Telluride Notebook

Courtesy of Telluride International Film Festival

With George Clooney's star power, kickoff of the awards talk and film-buff esoterica, the Colorado festival delivers.

The Telluride Film Festival, a Labor Day weekend event since its inception in 1974, always provides the opportunity for scouts on the front line of the film scene to leave the summer behind and get a first look at the cinematic harvest season.  In this regard, this year's festival offered a satisfying amount of good news.

Alexander Payne's The Descendants was the first film shown, at a special preview on Friday afternoon, and by festival's end Monday it had consolidated its profile as a picture likely to win wide critical and popular support -- especially for George Clooney, its lead.

Clooney was the undeniable star of Telluride. Not that he isn't the star pretty much wherever he goes. But on the streets of Telluride, site of Butch Cassidy's first bank robbery, where everyone strolls, chats easily with anyone in the vicinity and basically refrains from acting like a fool in the presence of celebrity, Clooney amazed for his relaxed affability and accessibility. Traveling without an entourage after jetting over Friday from the Venice world premiere of The Ides of March, a film he directed, Clooney never took himself too seriously, was hilarious at two packed tributes to him and drank and schmoozed into the wee hours Saturday night at the venerable Sheridan Bar.

There was one moment when, as the actor headed for his car before a tribute, a crowd of some 30 or 40 young ladies suddenly materialized out of nowhere to surround him, a sight unlike anything I have seen at Telluride.

Given the jigsaw-like screening schedule at the multiple venues here, it's never possible to see everything, but Telluride featured its usual mix of premieres, highlights from Berlin and Cannes, tributes (to Clooney, Tilda Swinton and 83-year-old French comic actor-director Pierre Etaix), silent films with live musical accompaniment, assorted revivals and restorations and an ever-growing sidebar of cinema-related documentaries.

You never knew whom you might be sitting next to in a cinema or meet in a coffee line: Werner Herzog (here with his new documentary Into the Abyss); Wim Wenders (Pina); Alice Waters (supporting the showings of Merlusse and Harvest, two rare titles by her favorite filmmaker, Marcel Pagnol); Peter Sellars; Ken Burns; Pierre Rissient; and the irrepressible Serge Bromberg, on hand to present his color restoration of Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon (complete with a commissioned soundtrack by French electronic act Air) and other archival rarities.

Among the new films (some of them more or less simultaneously debuting in Venice) were Agnieszka Holland's intense and very particular take on the Nazi occupation of Poland, In Darkness; Martin Scorsese's excellent epic biographical documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World; Rodrigo Garcia's Albert Nobbs, with Glenn Close in a precisely judged performance; Steve McQueen's searing Shame and David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, both of which feature superb performances by Michael Fassbender; and Jim Field Smith's comedy Butter, shown as an unannounced sneak preview, which looks to be more of an audience pleaser than a critical favorite. 

There were quite a few notable documentaries, including Frederick Wiseman's Crazy Horse and the enticing first two sections of Mark Cousins' eventual 900-minute personal documentary, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which just began airing on British television.

Of the foreign features already shown at European festivals, the two that emerged from the pack as huge popular hits were Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi's enormously engrossing Berlin Golden Bear winner A Separation and Michel Hazanavicius' thoroughly entertaining black-and-white silent The Artist. Others that went over well in their North American debuts were Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre, Joseph Cedar's Footnote, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's The Kid With a Bike and Mia Hansen-Love's Goodbye, First Love.

Guest director Caetano Veloso presented six personal favorites, including Glauber Rocha's hard-to-see Black God, White Devil and Rene Clair's 1955 Les Grand Manoeuvres.