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Telluride: Sleeper Hit 'Tim's Vermeer' Profiles an Obsessive as He Makes Remarkable Discovery

Produced by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller, this doc, a fan favorite at the ongoing fest, focuses on a man who isn't a painter but painted a masterpiece.

Tim's Vermeer
"Tim's Vermeer"

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Every year, film pundits arrive at the Telluride Film Festival with a list of screenings that we know we must attend -- and then, while walking from venue to venue or riding the gondola or grabbing a quick bite between movies, we hear from fellow festiva-lgoers about other great little movies that they've stumbled upon. By the last day or two of the fest, some of those titles have been mentioned so many times that they get added onto our lists and we check them out.

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I followed up on one such title this afternoon at the Nugget Theater, and I can  report that the chatter is correct: Tim's Vermeer, a little doc produced by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller -- yes, that Penn & Teller -- is one of the great gems of the fest, and received applause accordingly. The good news for those not here in the Rockies: Sony Pictures Classics will release it sometime this year in order to qualify it for the best documentary feature Oscar race. My own gut feeling is that it will wind up as one of the nominees.

One of the most interesting things that a documentary can capture is passion that borders on obsession. Some of the greatest examples of the genre have done so, including Hoop Dreams (1994), Spellbound (2002), Sherman's March (1985) and Grizzly Man (2005). Tim's Vermeer deserves to be mentioned in this same company, and in the company of the all-time great docs about art, including Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), Waste Land (2010), My Kid Could Paint That (2007), Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994), The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story (1996) and My Architect (2003).

This film, which is about obsession and the art world, focuses on Jillette's longtime friend Tim Jenison, a San Antonio-based inventor who has been financially successful enough to pursue projects and try to solve mysteries that are of interest to him. Though he is not a painter, he became anxious to figure out how 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer -- best known to moviegoers as the guy behind the painting that inspired a 2003 film of the same title, The Girl with the Pearl Earring -- and some of his contemporaries were able, rather suddenly, to paint images with far greater realism and detail than their predecessors over the centuries. He agreed to be filmed by Penn and Teller as he set out to test a scientific theory that would rock the art world -- and spent the next 1,825 days doing just that.

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It woud be unfair to describe the film in any more detail than that because -- as was also the case with another Sony Classics doc, Searching for Sugar Man, which won the best documentary feature Oscar this past February -- everyone deserves the opportunity to go into it blind and emerge with the same sort of wonder that art-world legends like David Hockney display on-camera when they first see Jenison's theory put to the test. As Hockney says, "It might disturb quite a lot of people," since it forces you to question everything that you thought you knew about great art and the people responsible for it. But, as Jillette puts it, it doesn't argue that they weren't geniuses; it just shows that they were fathomable geniuses, rather than unfathomable ones.

I will, however, say that the movie is anything but a chore to watch -- even if Jenison's work was a chore to do -- thanks to a perfect musical score (by Conrad Pope, who also composed the music for the recent doc My Week with Marilyn); a colorful protagonist (who says at one point, "This project is a lot like watching paint dry"); and a truly remarkable discovery that will do nothing less than change the way you think about art.

Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottFeinberg for additional news and analysis.