Fest balances buzzy showcase slots with cinephile fare

Like Sundance without the snow, the Telluride Film Festival cherry-picked some of the fall’s most anticipated indies over Labor Day weekend — among them “The Descendants” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” showcasing career-high work from honorees George Clooney and Tilda Swinton, respectively.

It also delivered well-received, psychologically rich dramas “A Dangerous Method” and “Shame,” both starring Michael Fassbender; a Victorian gender study called “Albert Nobbs,” featuring Glenn Close as you’ve never seen her before; and “Into the Abyss,” the latest rumination from Werner Herzog, who holds the record for the most films screened in Telluride (estimated at 35). Though the Colorado fest’s programmers invite films with their cinephile auds in mind, distribs have learned how to use the fest to their advantage — the Weinstein Co. and Fox Searchlight in particular. Searchlight, which previously launched “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” here, brought just one title: Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” — a consensus favorite among auds polled riding the gondola to screenings.

Back in Telluride two years after serving as the fest’s guest director, Payne appeared emotional as he introduced the film’s world premiere: “It is amazing how long one can go in one’s life before realizing one’s true destiny — which is to be a part of this festival,” said the director, who spent his weekend trying to squeeze rare-treat screenings into a publicity-oriented schedule.

Following on last year’s success (in which “The King’s Speech” began its Oscar journey), Weinstein Co. bowed Toronto-bound crowdpleaser “Butter” and hosted an ideal North American premiere for Michel Hazanavicius’ Cannes hit “The Artist” — a love letter to silent cinema that felt right at home at a fest where nearly half the program consists of restorations and retrospectives (French prankster Pierre Etaix was among this year’s special guests).

Compared with other festivals, Telluride draws only a fraction of the press and industry attendees, not counting the filmmakers themselves, who mingle among appreciative moviegoers at screenings and special educational events hosted by the fest. (This year marked a new partnership with UCLA, giving 15 grad students intimate access to film pros.) The rest are film lovers who travel from all over the country to discover gems of world cinema, past and present — cinephiles who will sit through a 3 1/2-hour portrait of George Harrison (Martin Scorsese’s “Living in the Material World” world preemed here) or a 15-hour history lesson (“The Story of Film”).

The fest kicked off with Hungarian arthouse legend Bela Tarr’s long, black-and-white “The Turin Horse” — a challenging sit for nearly any moviegoer. For one local, however, it was an exhilarating way to start the fest. “That movie was rad,” he told me. “When you consider ‘Horrible Bosses’ and ‘Smurfs’ were the only two movies playing in town before the fest started, it felt like a palate cleanser.”

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