Some top titles preemed at earlier events

There’s been grumbling from the press at Telluride this year that this year’s lineup is light on the sort of Oscar movies the festival has gained a reputation for launching in the past.

Instead of “The King’s Speech” (which started here in 2010), they premiered its smarmy American cousin, “Hyde Park on Hudson,” in which polio can’t stop Bill Murray’s FDR from cheating under Eleanor’s nose. And where Natalie Portman’s career-topping turn in “Black Swan” once played, audiences instead discovered tomorrow’s star, Greta Gerwig, playing a far klutzier New York dancer in Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha.”

So, while there’s some truth to the complaint, mostly it just goes to show that the cross-section of journos covering this high-altitude Colorado fest has changed in recent years, with Telluride now attracting nearly the full contingent of prominent awards-season bloggers, who come hoping to read the tea leaves to see which pics the Academy might bless five months from now. And though the pundits cluck over how weak the field looks, they seem to have missed the point — namely, that Telluride and the Academy don’t necessarily define “best” in the same way, and this festival is dedicated to showing the best films that Tom Luddy, Gary Meyer and Julie Huntsinger can get their hands on.

So, apart from whatever a consensus of industry pros should decide later this year, it’s hard to believe there could be a better movie, pair of male and female performances or piece of direction out there than Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” which made its North American premiere at Telluride on Thursday. The film, which tracks the final weeks of a 60-plus-year love story as a devoted husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) watches his beloved wife (Emmanuelle Riva) degenerate before his eyes with such tenderness, such patience that one never questions the impossibility of the decision before him.

The only other 2012 picture that comes close is “The Sessions” — a film Telluride passed on as a matter of policy, since it played Sundance, the other Rocky Mountain sprocket opera. Still, Telluride tends to be judged by the films that world-premiere here, and many of this year’s successes started at Berlin (“Barbara,” “A Royal Affair”) or Cannes (“Amour,” “Rust & Bone), while Venice gets credit for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” — both conspicuous omissions from the Telluride lineup.

Venice can also lay claim to world premiering Sarah Polley’s “The Stories We Tell,” a deeply affecting and formally daring documentary in which the actress sifts through conflicting desciptions of her mother’s infidelities in order to better understand her own history. Serving as narrator, the father who raised her describes himself as a product of his DNA, but this film suggests that Polley may be the sum of her parents’ life experience as well, absorbing their narratives and characteristics after birth.

I haven’t yet wrapped my head around another of the docs playing Telluride, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” though it seems safe to assume no other will prove more provocative this year. Like Polley’s more personal film, Oppenheimer examines how definitions — in this case, that whopper we call “genocide” — can be subjective. The helmer travels to Indonesia, where the winners truly write history, as the men responsible for executing nearly a million accused “communists” after the military overthrow of 1965. In an astonishing twist on past doc models, Oppenheimer invites the perpetrators to tell their own story, resulting in a chilling first-person account of evil.

As one Telluride regular quipped at the fest-ending picnic, the word for this year’s edition is “unflinching.” Even though the quality overall has been somewhat disappointing, the programmers boldly chose to invite films that raise prickly questions over those that content themselves with tidy escapism. (The exception, “The Sapphires,” has been the big breakout on the feel-good front.) Meanwhile, moviegoers had a chance to get introspective with “The Attack,” about a doctor reconciling his wife’s role in a terrorist act; “The Gatekeepers,” a doc featuring first-ever interviews with Israel’s Shin Bet that suggests the region thrives on conflict; and “Paradise: Love,” an uneasy look at how the First World exploits less stable economies depicted through the metaphor of sex tourism.

The film that best blends big, unflinching political ideas and good, old-fashioned entertainment is Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” a white-hat hero tale about the CIA cowboy who concocted a fake film production (even going so far as to plant a story in Variety as cover) in order to rescue six Americans trapped in revolutionary Iran. Between Affleck and Polley, Telluride played host to the two most exciting young actor-directors working today. (Though early rumors suggested that Clint Eastwood might bring his latest, “Trouble With the Curve,” it seems the Republican National Convention needed him more.)

Still, it’s easy to understand why the Oscar-predicting press, given their tendency to reduce art appreciation to a contest, seems disappointed by this year’s fest. “Hyde Park on Hudson” may be an amusing warts-and-all look at world leaders, but it’s not quite the acting showcase it looked on paper. Sally Potter’s scatter-minded “Ginger & Rosa” gives Elle Fanning her juiciest role yet as a child of the Cold War obsessed with imminent annihilation via nuclear bomb, but is too loose in the telling for us to connect with the performance. And “Frances Ha,” an ebuliently good-humored look at a messy New Yorker’s life proves Gerwig to be that rare actress who channels the experience of her generation, but isn’t a long-suffering enough character to attract Academy attention. (That said, voters would do well to consider the script, which Baumbach co-wrote with his new muse.)

Frankly, being on new-release duty, I didn’t see enough of the Telluride lineup to be making claims about “best” anythings, but there’s no question that the highlight was French film-restoration saint Serge Bromberg’s “Retour de Flamme” program. Already a Telluride tradition in its third year, Bromberg’s program featured century-old rarities such as a new-fine grain master of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” (which the charismatic raconteur accompanied on piano) and the world premiere of Disney’s work-in-progress polish of classic Oswald the Rabbit short “Hungry Hobo” — reminders that one could have a perfectly wonderful Telluride seeing nothing but classics.

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