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Telluride picks films bound for glory

The annual festival programs for film lovers -- silent treasures, foreign-language films and obscure documentaries.

September 03, 2009|John Horn

It can take nearly a full day to get there. You have no idea what films you might see until you finally arrive. And if you're foolish enough to order a big glass of wine instead of water the first night in town, your head might explode from altitude sickness.

For all its idiosyncrasies and potential risks, the Telluride Film Festival has become oddly adept at being the first to identify some of fall's most talked-about movies.

Opening Friday and running through Labor Day, this year's 36th annual festival -- which arrives just ahead of the much-bigger Toronto International Film Festival -- could help spark awards interest in several ambitious literary dramas, including the long-delayed and much-anticipated adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and Jason Reitman's directing of George Clooney in a reworking of the existential Walter Kirn novel "Up in the Air."

With its distinctive programming style (where a 10-year-old Romanian film shares equal footing with star-laden, studio-financed productions) and aversion to anything resembling show-business special treatment (the handful of industry types wait in the same long lines as film geeks from Iowa), Telluride neither aims to be nor prides itself on its Oscar acuity. The festival has no competition or award ceremony.

"We don't sit there and think, 'Do we imagine this film will win the Oscar?'" says Tom Luddy, who programs the Telluride festival with Gary Meyer. "That doesn't usually happen, and there's no way to predict it will happen."

But last year, "Slumdog Millionaire," which went on to win the Oscar for best picture this year, premiered at the Colorado mountain festival, as did footage from "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which collected three Academy Awards. In past years, the festival has been the first to show award winners "Juno," "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote" and "The Last King of Scotland."

Telluride "meant everything" for "Slumdog Millionaire," said Christian Colson, the film's producer. "It was where our orphan film was finally adopted," he added of the movie that could have been released direct to video following the closure of Warner Independent Pictures. Fox Searchlight took over director Danny Boyle's movie just days before Telluride opened, and when the movie played to a rousing festival ovation, the studio started to realize what it had on its hands.

As is its custom, organizers will not release the full list of the roughly two dozen Telluride features until this afternoon, when festival guests start arriving in the remote ski town on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains.

People familiar with the lineup say the slate is likely to include "The Road"; "Up in the Air"; "Waking Sleeping Beauty," a documentary about the history of modern Disney animation; director Werner Herzog's remake of "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans;" filmmaker Todd Solondz's "Life During Wartime"; the European Brenda Blethyn drama "London River"; the coming-of-age tale "An Education"; and the foreign-language titles "A Prophet" and "The White Ribbon," both of which played at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

The Telluride festival also will be filled with a number of more obscure productions, including little-known documentaries, older foreign-language titles and several silent films, which are played with live musical accompaniment.

For all its recent success identifying critical hits, Telluride also presents films that more or less vanish into the thin, 8,750-foot elevation air. Last year's slate, for example, included Jeff Goldblum in "Adam Resurrected" and the environmental documentary "Pirate for the Sea."

Luddy says he intentionally programs for cineastes, calling attention to movies that might otherwise be off even the most dedicated film buff's radar. "We sometimes put more energy and effort into the restoration and revival of silent films than anything else," he says. "Our audience is people who love films and travel to Telluride from all over the country -- it's not an easy place to get to -- on blind faith."

Consequently, as with movies that play particularly well at other festivals and then nowhere else, it's important for film distributors to make sure a positive Telluride screening is not a false representation of a movie's true, broader appeal.

After "Slumdog Millionaire" received glowing receptions at Telluride and Toronto last year, Fox Searchlight still tested the film in front of suburban audiences in Orange County to ensure the early response was authentic.

"Telluride can give you some key reactions from cinephiles and the cinema press," says Steven Gilula, president of Fox Searchlight, whose festival successes also include "Juno," "The Savages" and "The Last King of Scotland."

"We were concerned about taking 'Slumdog Millionaire' into the destruction derby" of the awards season. "But when we showed it at Telluride, we achieved a level of confidence that the film could survive and thrive against any competition."


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