Festival puts best foot forward despite problems

Deftly mixing new finds, recent festival highlights and vintage rediscoveries in a way no other film event can pull off, the 36th annual Telluride Film Festival served up a high percentage of winners in a tricky year marked by sponsorship retraction, uncertain quality of fall titles and an unusual number of director no-shows.

If the fest was feeling a financial pinch, it wasn’t apparent on the surface, as the mostly makeshift screening venues and presentation standards were as impeccable as ever.

Fest was also fortunate in its choice of this year’s guest director, Alexander Payne, who was very visible and accessible all weekend and whose six film offerings were prime.

Having scored the world preem of “Juno” two years ago, the fest had its highest-profile mainstream hit with the world bow of Jason Reitman’s latest, “Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney. Other premieres included Michael Hoffman’s well-received “The Last Station,” with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren acting out the boisterous drama of Leo Tolstoy’s final year; French helmer Christian Carion’s very fine “Farewell,” a well-told thriller about the real-life espionage case that helped precipitate the end of the Soviet Union; tributee Margarethe von Trotta’s feminist-angled account of the life of an accomplished 12th- century nun, “Vision”; George Gittoes’ maverick “The Miscreants of Taliwood”; and, for theatrical purposes, the impressive three-part Channel 4 miniseries “Red Riding.” Paramount also snuck in an unannounced bow of its recut of the cheapo shocker “Paranormal Activity,” originally shown at the 2007 Slamdance.

Telluride shared several titles with the concurrent Venice Film Festival, notably “The Road” (with Viggo Mortensen in for a tribute), “Life During Wartime” and Werner Herzog’s two new features, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” with star Nicolas Cage on hand, and “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” with the director jetting in from Italy to the Rockies for Sunday night’s unspooling.

One of the biggest hits, first shown at Sundance, was Lone Scherfig’s “An Education,” with rising star Carey Mulligan in town before starting “Wall Street 2.”

Reflecting the strong Cannes fest this year, seven major titles from the Croisette made their North American debuts here: “The White Ribbon,” with Michael Haneke on hand to present his Palme d’Or winner; “Bright Star”; “Fish Tank”; “Vincere”; “A Prophet”; “Samson and Delilah”; and docu “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno.”

“Inferno” was directed by French film restorer Serge Bromberg, who also created one of the weekend’s smash hits with his one-man show of rare old French shorts, “Retour de flamme.” Bromberg is that rare creature, a film preservationist who is also a showman; he even played piano to accompany his presentation. Bromberg, like Payne, proved such a perfect fit for Telluride that it’s amazing he had never been here before, but he’ll doubtless be back.

Lineup of new docus was headed by Hannah Rothschild’s “The Jazz Baroness,” Gideon Koppel’s “Sleep Furiously” and Don Hahn’s “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” about the rebirth of animation at Disney.

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