 2007 installment, programmers organized a tribute to Day-Lewis that included 30 minutes of early footage from "There Will Be Blood." The British actor went on to win the Academy Award for lead actor. And, at the last minute, the festival booked "Juno," which at the time was not even scheduled for a fall release. But the Telluride response to the teen pregnancy story was so strong that Fox Searchlight added the film to its end-of-the-year slate, and "Juno" not only went on to become a commercial smash, but it also captured the original screenplay Oscar.
The highest-profile movie that will make an appearance in this year's festival, which concludes Monday, is David Fincher's "Benjamin Button." The festival's opening night features a Sheridan Opera House tribute to the director, whose past works includes "Zodiac," "Fight Club," "Se7en" and "The Game." As part of the tribute, Telluride will show about 20 minutes from "Benjamin Button," a Brad Pitt-starring adaptation of the reverse-aging short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"Here's a guy," festival co-director Gary Meyer said of Fincher, "who is making what might be perceived as big studio movies with big stars. But each one of his films has a signature -- he's an artist."
While they are not listed on the schedule and programmers Meyer and Tom Luddy declined to acknowledge their screenings, both "Flash of Genius" and "Slumdog Millionaire" are expected to be shown in special previews over the weekend.
"Flash" is producer Marc Abraham's ("Children of Men," "Spy Game") directorial debut; it follows the true story of inventor Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear) as he fights Detroit automakers for stealing Kearns' intermittent windshield wiper creation.
"Slumdog Millionaire" comes from British director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "28 Days Later"). The film looks at the improbable (and fictional) performance of a young and uneducated Indian boy in the Hindi version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." The film was recently entangled in a battle at Warner Bros., which had been shopping the film to other distributors after the studio closed its specialty film division, Warner Independent Pictures (the movie is now being co-released by Warners and Fox Searchlight).
But the rest of the announced Telluride lineup is largely free of any movie with a recognizable star or filmmaker (although some of the titles -- including "Waltz With Bashir," "O'Horten" and "Gomorrah" -- may sound familiar because they previously played the Cannes Film Festival). Meyer said the 100-day Writers Guild of America strike is partially to blame. "There were movies we would have considered, but they weren't ready," he said.
Luddy said the recent appearance of so many studio-financed movies is more anomaly than design. "Until about four or five years ago, we didn't show any studio-connected films at all. And the fall releases are not quite like last year, when you had so many high-profile films that were of Oscar quality."
Luddy added that there are a number of Telluride titles (including some documentaries) that could emerge from the shadows and find an audience. "I think we have a few that have a real theatrical potential."
Although the festival doesn't officially call them world premieres, there are several titles that have not been shown anywhere else. They include Paul Schrader's "Adam Resurrected," France's "With a Little Help From Myself," India's "Firaaq," Alfre Woodard in "American Violet," Sweden's "Everlasting Moments," and the documentaries "Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love" and "Pirate for the Sea."