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The Film Festival that Best Predicts the Oscars

To begin with, it is not easy to get there. The nearest hub, and it’s a ho-hum hub, is Denver. There are flights into Telluride, in small planes and some terror, like the flights and landings in Only Angels Have Wings. The “normal” ways of arriving are by charter aircraft into Montrose (in southwestern Colorado) and then a 90-minute bus drive into the town of Telluride itself. There are others so impressed by the terrain passed on the way that they drive to Telluride, which can mean Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico as well as Colorado. And yet for the 40th Telluride Film Festival, held over the Labor Day weekend, the town gave some impression of being a literary festival. You could see and talk to Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje, Geoff Dyer, Mark Danner, Salman Rushdie, Phillip Lopate, Joyce Maynard ….

Of course, there were directors who had films in the festival: Steve McQueen (with 12 Years a Slave), Asghar Farhadi (The Past is his first film since A Separation), Jonathan Glazer (with Under the Skin), David Mackenzie (director of Starred Up), Agnieszka Holland (director of Burning Bush), Penn and Teller (part of the team that made Tim’s Vermeer, in which a high-tech inventor from San Antonio, Texas, sets out to paint a picture by Johannes Vermeer), the Coen Brothers, with their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, and their musical collaborator, T-Bone Burnett, Ralph Fiennes (directing a film, The Invisible Woman, in which he plays Charles Dickens), Errol Morris, whose latest documentary enquiry, The Unknown Known, has Donald Rumsfeld as its target, Alexander Payne (the maker ofElection, The Descendants,and now Nebraska), and Mark Cousins with an anthology on children in film, A Story of Children and Film.

But among the many others, you notice filmmakers who don’t have a picture playing at Telluride: Phil Kaufman (The Right Stuff), Buck Henry (The Graduate and Heaven Can Wait); directors Tamara Jenkins and Alison Mclean; producer Michael Fitzgerald (Wise Blood, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), who distinguishes himself one evening at a story-telling event, where he also recites a poem by Seamus Heaney, who has died that day; Charles Ferguson who won the documentary Oscar a few years ago for Inside Job; and Ken Burns who is as much a citizen of Telluride as he is of Walpole, New Hampshire.

And don’t forget the movie stars, most of whom are quite happy to put aside their own celebrity and join in the ongoing party. This year you could see Bruce Dern (who won the acting prize atCannes for Payne’s Nebraska), Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbinder, Mia Wasikowska, and so it goes.

Many of these people are promoting a picture, and maybe looking for another. But they come because it is Telluride, because they meet old friends there, because they like to hike and fish and because there is always the chance that Michael Pollan will go out picking wild mushrooms so that Alice Waters can cook them with a simple pasta. And here’s the point: These people come because Telluride does not tell them in advance what it will show. So we make that laborious journey to a place of uncertain weather, cancelled flights, and the chance of nose bleeds, sunburn and the need to take a breather if you’re walking up hill. That uncertainty is the Telluride tradition until the first day when guests receive a program—and a program that will be added to in a few days by sneak events, like the documentary, Salinger (as in J.D.), and 12 Years a Slave.

Put that way, Telluride can sound like an arty picnic, but that’s not nearly adequate to the real thing. In the last several years, Telluride just happens to have had the American premieres of pictures that went on to win Best Picture Oscars—Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and Argo, and that record could be extended this year, though whether with All is Lost or 12 Years a Slave or Nebraska is part of the guessing game. Distributors and business people know that history, too, and that’s a reason why they are happy to send their jewels up to 9,000 feet, without publicity or privileged circumstances, but sure that word-of-mouth often starts at Telluride. The films play in the 230-seat Opera House, in several other venues, and the great open-air arena named for Abel Gance, or in the new state-of-the art theatre, the Werner Herzog. Herzog—the person—seldom misses a Telluride, and he characterizes its easy way of putting mainstream and independents—from Hollywood, Iran, Cuba, and Russia—side by side, as well as the urge to play something as futuristic as Gravity (in which George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are lost in space) and as venerable as He Who Gets Slapped, a Lon Chaney melodrama from 1924, which is now accompanied by a live score delivered by the magnificent Alloy Orchestra. There are things at Telluride, such as no other festival imagines: This year, perhaps, it was an eleven-minute version of the Zapruder film from Dallas on November 22, 1963, repeated, slowed, and done in horrific close-ups, while Don DeLillo read a passage from his novel, Underworld, in which several characters watch a bootleg copy of the Zapruder film.

The pied piper for this parade is Tom Luddy, 70 this year, one of the original founders of Telluride, along with James Card, Bill and Stella Pence, and now one of three festival directors, along with Julie Huntsinger and Gary Meyer. Luddy was director of the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley, California, he was in charge of special projects at Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope, and he has produced films as varied as Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, Paul Schrader’s Mishima, and Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance. He has played golf with Akira Kurosawa, organized the revival of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, and managed to make Telluride both impromptu and efficient. Of course, he has had help over the years from luminaries like Roger Ebert and Pierre Rissient, Bill Everson, and Bertrand Tavernier, as well as a thousand volunteers. He has the historical knowledge and the taste of a great programmerto be expected at a film festival. But he has the self-effacing generosity that means hundreds of people in the picture business all have stories of how Luddy altered their lives with an introduction, a meeting or an invitation to Telluride. For years, he had the spirit and energy of youth so that it’s not too easy to believe he’s 70. But he is, and he has reached a point at which his achievement is written for all time on the screen and in the thundery radiance of the mountains at Telluride. But perhaps it is time to be inscribed on an honorary Oscar. No one deserves it more.

David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.