Telluride Film Festival Unveils Its Lineup

“I cannot tell you how totally thrilled I am to be debuting my movie here,”  Alexander Payne, director of Fox Searchlight’s upcoming George Clooney film, The Descendants, told me as we waited for our luggage today at the Montrose Airport here in Colorado just 90 minutes outside of Telluride, where the 38th Annual Telluride Film Festival officially starts on Friday.  Payne, who has been to the last two Tellurides — first as a guest director and then as a film nerd, as he puts it — genuinely seems excited to bring the film (which opens November 23)  here first. He said conflicts with the New York Film Festival prevented two of his previous movies,  Sideways and About Schmidt from a Telluride berth.

This is indeed a fest that brings out the “film nerd” in just about everyone with its eclectic programming mixing Oscar contenders, Cannes discoveries, intriguing world cinema, great retrospectives and tributes and so much more all crammed into a four-day Labor Day weekend smorgasboard of  all things cinema. Payne’s official reason for being at Telluride this year is that Fox Searchlight has had such good luck debuting their potential fall Oscar contenders here in the past few years. Think Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, Black Swan and 127 Hours, among others. The director’s unofficial reason is to catch up on rare opportunities to see classics presented in pristine condition like you may never see again. He is especially excited to see 1960’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day among other vintage titles. Payne figures he can see the new stuff anytime  but how often can you rare landmark German and Russian silents with a live orchestra? Telluride offers all of that and more.

But what has Oscar bloggers and a handful of film critics buzzing up and down these western streets  are some of those new films, “award hopefuls”, that will be seen here for the first time as the long six-month season officially gets underway. In addition to Payne, also here for a tribute and to receive the fest’s Silver Medallion is Descendants star Clooney, who will arrive tonight from Venice, where he opened that festival with his other fall film, The Ides of March, which he directed and co-stars in. After this stop he hits Toronto next week with both films, a fall fest trifecta crisscrossing three countries.

Even though “technically”  Telluride will be the World Premiere of Descendants, it is the Toronto Film Festival that gets the official honor. Telluride isn’t into labels; it gets these Oscar-buzzed movies by keeping its lineup secret until the last minute and just showing the movies and having the filmmakers intro them and/or do Q&As afterward — no big red carpet premieres for this little Colorado hideaway. But among those other buzzed-about movies getting at the very least their first North American screenings are Albert Nobbs, with star Glenn Close attending with this already much speculated-about contender; We Need to Talk About Kevin, a Cannes competition title that brings its star Tilda Swinton to town for another big tribute this weekend; David Cronenberg, direct from Venice with A Dangerous Method; director Steve McQueen’s Shame, which reportedly has a major star turn from Michael Fassbender, who also stars in the Cronenberg film; the Cannes silent sensation The Artist (co-star Penelope Ann Miller on my plane today said she missed Cannes but can’t wait to see it with the Telluride crowd);  and many Foreign Language Film possibilities such as Agnieszka Holland’s official Polish entry, In Darkness; Finland’s charmer Le Havre from Aki Kaurisamki (the fest is also offering a tribute to its veteran French star Pierre Etaix);  and the Israeli contender Footnote and The Dardennes’ The Kid With a Bike, which both took prizes at Cannes. Among the impressive-sounding documentaries on display are Martin Scorsese’s four-hour George Harrison study, Living in the Material World and Telluride regular Werner Herzog back this year with the dark Into the Abyss. There will also be a couple of unnannouced “sneak previews” including one on Saturday from The Weinstein Company that could turn into yet another of their Oscar and Golden Globe contenders. Clue: The title goes well on toast.

There’s so much to see and so little time.  At LAX this morning before flying over here, Swinton, a very excited  Telluride first-timer, told me she wants to see so many films that she almost forgot the main reason she is here this year, her Silver Medallion tribute and her own movie for which distributor Oscilloscope has high Oscar hopes for a Swinton Best Actress nod. Hopefully she gets to see a few movies here that she’s not in, but with multiple screenings all weekend they keep the talent hopping  in this place.

In addition to all the movies, there are lots of exclusive  parties including one Friday night at the enormous Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall ranch outside of town hosted by the producers and UTA. Fox Searchlight is doing a dinner and a late night party Saturday night, same time that Sony Pictures Classics is throwing their annual dinner for press and filmmakers. But maybe the biggest event this weekend in Telluride has nothing to do with the festival. For some reason Ralph Lauren, who has a huge ranch here, chose this weekend to host the wedding of his son David to Lauren Bush, niece of former President George W. Bush. They are keeping mum on whether the ex-prez is gonna be in town, but everyone was abuzz that Oprah was coming, along with a lot of other celebs.

Can this town handle Clooney and Oprah in the same weekend? Telluride always is offering surprises. One Telluride resident who is devastated to be missing all of this for the first time since moving here a few years ago is Laura Linney, who was the subject of a tribute at the fest in 2004 and wound up staying forever, marrying Marc, the local festival volunteer assigned to take her around town that year. She’s always here as kind of the unofficial greeting party but couldn’t get off her filming schedule on her new film, Hyde Park on Hudson with Bill Murray. Her rep said although they got her off for the Emmys on September 18 (she’s a nominee for The Big C) she’s super sad to miss her hometown fest for the first time.

She can follow it all in this column. Another Telluride, another awards season launches.