'Benjamin' clip pushes the right buttons

The Telluride Film Festival has always celebrated cinema’s past as much as its present, and the old mostly looked better than the new at the mountain fest’s 35th edition.

In terms of new titles and industry excitement, the runaway smash was Danny Boyle’s exhilarating, madly entertaining drama “Slumdog Millionaire.” There was also much discussion generated by helmer David Fincher’s screening of a tantalizing 20 minutes from his impressive-looking Brad Pitt starrer “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

The screening of “Button” footage — snippets of various scenes from a big-budget pic that clocks in at more than 2½ hours — came as part of the fest’s tribute to Fincher. The footage looked artistically and technically impeccable, and quite different in style from Fincher’s previous work. The ambitious aging technique, employed to tell the story of a man who is born with the features of an old man and gradually grows bigger and younger, was seamless in the footage Fincher presented.

“Slumdog” offers a vivid snapshot of modern India through the prism of a teenager’s appearance on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The film, which moves on to the Toronto Film Festival next weekend, provided much grist for the trade mill, as it had just been handed off by Warner Bros. to Fox Searchlight as the fest began.

Telluride also put its spotlight on a filmmaker who can be counted this year as both a discovery and a rediscovery. The great Swedish veteran Jan Troell received a full-on tribute at Telluride, accompanied by restored director’s cuts of “Here Is Your Life” and the full-length “The Emigrants” and “The New Land,” which were released only in shorter versions in the U.S., albeit to considerable acclaim.

The 77-year-old director also presented his latest feature, “Everlasting Moments,” which repped Telluride’s other world preem highlight and is fully on a level with the helmer’s best work. A richly rendered look at a working-class woman a century ago who slowly discovers her talent for photography while raising a brood of children and tolerating an abusive husband, the episodic drama has a soul, a conscience and a wise awareness of humanity in all its manifestations. It is also astonishingly beautiful. If it were only for putting the spotlight back on this too-long-overlooked filmmaker, this year’s fest could be considered a significant success.

Also returned to public view this year was Jean Simmons, who received a warm and humorous tribute to her long career, which began more than six decades ago in David Lean’s “Great Expectations.” Another highlight of the weekend was the rare look at the underappreciated, little-known 1950 Terence Fischer suspenser “So Long at the Fair.”

Of the dozen-plus world premieres, only a few stood out as being of serious quality. Ole Christian Madsen’s “Flame & Citron,” a large-scaled drama about Danish resistance to the Nazis, is solid and strong, and Kimberly Reed’s docu “Prodigal Sons” galvanized audiences with its unique look at three siblings — one gay, one (Reed herself) a transsexual and the other the adopted grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected” provides a lucid rendering of the themes of Yoram Kaniuk’s revered novel, as well as a tour-de-force performance from Jeff Goldblum, but its grim focus on Holocaust guilt will see the public looking elsewhere. Tim Disney’s “American Violet” — based on a true story about racial targeting of blacks by Texas law enforcement — is a social-issues picture far more in the mainstream, but as a film, it is without surprise and little more at home at a festival like this one than Marc Abraham’s lackluster “Flash of Genius.” Telluride, which is in a position to pick and choose from among the best films out there, has no need to show pictures like this just because they’re in the prestige fall rollout parade.

Other preems of varying quality were Indian thesp Nandita Das’ first feature, “Firaaq”; Francois Dupeyron’s look at the tempestuous lives of an African-French family, “With a Little Help From Myself”; Cathal Black’s docu “Learning Gravity”; Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s music docu “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love” and Ron Colby’s ecological docu “Pirate for the Sea.”

Mike Leigh was much in evidence, attending every Troell screening as well as those of his own new feature, “Happy-Go-Lucky.” Six films from Cannes received their U.S. preems here. Lance Daly’s fresh-from-Ireland “Kisses” was well received, as were two recent features from Romanian director Nae Caranfil, “Philanthropy” and “The Rest Is Silence.”

Archival treasures included the restored “Lola Montes,” the silent programs of “The Last Command” and four hilarious shorts presented by the Pordenone Festival under the banner “Laugh ’Til It Hurts,” as well as “The Italian Straw Hat” and two rarities picked by guest director Slavoj Zizek, Veit Harlan’s ultimate Nazi melodrama, “The Great Sacrifice,” and Mikhail Chiaureli’s gargantuan 1949 Soviet war epic, “The Fall of Berlin.”

Richard Schickel received a special medallion and presented significant portions of his sweeping Warner Bros. docu “You Must Remember This.”

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