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By Mark A. Altman | September 24, 2003

The Telluride Film Festival is probably the closest you’ll ever get to heaven on earth…and that isn’t only attributable to the altitude. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the Telluride Film Festival recently concluded its four-day run Labor Day weekend in the small, former mining town, nestled in the expansive San Jacinto Mountains. While Telluride’s reputation is well earned as a Mecca for movie lovers who take the art of cinema far more seriously than the art of the deal, Telluride stands head and tails above the myriad regional film festivals, which have popped up across the country over the last decade.
That said, the 30th was definitely not the charm for this venerable film festival. Unlike the marvels of the 25th year in which Telluride added an additional day for good measure, this bare bones affair retained the charm, but lacked the greatness of years past. One-of-a-kind events like a tribute to Cinerama, conversations with Norman Lloyd or Hitchcock’s screenwriters or its overview of the history of 3-D and The Lost Films of Walt Disney or the silents of 1928 were notably absent. Whether this is the fault of the programmers, or more likely, the dearth of quality films this year is hard to say, but fortunately even a sub par Telluride is requisite viewing for the devoted cinephile. Marked by a number of U.S. premieres, the fest ran the gamut from the genius of Kevin McDonald’s docu-drama “Touching the Void” to the interminable “Dogville,” Lars Van Trier’s misanthropic and loathsome three hour Cannes-can. Even the tributes were a bit on the anemic side with the fest choosing to honor British helmer Peter Brook, Polish producer Krzysztof Zanussi and, in the most baffling selection since the fest canonized Jennifer Jason Leigh nearly ten years ago, Toni Collette, an actress in her prime who needs another ten years of films under her belt before earning the privilege. Ted Turner also earned well-deserved kudos as a Silver Medallion recipient for his restoration work and was uncharacteristically laconic in his acceptance. His short-lived infatuation with colorizing movies was never uttered. Regrettably, the fest, which in the past has honored cinematographers like the late John Alton and Vittorio Storraro and composers Elmer Bernstein and Philip Glass, continues to focus on actors and directors to the exclusion of the more unsung heroes of cinema like the aforementioned craftsmen. Unfortunately, even Peter Bogdonovich, whose refreshing brand of egotism and unbridled narcissism is always welcome at the fest, was a no-show, much to my personal chagrin. I find him to be one of the single most entertaining director/film scholars around and even more engaging a speaker than Scorsese, mostly due to his journalistic roots, which exposed him to many of the filmmakers he converses about.
Although there was not really a breakout film as in years past (to wit: “Koyla,” “Once Were Warriors,” “The Boys From Saint Vincent,” Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, et al), the recently released “Lost In Translation” (***1/2) was extremely well received (unfortunately Sofia Copolla proved frustratingly mute, offering very little insight into the making of the film despite arriving to introduce it). “Best of Youth,” a six hour Italian miniseries, scored major kudos from many I talked to, although I never got a chance to see it. Equally beloved was Kevin McDonald and mountain climber Joe Simpson, whose “Touching the Void” was as close as the fest came to a universally praised film this year. Also well received was “Shattered Glass” (***1/2), a terrific film about the Stephen Glass scandal at the New Republic by freshman helmer Billy Ray. The film also had the most interesting Q & A of the festival addressing a provocative subject. Although devoid of any high-gloss style, the film is executed with finesse and the acting first rate, evoking favorable comparisons to such films as “All The President’s Men” and “Absence of Malice” as a top-drawer film about journalism. “Star Wars” Hayden Christensen plays Glass, making him even more unlikable although I’m sure that’s not what the crew had in mind.
Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions” (***1/2) is a wonderful film about family and mortality, although the film’s titular subtext is woefully unexplored. Nonetheless, “Barbarian” manages to be an even more engaging and well-constructed film than its progenitor, “The Decline of the American Empire” from 1986. An ebullient Peter Webber introduced his superb “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (****), based on the best-selling novel. Beautifully shot, the film is an extrapolation on the creation of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, played by Colin Firth with his usual aplomb. Marked by stunning cinematography evoking Vermeer’s work and a particularly effective score, Webber’s “Earring,” featuring a tour de force by actress Scarlett Johansson, was another fest highlight.
And, as always, the Alloy Orchestra once again provided one of the fest’s most delightful additions providing a new score for Buster Keaton’s classic silent film, “The General.” “Intermission” (***) isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. A new film from Irish director John Crowley featuring Collin Farrell and Colm Meaney. It’s a pastiche of familiar tropes from everything from “Pulp Fiction” to “Trainspotting,” but its still lively and satisfying with a delightful array of colorful characters on the fringes of society that populate the very monochromatic world of contemporary Dublin. Another familiar story is French director Yann Samuel whose “Love Me If You Dare” (**1/2) is a darkly comic and fatalistic story which apes the style of Jean Pierre Jenet’s Amelie so completely that Jenet should sue for residuals.
Get more of the fest in part two of INTO THIN AIR: 30 YEARS OF TELLURIDE>>>

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