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The 41st Annual Telluride Film Festival Preview

Every major film festival cultivates a privileged aura. Sundance asserts the primacy of the American independent and heralds the wonder of the breakthrough discovery. Cannes celebrates the cultural prominence of film as a fabric of French cultural life. Toronto animates a very Canadian brand of egalatarianism and social inclusiveness.

The Telluride Film festival, which kicks off its 41st iteration formally today, is the most furtive. In movie language, Telluride is a noir connoting something shadowy and unknowable, and governed by its own internal logic. As a four-day boutique festival that ends on Labor Day, the festival is a much smaller and more intricate gathering than those of Cannes, Venice, Sundance and Toronto.

The festival unquestionably carries disproportionate power. By its very nature, the festival is mutable, a cultural tastemaker, a showcase for international art cinema and a launchpad for the highly-anticipated and prestigious fall titles that shape the awards narrative.

Increasingly the festival is an insurgent with the ability to secure high-profile premieres of major titles such as "Argo" or "12 Years a Slave," which prompted Toronto's executives to announce a somewhat punitive policy that any film with a previous North American premiere is going to be denied any Toronto screenings the first four days.

Timing (and location) is everything here, and the fact that it unfolds a week before Toronto gives it an undeniable cachet. Unless you own a private jet, Telluride is virtually impossible to get to, increasing the sense of this town as projecting a kind of mystique or otherworldly glow. The festival's central motif is mystery, emphasized by the adroit way the festival's top programmers always withhold the films playing until the day before the festival starts.

This year's program is, on paper, a very impressive melange, a 25-film main program culled from the major international festivals and highly anticipated new works balanced out with a collection of tributes, revivals and the special programs selected by this year's guest directors, the husband and wife team of the very gifted Canadian expressionistic filmmaker Guy Maddin ("Archangel") and the talented film writer Kim Morgan.

Seven of the films in the main program mark the American premieres of titles that played in the very strong Cannes competition, like Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner," the Dardenne Brothers' "Two Days, One Night," Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Leviathan," Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan's "Mommy" and Tommy Lee Jones' "The Homesman."

The most eagerly anticipated work is "Birdman," Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's new film with Michael Keaton as a New York actor who's trying to revive his career. The first film by the director of "Babel" in four years, the reportedly audacious and visually inventive feature received a rapturous response when it opened the Venice Film festival on Wednesday.

Right on the heels of heightened excitement is "Wild," by the talented French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Valee coming off his celebrated "The Dallas Buyers Club," working from an adapted script by Nick Hornsby and Reese Witherspoon trying to find her own stride again.

The other films generating heightened response are "The Price of Fame," the new work by the leading French director Xavier Beauvois ("Of Gods and Men"); Ramin Bahrani's film, "99 Homes," with Michael Shannon, set during the financing and housing crisis; Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary, "The Look of Silence," his follow up to his devastating work on the Indonesian death squads, "The Act of Killing"; Nick Broomfield's "Tales of the Grim Sleeper," about the serial killer who haunted a Los Angeles South Central neighborhood.

Two-time Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank is the subject of a career tribute. Her work is bracing and judicious as an independent frontierswoman tasked with transporting a group of damaged women across the Nebraska plains in Jones' feminist-tinged piece, "The Homesman." As part of the celebration, the festival is screening the Western, which constitutes her finest work since Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby."

If anything, Telluride is too much of a good thing, too much great stuff packed into too narrow a framework. How many chances do you get in life to see Joseph Losey's remake of Fritz Lang's "M," or a director's cut of "California Split," one of Robert Altman's best films from the greatest period? Or there's my candidate for the greatest American filmmaker ever, Orson Welles, represented here with the 66-minute version of his "Too Much Johnson" and the subject of a new documentary, "Magic," by Chuck Workman.

The natural wonder and beauty of this place is a knockout, and now we're about to find out if the films stack up.

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