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‘Speech’ on Telluride’s buzz list

'Tabloid,' 'Incendies' also hit it big at fest

The breakouts of the Telluride Film Festival include Colin Firth starrer “The King’s Speech,” a Weinstein Co. release that saw its Oscar hopes fortified by the fest; Errol Morris’ scandalously entertaining (yet still distrib-free) docu “Tabloid”; and French-Canadian co-production “Incendies,” a wrenching anti-war parable that has locals and buyers alike excited.

But as far as this first-timer could tell, auds loved pretty much everything at Telluride, from sneak peeks of Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” (so intense, a couple viewers passed out) to Peter Weir’s equally arduous (though considerably less entertaining) “The Way Back.” Such enthusiasm comes as a big surprise for someone accustomed to weeding through dozens of lousy movies to find a few redeeming truffles at Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and Toronto. As sexy as those sprocket operas may sound to outsiders, the truth is, most of what they program fails to live up to expectations.

Not so with Telluride, the mountain fest that cherry-picks 20 or so upcoming releases (often a mix of Cannes hits and award season hopefuls) and squeezes them into the long Labor Day weekend. Here, even the disappointments are decent.

Part of Telluride’s allure is that they guard the lineup until 24 hours before screenings begin. Attendees come because they love movies, buying their badges in a show of trust for the taste of Tom Luddy and his team, who program exciting new titles alongside an equally tantalizing lineup of restorations and tributes.

Covering the event for Daily Variety, my mission is clear: See and review as many premieres as possible — though I confess being unable to resist Olivier Assayas’ nearly-six-hour terrorism biopic “Carlos” and classic film brain Serge Bromberg’s special “Saved From the Flames” presentation, featuring an eye-opening/eye-popping sample of rare and restored 3D shorts, some of them dating back more than a century (Angelenos will have a chance to catch this same stereoscopic smorgasbord tonight at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater).

It’s not until you reach a town like Telluride, where the culture is so different from that of L.A., that you realize how differently others see movies. For the 361 days the fest isn’t running in town, Telluriders rely on the town’s lone single-screen cinema to see whatever big Hollywood film happens to be playing. As one local explained to me, choosing between “127 Hours” and “Never Let Me Go” means having to wait until the other comes out on DVD. No wonder this crowd is so receptive to bold independent and foreign films.

Waiting patiently in line — where press, industry, enthusiast and student guests hold equal standing — privileged movie lovers gush about their newfound discoveries, which include Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (previewed fresh from Venice), affecting Israeli docu “Precious Life” (intercepted on its way to Toronto) and lo-fi Cuban jazz toon “Chico and Rita.” Only Searchlight tearjerker “Never Let Me Go” seems to have divided audiences, many of whom prefer the true-story uplift of Justin Chadwick’s Kenya-set “The First Grader.” (Attendees seem to spend at least as much time reading as they do watching movies. “Never” novelist Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the fest’s most respected guests, and this year’s guest director is “The English Patient” author Michael Ondaatje.)

There’s something wonderfully old fashioned about Telluride, and not just the backlot-ready Western-themed storefronts (walking past houses to reach the town’s largest theater, I passed a child selling limeade by the glass from a makeshift stand — a scene so precious I’d assumed it could exist only in comics). Locals look on BlackBerry users with the same suspicion their forebears must have once shown vegetarians. “This is a film festival,” Telluride co-director Gary Meyer told device holders before one screening. “You can text at a texting festival.”

Telluride makes it a point to invite the filmmakers and talent, who don’t seem to mind when courteous film buffs stop them in the street, as happened with repeat visitors Werner Herzog (who brought “Happy People,” one of two docs he’s premiering this month) and Danny Boyle (who rushed “127 Hours” through post in order to have it ready for the fest that premiered “Slumdog Millionaire” two years earlier).

On the industry-crowded charter flight to Colorado, I sat beside “The First Grader” star Naomie Harris, who confessed to being a festival virgin. I’d first seen her onscreen at the Tribeca premiere of “28 Days Later.” But no one had ever thought to invite her to attend that or any other fest before. Now I’m off to see whether her film lives up to what Telluriders have been saying about it. They’ve been right about so much else.

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