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Telluride Film Festival Director on Hidden Gems and a Banner Year for Women

Asked for something that sticks out from this year’s Telluride Film Festival lineup, TFF executive director Julie Huntsinger springs not for one of the glossier titles on offer, but rather a “short-ish” documentary.

“One thing that’s a real treat is a Netflix doc called ‘Long Shot,'” she says. “It blew me away. It has Larry David, some stunning twists of fate, and it’s told in the warmest, most humanistic way. That’s a movie that I will probably watch a good couple of times before the end of my life.”

She also lights up when discussing a new director’s cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 film “The Cotton Club,” which will finally present the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s intended vision more than 30 years later under the new title “The Cotton Club Encore.”

“I don’t know if there was ever more a case for a director’s cut to be created,” Huntsinger says. “The way it was originally presented, in sticking to the mobster storyline, the important black cultural part of the film was eviscerated. Francis knew that was not the story he was trying to tell. This is his version, and it’s so much more meaningful. You’ll want to hear ‘Stormy Weather’ over and over and over again.”

Such is the cinephile heart of Telluride, revving its engines for a 44th engagement this holiday weekend. There will be splashy awards season prospects to gobble up and analyze, from Gary Oldman in full prestige, makeup-slathered mode as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” to Guillermo del Toro’s heavily buzzed fantasy offering “The Shape of Water.” Annette Bening’s latest run at the Oscars (“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”) will help fire the best actress starting gun, while tributes to actor Christian Bale (“Hostiles”) and cinematographer Ed Lachman (“Wonderstruck”) will firmly position them in the running.

But there is much more to Telluride than its place as a recent all-but-mandated Oscar circuit stop.

One considerable note of interest this year is the prevalence of female filmmakers on the main program slate. Of the 30 titles, nine were directed by women.

“There’s not some agenda that we ever set out with,” Huntsinger cautions. “[Festival co-founder] Tom [Luddy] and I sit down and watch movies, and the ones we respond to the most are the ones that we select. I think [this prevalence] speaks to female directors working and wanting to tell important, interesting, exceptional stories.”

She also points to the bevy of female-driven narratives on screen at the fest, from Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (starring Saorise Ronan in a Sacramento-set coming-of-age tale), to Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s “Battle of the Sexes” (with Oscar winner Emma Stone as tennis legend Billie Jean King). There is also Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman,” starring trans actress Daniela Vega.

“Angelina Jolie knocks it out of the park,” Huntsinger says of “First They Killed My Father,” the actress-director’s fourth directorial effort. “She tells this story with stunning sensitivity and beauty. … And Billie Jean King will be here as well. I think people will take another look at her story, not just as a woman’s story, but being a person with a complicated and challenging life, her bravery and subsequent leadership has been outstanding.”

Additionally, regular attendee Ken Burns will break off an episode of his latest 18-hour opus, “The Vietnam War,” which Huntsinger found to be an engrossing new chapter in a storied career.

“I’ve watched [the whole thing] multiple times,” she says. “It’s so dense, but it’s a pleasure. It’s not like I’m going, ‘Oh, I didn’t really get that. I should watch it again.’ It’s that I’ll say, ‘I love that character. I want to listen to what he has to say again.’ Ken finds a way of telling America’s story better than anyone in the world. I love that man.”

Huntsinger is also particularly excited about hosting Al Gore, who will be on hand for a special screening of the documentary “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” She recalls being at the Staples Center in Los Angeles when Gore accepted the presidential nomination in 2000, and how much of an inspiration he was as a live speaker.

“This is something we want to amplify,” Huntsinger says. “I’m sure it will be a giant audience. And the message he wants people to pay attention to just gets a giant red underline this week when you look at Hurricane Harvey.”

But first Huntsinger is eager to give filmmaker Barry Jenkins a big hug as soon as he makes it into town. The director of this year’s best picture winner “Moonlight,” which began its journey in Telluride a year ago, regularly serves as a curator of the festival’s short films program. Naturally, he has a lot on his plate in the wake of that success, so Huntsinger actually wondered if he would still be able to serve the cause.

“He said, ‘Heck yeah! You better believe it,'” she recalls. “I have never been prouder or happier for someone in my life, ever. Our staff is probably going to mob him!”

The 44th Telluride Film Festival begins Friday and runs through Monday.

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