TELLURIDE: The Emmys may have just ended but that isn’t stopping the Hollywood film awards machine from kicking into gear already. First on Wednesday at the Venice Film Festival with a rapturous reception for opener Black Swan which received a resounding standing ovation for director Darren Aronofsky and stars Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel. And then tomorrow at the 37th annual Telluride Film Festival, which is the first U.S. stop on the long freight train to the Oscars.

The Telluride fest officially begins Friday morning and runs through Labor Day in this remote and rustic Colorado town. This must-stop for cineastes known for its friendly, relaxed vibe and its esoteric mix of indie, foreign, and classics has also in recent years become an early, important cog in the awards industry engine. It’s where such Best Picture winners and nominees like Slumdog Millionaire, Juno and Up In The Air have launched their campaigns even before they hit the much bigger and more publicized Toronto Film Festival (beginning September 9th this year). Telluride’s lineup is always kept a secret until the last minute and was finally revealed today. In addition to such little known entries as Oka! Amerikee, and Pygmies In Paris, there will be a slew of Oscar hopefuls rolling into town jazzing things up. The festival is able to get these films because they don’t advertise them in advance and is happy to let Toronto claim North American or even World Premieres even though technically it’s all happening here this weekend.

Fox Searchlight officially has Never Let Me Go with Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield on the schedule. But it will be “sneaking” the aforementioned Black Swan with Aronofsky and Portman making the trek from Venice pre-Toronto, and Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours which will see the director coming back for a good-luck visit to the place that started his march to Oscar glory two years ago with Slumdog. Also here, The Weinstein Company’s period drama, The King’s Speech starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush and directed by Tom Hooper (The Damned United), and the genuine “World Premiere” (it’s not even on the Toronto slate) of Peter Weir’s The Way Back, an epic adventure produced by National Geographic that even with this veteran director and a cast that includes Ed Harris and Colin Farrell is still angling for a good distribution deal. [Later Thursday, they announced that they secured a distributor, Newmarket, and plan to release in January.] Last year the Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer film, The Last Station came quietly into Telluride, landed a deal with Sony Pictures Classics and won a couple of major acting Oscar nominations just a few months later. Maybe Telluride will prove just as lucky for Weir, whose last movie was 2003’s Oscar-nominated Master And Commander. Weir is one of three veterans getting tributes here in addition to Firth and Italy’s legendary Claudia Cardinale.

Among Cannes premieres showing up in America for the first time here are  Mike Leigh’s Another Year, Stephen Frear’s British comedy Tamara Drewe, the acclaimed financial meltdown documentary Inside Job, and Sylvain Chomet’s animated gem, The Illusionist, all from Sony Pictures Classics which has a big presence as usual. That also includes Cannes Grand Prize winner Of Gods And Men, the stirring drama almost certain to be France’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar this year. Other Cannes titles making the journey are France’s Princess Of Montpensier, Korea’s Poetry, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s stirring Biutiful that won Best Actor for Javier Bardem in Cannes and has been picked up domestically by Roadside Attractions, and IFC’s Carlos, the 3-part biopic of terrorist Carlos The Jackal that premieres stateside in October. Cannes Fest director Thierry Fremaux is here, too, justifiably proud that so many of his cinematic discoveries were chosen.

Karen Redden
4 years
Laura Linney continues to be one of the classiest babes around.
Golan
4 years
Still the best festival around. So proud to be a part of it. Those of you going...

Coming in together on the one and only festival charter today was a spirited group including Fremaux, Firth, Rush, Hooper, Weir, Harris, Mulligan (who was here last year with An Education), Inarritu, and many others including a gaggle of producers, directors, agents, studio execs, media types (yes, including me) and publicists. Former Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences President Sid Ganis was on board (the Academy is a loyal sponsor) as was last year’s guest “curator”  Alexander Payne (Sideways) who told me he was coming back this time as a fan just to “see movies”. I told Firth I had just gotten an early look at his (terrific) King’s Speech last night in a Beverly Hills screening room, and he said it must have been hot off the presses as Hooper just finished it two days ago. He hasn’t even seen the finished product yet. Waiting at the Montrose airport for his suitcase to be unloaded, Geoffrey Rush spotted Ed Harris and told him he had a script the actor should look at.

Finally, this being laid-back Telluride, there aren’t any limos meeting this tony crowd, just buses and vans. Among the “drivers” was local resident Laura Linney, who married her own driver after meeting him here when she was given a tribute a few years ago. She turned into one herself (at least for today) as she met the King’s Speech contingent including her John Adams director Hooper, loaded them into her official van, and took them on the 1 1/2-hour jaunt into town.