The Telluride Film Festival  got started with a bang this afternoon — with a special Patrons screening in front of Friday night’s official launch — as Fox Searchlight’s December release Wild  had itsTelluride Film Festival 2014 Lineup World Premiere and first-ever public screening. The best-selling nonfiction book by Cheryl Strayed about her hike across the 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail has been turned into a beautifully crafted cinematic journey by director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club). Reese Witherspoon, who also co-produced, delivers her best screen work since her Oscar-winning turn in Walk The Line, and this three-dimensional portrayal of a woman searching for herself — after a disastrous divorce, the death of her beloved mother (perfectly played by Laura Dern), sexual promiscuity, drugs and a stint on the streets — is certain to put her back in the thick of the Best Actress race this year. It’s a whale of a tale and a great role. Witherspoon, who also has The Good Lie and Inherent Vice upcoming, nails it. After the screening, I saw her pete_hammond_300x100embracing her real-life counterpart Strayed, and the actress said, “I don’t know which one of us cried more watching this.” Strayed replied, “I cried through the whole thing.” Considering the grueling hike that this film and her book was based on, I asked Strayed if she was planning on doing any hikes here in the mountainous terrain of Telluride. “Oh yes. Reese, Laura and I with others just took a hike here this morning,” she laughed. That was probably the best way to start a day when the film of her life starts its own momentous journey this nascent awards season. Searchlight’s Co-President Nancy Utley, who just got in from their widely hailed Venice premiere of Birdman (making its official North American premiere here Saturday night), said this movie has gotten to her every times she’s seen it.

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Vallee introduced the screening by saying: “We are very  happy to be here to present this film, in this town, in this wilderness surrounded by the most amazing mountains. We shot this in Oregon.” He then offered thanks and then introduced the producers, Dern, Witherspoon and Strayed. “We are so honored to come here today and for you to see our Wild 628x471movie, but really the most important thing to all of us up here is that this movie bring you joy, pleasure and pain and — all those good things that art, that movies can bring to us,” Strayed told the overflow audience at the Chuck Jones Cinema. “What better place to premiere a movie about a woman walking through the wilderness than Telluride? This film is about me, which is very strange. But when I was writing the book, one of the things I thought all along the way was that it really isn’t about me. I always wanted to write a story about this journey that was about all of us. And I am just so honored by the film that Jean -Marc made because it really does honor that vision.”

Among those in attendance were several Academy members including Oprah Winfrey, who featured Strayed’s book in her Oprah Book Club. Afterward, she came up to Witherspoon and Strayed as they were heading up the aisle, embraced them both and told Strayed, “Wow, this must have been a really strange experience for you today.” Maybe, but it clearly was a special one.

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Wild competed against a special 35th anniversary screening of Apocalypse Now (1979), with director Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographer Vittorio Stararo, Walter Murch and producer Fred Roos in attendance. It just proves that coming to Telluride means making Solomon-like decisions about what to see. That screening also was sold out, according to Telluride Fest Director Julie Huntsinger. Wild also will be hitting the Toronto International Film Festival, but because of TIFF’s new dictum that all films shown in the first four days must be World Premieres, it won’t have its gala screening until after that. Canada has something to look forward to based on the reaction here.

Two more world premieres launch Friday night including Jon Stewart’s  directorial debut: Jon Stewart‘s directorial debut Rosewater and The Weinstein Company’s big Oscar hope The Imitation Game. Also scheduled is the North American premiere of Cannes sensation Foxcatcher. Lots to see. Many hard choices to make.