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Telluride earns trust of film fans

The autumn movie season begins for me on the night when the curtain goes up on the first screening at the Telluride Film Festival. After a long summer of special effects, explosions, stabbings, shootings, gross-out comedies, supernatural mystifications, horror stories and movies about the alarmingly sophisticated sex lives of teenagers, September brings relief.

Of course some of the summer movies are very good. But autumn brings a back-to-school feeling, and going to Telluride is like buying a new three-ring binder and a book bag to carry it in. You have the feeling you'll make new friends and wonderful discoveries, and maybe even learn something.

The Telluride Festival, held every Labor Day weekend in Colorado, celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. It's small, expensive and hard to get to, but it's one of the best experiences a film lover can have. The selection process includes only films that the organizers think are really good. (most festivals show lots of films they don't necessarily even like). The town itself is so small that you run into the filmmakers without even trying, and this is one of the few festivals that industry professionals attend even if they don't have business to do.

Part of the mystique of Telluride is the secrecy over its schedule. In early years that was inspired by a real uncertainty about what films would actually turn up. Now it's part of the cachet. Co-founders Bill and Stella Pence and Tom Luddy are essentially asking us to trust them. Also, they want people to attend the festival as a whole, not be lured by famous names. And frequently they have "unofficial" screenings of films that allegedly aren't scheduled to be premiered for weeks or months.

Sometimes the names of a title or guest can leak out. This year, I hear that the sublime French actress Catherine Deneuve will attend and receive the Telluride Medal, and the festival will premiere her new film "Place Vendome," about the troubled widow of a very complicated diamond dealer.

Also promised this year is the much-anticipated U.S. premiere of "Princess Mononoke," the new film by Japan's master of anime, Hayao Miyazaki. The movie was Japan's all-time box office champ until it was passed by "Titanic," and Miramax grabbed the distribution rights away from its parent Disney, claiming that its specialized distribution strategies will find a crossover animation market. Miyazaki, whose credits include the wonderful animated films "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service," was set to attend the festival but has had to cancel.

The opening-night film will be "The Straight Story," by David Lynch, whose "Blue Velvet" caused a sensation at Telluride in 1986. No two films could be less similar. "Straight Story," which premiered at Cannes, stars 79-year-old Richard Farnsworth as an Iowa farmer who determines to have one last visit with his brother in Wisconsin. The old man doesn't have a driver's license, however - and so he drives there on a lawn tractor.

Also said to be on the schedule is "Black and White," the new movie by James Toback, about white teenagers who venture into the Harlem hip-hop scene. Robert Downey Jr., who starred in Toback's "Two Girls and a Guy" (1997), is back in this one. Also on tap, according to Variety: Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter, Billy Crudup and Denis Leary are in "Jesus' Son," by Alison MacLean, about addiction and recovery.

Following Telluride comes Toronto, Thursday through Sept. 19, which after Cannes is the second-largest film festival in the world. Between them, they preview many of the films we'll be talking about in the months to come. Lots of Oscar nominees will be among them.

But the best thing about Telluride isn't really the new films, which will open in theaters. It's the sidebar programs, which fill up about half the slots. There'll be a new restoration of a silent film, with a live soundtrack by the Alloy Orchestra. A special series by the guest programmer (still secret; last year it was Peter Bogdanovich, showing five titles from 1928, "the greatest year in movie history"). Tributes to legendary actors, directors and crafts people. A panel discussion and free lunch at the top of the ski lift.

And talk. Lots of talk. In the bracing mountain air, late at night in the moonlight, on the way from the Sheridan Opera House to the Mason's Hall, to stop in the middle of the street and talk about great movies is consolation, somehow, for the junk you've processed all summer long.

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