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Telluride winners - and sinners

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- At every Telluride Film Festival, there's always the film everyone loves and the film everybody stammers about because they can't put their feelings into words.

At this year's festival, which ended Monday night, audiences loved "Central Station," the story of a friendship between an old lady and a homeless young boy in Brazil. And the film they couldn't get a handle on was "Happiness," which is about characters so pathetic and perverse that you watch them with a kind of horror.

There were a lot of other good films here, too - the best selection in several years, although the revivals and retrospectives were so wonderful that it was a shame, really, to take up time with the new films at all. They'll open eventually in theaters. But I will never, ever again in my life be able to have an experience like the one I had watching a restored print of the 1928 silent film "The Man Who Laughs," accompanied by a 12-piece orchestra from France.

Silent films were everywhere at Telluride this year, led by guest director Peter Bogdanovich's morning screenings of classics from 1928, "the greatest year in the history of the movies." That also was the year before the talkies took over - "Just when we had it right, it ended," Charlie Chaplin once mourned. One day here, I began at 9:30 a.m. with a screening of King Vidor's "The Crowd" and ended late that night with "The Man Who Laughs," starring Conrad Veidt in Victor Hugo's melodrama about a child whose face is permanently carved into a smile to make him a sideshow attraction. As an adult, he falls in love with a blind girl and then discovers that his real father was the duke of . . . but the plot grows complex. The film has the kind of heedless joy that happens when every other shot is a plunge into excess.

The festival's popular favorite, "Central Station," by Walter Salles, stars the great Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro as a former schoolteacher who ekes out a living by writing letters for illiterates in the Rio train station. Against her will, she becomes the protector of a young boy (Vinicius de Oliveira) after his mother is struck and killed by a bus. They are adversaries at first, and then grow closer as they set out on a perilous journey across the vast nation, looking for the boy's father. The film has the simplicity and power of titles like "The Bicycle Thief" and "Pixote," and is being positioned by its U.S. distributor, Sony Classics, for best picture and best actress Oscar nominations.

"Happiness," however, was not exactly a Telluride audience favorite. But that doesn't mean it's not a remarkable film - it's the new work by Todd Solondz, whose "Welcome To The Dollhouse" was about an unpopular junior high school girl who fought back against life. "Happiness" assembles a gallery of desperately lonely and unhappy introverts, including a man who makes obscene phone calls and another who molests the young friend of his son.

"The funniest film ever to explore sexual obsession," the program notes say. Not everyone was laughing, and some were squirming. It's amusing to ask people if they "liked" it and hear them wonder how that word applies to this difficult but brilliant film. "Happiness" won the critic's prize at Cannes this year, but was dropped like a hot potato by its original distributor. It will cause a lot of discussion when it opens this fall (the Chicago release date is Oct. 23).

Another much-discussed film, but one with a happy ending, is Rolf de Heer's "Dance Me to My Song," an extraordinary Australian work written by Heather Rose, who also stars in it - even though she has cerebral palsy and communicates through a computer and a speaking machine. As the film opens, she's at the mercy of a stupid and cruel "caregiver" who neglects and insults her. Using her motorized wheelchair and her lively intelligence, she tries to figure a way out of her plight. In the opening shot, the heroine seems hopeless and alien. By the end, we identify more with her than with the "normals" in the story.

Audiences also applauded "The General" (1999), by England's John Boorman, which stars Brendan Gleeson in a powerful performance as an Irish master criminal who makes the mistake of crossing the IRA.

Boorman won best director award at Cannes for the film, which shows how crime has a life of its own and seeks to exist in the cracks of society - even in Ireland, where the cracks are already pretty well filled.

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