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Telluride surprises are worth the trip

Most film festivals trumpet their offerings, bragging about their premieres and stars. The Telluride Film Festival, which begins Thursday, treats its films like a poker player treats his hole cards. One imagines Bill Pence and Tom Luddy, the co-founders, looking at the programs from Montreal, Toronto and Venice, and sneaking another peek at their hands.

Telluride never announces its schedule in advance. You have to fly to Denver, take a commuter flight to Montrose, then drive 90 minutes into the Rocky Mountains, all on faith. When you get there, they tell you what they're showing. Usually, it's something amazing.

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It was at Telluride that I first saw "Sling Blade," "Roger & Me," "My Dinner with Andre," "My Left Foot," "The Crying Game," "Au revoir les enfants," "Reservoir Dogs" and "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." But apart from the premieres, the festival devotes at least half of its screenings to tributes, revivals, discoveries and silent films with live accompaniment. I know people who hardly even go to the new films at Telluride, figuring they can catch up with them later elsewhere.

A few hints of the 25th anniversary program have leaked out, however. This year, one of the three winners of the Telluride Medal will be actress Meryl Streep, whose autumn release, "Dancing at Lughnasa," will premiere there. I know this because I've been asked to do the Q&A with her onstage. The re-edited "original" version of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil," which was canceled at Cannes because of the protests of Welles' daughter Beatrice, will be screened at Telluride. I know that because Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader was one of the expert consultants on the project.

King Vidor's silent classic "The Crowd" (1925) will be the featured silent film; I know that because Variety said so in its advance story, which also announced that this year's guest programmer will be director Peter Bogdanovich. And I've heard that Stanley Kauffmann, the legendary film critic of the New Republic, will be there to celebrate his 40th anniversary with the magazine.

I can also predict that the great German director Werner Herzog will attend, because he almost always does. When Pence and producer Tom Luddy co-founded the festival 25 years ago, Herzog was one of their first supporters, and in those early days, before screenings took every moment of the day and night, he ran an annual softball game.

In the early years Telluride was a tiny festival, with fewer than 1,000 people attending; now it has expanded into a small festival, with about 3,500 people expected. The crowds have outgrown the tiny Sheridan Opera House, the Nugget Theater, the Community Center, the Masons Hall and Elks Park; now a new portable cinema is erected in the high school gym every year, complete with Dolby sound. But the town and the crowds are still small enough that you can count on running into almost everybody you know, especially at the combination Labor Day picnic and panel discussion.

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Of the festivals I attend, Cannes is the most important, Toronto is the most useful, and Telluride is the most fun. That's partly because of the spectacular setting in the mountains, partly because it's small and mostly because Pence and Luddy program with such imagination. They've shown films that weren't supposed to exist and honored filmmakers who weren't thought to still be alive. Once they pulled off a double play, showing the long-lost "Napoléon" (1927) to its 91-year-old director, Abel Gance. Screenings like that are worth driving up a mountain for.

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