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Telluride Lineup Features 'A Dangerous Method,' 'The Descendants' and 'Shame'

Although Telluride Film Festival directors Julie Huntsinger, Tom Luddy and Gary Meyer have continually tried to downplay their fest’s status as an awards-season bellwether, nobody is buying it – especially not after last year when The King’s Speech charged out of its Telluride sneak preview screening on a building wave of buzz that ultimately crested at the Academy Awards.

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As they release the program today for the 38th edition of the four-day festival, which launches Friday, it looks like Huntsinger, Luddy and Meyer have culled another line-up of potential kudo-magnets. David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and Steve McQueen’s Shame are the high-profile fall releases that will start their runs during the 2011 iteration of the Colorado mountain fest. And the program doesn’t yet include the handful of films inevitably slipped in after the festival starts. (Oscar-nominated pics Speech, Black Swan, 127 Hours and Up in the Air all found sneak slots in recent years).

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“That process started with Brokeback Mountain and Capote in 2005,” says Meyer. “That was the year that those films broke out and wound up getting a bunch of nominations and becoming very important films. Each year there have been films like that. Certainly, we like to have chosen a couple of films that go on to that kind of success, as long as they also have critical success. But there are films that we chose to pass on that will certainly be in awards season because they weren’t right for us.” 

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The carefully tended symbiotic relationship between Telluride and the Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off next Thursday, benefits both festivals as well as filmmakers looking for the strongest possible fall launching pad. Awards-caliber films that have effectively taken advantage of the one-two punch in recent years include Juno (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Up in the Air (2009), and last year's Speech and Black Swan, the latter of which actually tripled its buzz effect by leading with a Venice premiere.

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Specialty-film distributors Sony Pictures Classics (Method, The Last Station), Fox Searchlight (Descendants, Hours, Swan), The Weinstein Co. (Speech) and newer outfits such as Roadside Attractions and Liddell Entertainment (Nobbs) have seen the value in serving up serious, quality films to the discerning cineastes that trek up into the San Juan Mountains every year. (Unlike other fests, the official Telluride line-up is not released until the day it starts, and there are no awards given).

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“There are some distributors who don’t quite get it,” says Meyer. “I’m relentless with calling these people. I call them regularly throughout the whole summer, in case there’s a change of heart. There are other distributors who understand the relationship of Telluride and Toronto and how Telluride can be a great place to start the film quietly.“

The Garcia-directed Nobbs, which has already garnered buzz for the woman-passing-as-a-man performance of star-co-writer Glenn Close, will play Friday night before moving on to Toronto. Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen, a Telluride tributee in 2009, star in Method, which will first screen Saturday night before heading north. (Cronenberg has been to Telluride with films in the past but won’t be attending this year.)

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Meanwhile, the fest may see some rare acquisition activity. Shame, which stars Fassbender and Carey Mulligan (who last came to Telluride with Never Let Me Go in 2010), enters Telluride ahead of its Toronto screening with no distributor. Since it's a raw drama about a sex addict that could limit its box office potential, but Fassbender’s performance is already generating excitement. Director McQueen won’t be on hand for the sneak, but he taped an introduction Monday to play before his film screens.

In another rarity, Telluride will field some genuine A-list talent this year. Star George Clooney will be present to give Descendants a low-key introduction Saturday morning, followed by a Q&A with him and Payne. Later that night, Clooney, who is making his first visit to the festival, will receive one of the festival’s annual Silver Medallion tributes (THR’s Todd McCarthy will interview the multi-hyphenate after the special presentation at the Palm Theatre).

“George would not be an obvious pick for us because he’s a superstar,” says Meyer, who notes that they tried to honor Clooney two years before, when Up in the Air had its sneak. “And yet we look at his career, and he is a great fit. He is a terrific actor. He’s often compared to Cary Grant, and that’s a really apt connection because he can be serious, romantic, comedic, intelligent. But then he’s taken it a step further and proven that he’s a really fine director who can choose material that’s very strong.”

It surely has not eluded the attention of Descendants distributor Searchlight that the 2010 actor tributee was future Oscar winner Colin Firth. Tilda Swinton will also receive a Silver Medallion tribute this year; her new film We Need to Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay, is part of the program.

That film had its premiere in Cannes, where Meyer and company often find projects they want to include. Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Grand Jury Prize-winning The Kid With a Bike are all screening at Telluride.

On the documentary front, fest regulars Werner Herzog (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga) and Martin Scorsese (No Direction Home: Bob DylanA Letter to Elia) return with their latest nonfiction work, the execution investigation Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life and the George Harrison documentary Living in the Material World, respectively.

Also notable are some of the films that won’t be appearing in Telluride. Roman Polanski’s Carnage would have been a perfect fit for the Telluride crowd, but the New York Film Festival snagged the North American premiere of the Brooklyn-set adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play, which is world premiering in Venice. Meyer and Co. were scheduled to see Carnage in less than 24 hours when the NYFF made its decision, which Telluride has always agreed to honor and stay away from. (NYFF’s last-minute selection of The Queen in 2006 forced Telluride to scuttle a Helen Mirren tribute.)

Most surprising is the absence of the latest Jason Reitman-Diablo Cody collaboration Young Adult, which the festival was keen on nabbing. Reitman has done well with Telluride, which launched the Oscar-winning Juno in 2007 as well as Up in the Air in 2009. Paramount, which is handling Adult, also released Air, and while the film did strong box office, its awards momentum fizzled out too early despite half a dozen nominations. The studio is bypassing the fest circuit this time for a straight Dec. 9 theatrical release for Adult, which is reportedly a very serious take on a female author who returns to her hometown in pursuit of her now-married high school sweetheart.

Then again, every year includes two or three last-minute surprises. Given the Weinstein Co.’s monumental success with Speech, which also featured high-caliber actors inhabiting British leadership in a period setting, The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, would seem a sure thing to repeat a launch at Telluride. (The company has a Dec. 16 release scheduled.) But the film apparently isn’t quite finished. Programmers could also slip that studio’s comedy Butter, which stars Hugh Jackman and Jennifer Garner, into one of the high-visibility TBA slots on Saturday and Sunday night.

In addition to new films, Telluride is always well stocked with classics and obscurities. The 1920 German expressionist creeper From Morning to Midnight (screened with live orchestral accompaniment) and an original restored color version of Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, which will screen as part of preservationist Serge Bromberg’s annual cinema carnival, made the cut this year.

Guest director Caetano Veloso (he follows Payne and Michael Ondaatje in the role) has chosen the 1960 Billy Wilder classic The Apartment and Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, from 1962, in his mini-slate. And, as usual, the fest showcases student prints, experimental shorts, interviews, panels, art exhibits and book signings.