Gemlike Festival Unveils Movies Coming to You

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The world-renowned Telluride Film Festival just marked its 25th anniversary during its traditional Labor Day weekend time slot, celebrating two extraordinary accomplishments.

One is the festival's astonishing success at drawing moviegoers to a tiny town in the heart of the Rockies, far from Hollywood or any big city, to view a program that's kept a well-guarded secret until opening day - partly to build suspense, partly to fend off media hype. The first edition in 1974 attracted about 250 viewers. This year's crowd was many, many times larger.

Just as amazing is the festival's other big accomplishment: selecting films so magnetic in their appeal that audiences will actually go to see them instead of simply reveling in Telluride's dazzling beauty, from tree-covered slopes and sun-drenched peaks to a main-street theater built when the village was still a silver-mining boom town.

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If the festival's programmers didn't know their business, their event might have remained a charming but minor appendage to the area's year-round tourist trade. But the show is still run by two of the movie buffs who founded it - independent producer Tom Luddy and film professor Bill Pence. Under their stewardship, the festival has become an internationally acclaimed leader in the delicate craft of balancing the fine art of cinema with the sheer fun of movies.

All of which has an impact on audiences who never even attend the festival, via its increasingly important function as a launching pad for productions. This year's expanded anniversary program had its share of challenging art films, nostalgic retrospectives, and appearances by critics and scholars. But it also showcased a number of popular pictures that will make their way to multiplexes over the next few weeks.

Some even have movie stars - and yes, the festival takes their skills as seriously as other aspects of cinema. The program always includes in-person tributes to three major screen artists, and the most famous honoree of 1998 was Meryl Streep, hailed for her depth, versatility, and intelligence. (Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Japanese filmmaker Susumu Hani were the other two honorees. See story on Hani, below.)

Two decades and 25 films since her first Oscar nomination for "The Deer Hunter," Streep has two new movies due soon: One True Thing, coming Sept. 18, and Dancing at Lughnasa, coming Nov. 13, are among the most eagerly awaited films of the late fall season.

"Dancing" was unveiled here alongside the official tribute to Streep, reconfirming her legendary skill with accents - her Irish brogue is as impeccable as the many others she's wielded. The movie also reminds audiences that for all her stardom, Streep remains a serious actress who's happy to blend into an ensemble. Michael Gambon and Kathy Burke join Streep for this low-key version of Brian Friel's 1991 play about five rural Irish sisters and a slightly mad brother who symbolizes the change that overtakes even the simplest of lives.

Another movie with popular appeal is Central Station, made in Brazil. The country provides expressive backdrops for Walter Salles's humanistic tale of a crusty old woman who befriends an 11-year-old orphan and takes him into the country's interior on a quest for whatever family he might have left. Enjoyable acting and a remarkable sense of geographical detail make this one of the rare Latin American movies to have a real shot at box-office glory when it opens this November.

Excitement also attended the first American showings of The General, due Dec. 18 from John Boorman, who counts "Deliverance" and "Point Blank" among his many credits. He won the Cannes filmfest's best-director prize for this high-energy drama about a real-life Dublin crook (Brendan Gleeson) and the hard-nosed cop (Jon Voight) who swears to end his career. Not since the excellent "Hope and Glory" has Boorman made such a solid bid for a full-fledged hit.

If any significant trend emerged from the Telluride program, it's that a lively crop of international films (with Ireland currently in the lead) may soon be playing a strong role in box-office tallies and awards races alike.

Also notable, if more a coincidence than a trend, is a tendency toward using dance as a means of expressing the subtleties of life and love, from the jigging of "Lughnasa" to the exquisite images of Tango - shown in tribute to camera wizard Storaro. And Dance Me to My Song, directed by Rolf de Heer, is a harrowing portrait of love and compassion battling disability and discontent in an Australian home.

Add the sublime visual revelations of Brakhage, by Jim Shedden, the mingled hilarity and horror of Happiness, by Todd Solondz, five acclaimed pictures from 1928 brought here by guest programmer Peter Bogdanovich, and an enormous number of additional items fitting almost every category there is, and you have a silver anniversary that matched the radiance of this old silver-mining town.

* David Sterritt's e-mail address is: sterrittd@csps.com

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