Telluride Film Festival: THR's Film Critic Todd McCarthy On Why Secret Lineup Works

Mark Schoneveld/Flickr Creative Commons

The festival veteran weighs in on this year’s Colorado event.

The guessing game is on as to what will be shown during the 38th edition of the Telluride Film Festival, the only major such event in the world that doesn't announce its lineup ahead of time. Such is the confidence in the Labor Day Weekend event that Tom Luddy — now in league with Gary Meyer after years of running the Show with Bill Pence — has built up over the years that audiences trust him implicitly to deliver a program that is more than worth the effort to get to the remote Colorado mountain town to spend three-and-a-half days in the dark when it's usually so gorgeous outside.

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Virtually from the beginning, Telluride has performed an exquisite balancing act: Between old and new, foreign and American, the esoteric and the accessible, the expected and the unknown. As at a great restaurant, it's best to just place yourself in the chef's hands and sample what's served up. Some dishes are better than others, of course, but you can rarely say something was bad or a waste of time. Because of its limited duration, Telluride can afford to be picky and discriminating, which only works to the benefit of the viewer.

Because of its maverick, rarified status, Telluride never felt much need to publicize itself. It's never courted press, although a few journalists go every year, and it doesn't crow about world premieres, even though it's had some big ones. However, mostly due to changes in the culture and release schedules, it’s served as a perceived lucky charm for some major films and has, through little will of its own, become the much-sough-after first domestic stop for specialized films with Oscar dreams.

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One of the first instances of Telluride playing a crucial role in the Oscar race came way back in 1992, when an completely unheralded British film called The Crying Gameplayed there and in Venice over the same weekend. It has since been documented that Miramax had no clue what to do with this tricky sexual and political thriller until the enormous reaction at Telluride suggested that it held potential gold — monetary and honorary — in its hands.

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Tweleve years later, the same distributor found similar good fortune in the similarly little-anticipated Finding Neverland. But the turning point came the following year, in 2005, when Telluride hit the jackpot by hosting the premieres of Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Walk the Line, eventual Oscar winners all for director, actor and actress.

This hat trick was something Hollywood could not ignore and, even since then, the specialized distributors have conducted a dalliance with Telluride, desiring the coveted first dance of the season while also juggling the desirability of prominent exposure in Venice, Toronto and/or New York. The 2006 Telluride yielded a winner in The Last King of Scotlandand contenders in Little Childrenand Venus, while in 2007 the success of Into the Wildwas eclipsed by the enormous buzz generated by the sneak preview world premiere of Juno.

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That year, too, began a still-debated practice of saluting an artist (in this instance, Daniel Day-Lewis) who had a big film coming up (There Will Be Blood) but not showing the complete film; this happened again in 2008 when David Fincher was saluted with just clips, not the full film, of The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonbeing screened.

But it was also in 2008 that Fox Searchlight hurried to the festival with a film it had just picked up, Slumdog Millionaire, and came away stunned to have learned what it had on its hands. Who can say if the career of Danny Boyle's underdog best picture winner would have been the same had it not been for stir it created in Telluride before anyone else anywhere even knew what it was. But this little film first glimpsed at a distant festival suddenly became the picture everyone around the world couldn't wait to see.

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Since then, industry scrutiny of Telluride's “world premieres” and sneak previews has been upped considerably, as has the jockeying among the likes of Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, Focus, Weinstein and even the majors from time to time to be considered for this coveted stage. Up in the Airwas one of the big new titles for 2009, but Telluride took the crown again last year by bringing the curtain up on the eventual Oscar winner, The King's Speech, in conjunction with a tribute to Colin Firth; two more winners from the 2010 edition were Inside Joband Black Swan.

Anyone who's been to Telluride or considered its history will testify that subsequent awards distinctions are not what the festival is about; it's not out to “discover” one or two big titles that will then dominate all discussions of movies for the next six months but, rather, committed to set the most tantalizing and satisfying cinematic table of the festival season. Any festival would welcome the kind of success and good fortune Telluride has had with these lauded films and some observers would say it's earned it through decades of discerning choices.

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So what does that portend for this year? If Fox Searchlight continues to favor Telluride with its gems, it won't be a huge surprise if it sends along Alexander Payne's much-anticipated The Descendents (already announced for Toronto and New York). There are new films in the offing from previous Telluride invitees — David Cronenberg, Steve McQueen, Andrea Arnold, Todd Solondz, Werner Herzog — and Martin Scorsese's marathon documentary about George Harrison could be a good bet on the basis of the festival having world premiered Scorsese's earlier documentary treatment of Bob Dylan. Of course, there will be la crème de la crème from Cannes, vintage treats, unexpected documentaries, oddball titles no one's ever heard of and a must-see program by the sorcerer of the archives, Serge Bromberg.

One thing for sure, based on previous experience—it will be worth everyone's while.

Telluride International Film Festival

Sept. 2-5

Venue: Sheridan Opera House