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Telluride at Dartmouth: Films That Could Surprise

  • The film "12 Years a Slave" is showing on Sept. 20, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

    The film "12 Years a Slave" is showing on Sept. 20, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Bruce Dern stars in the film "Nebraska," showing on Sept. 21, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

    Bruce Dern stars in the film "Nebraska," showing on Sept. 21, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Irrfan Khan is featured in the film "Lunchbox," showing on Sept. 22, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

    Irrfan Khan is featured in the film "Lunchbox," showing on Sept. 22, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Kristin Scott-Thomas stars in the film "Before the Winter Chill," showing Sept. 25, 2013, in Hanover, N.H., as part of Telluride at Dartmouth. (Courtesy photograph)

    Kristin Scott-Thomas stars in the film "Before the Winter Chill," showing Sept. 25, 2013, in Hanover, N.H., as part of Telluride at Dartmouth. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones star in "The Invisible Woman," showing on Sept. 26, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

    Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones star in "The Invisible Woman," showing on Sept. 26, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

  • The film "12 Years a Slave" is showing on Sept. 20, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)
  • Bruce Dern stars in the film "Nebraska," showing on Sept. 21, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)
  • Irrfan Khan is featured in the film "Lunchbox," showing on Sept. 22, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)
  • Kristin Scott-Thomas stars in the film "Before the Winter Chill," showing Sept. 25, 2013, in Hanover, N.H., as part of Telluride at Dartmouth. (Courtesy photograph)
  • Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones star in "The Invisible Woman," showing on Sept. 26, 2013, at Telluride at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

Now marking its 40th anniversary, the Telluride Film Festival is, in some ways, one of the few such festivals in the world where the emphasis is on pure cinema, and not the stars, the swag, the paparazzi or the gossip. Every year over Labor Day weekend, people who are mad for the movies flock to the old mining town of Telluride, Colo., to watch four days of upcoming releases, restored prints of older classics and rediscovered masterpieces.

Actors, directors, writers and serious fans of all stripes, whether it be Don DeLillo or a dentist from Florida, convene in an atmosphere that is decidedly less commercial than other festivals. Unlike Cannes or Venice, there is no competition for best film at Telluride; and unlike Toronto, it’s not a merchandise mart for hundreds of movies hoping to find public release.

Financial considerations aren’t entirely absent: this is the movie business, after all. But in the opinion of critics and movie makers, Telluride is one of the best-curated festivals in the world, and movies that have become audience hits there have gone on in recent years to both popular and financial success.

That doesn’t mean that the competition among film festivals to land the premiere of a potentially big film isn’t fierce, though, said Sydney Stowe, the film manager for the Hopkins Center, which hosts Telluride at Dartmouth every year in September. There is intense jockeying for position at the starting gate, and it’s not unusual for festivals to demand the exclusive right to show a much-anticipated movie. It’s also not unusual for Hollywood distributors to withhold a film from one festival and offer it to another, as the awards season begins in earnest in the fall. Four of the movies awarded the Oscar in recent years for Best Picture ( Argo , The Artist , The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire ) had their premieres at Telluride, said Stowe.

What’s appealing about Telluride at Dartmouth, said Stowe, is that there’s a balance in the program. “It’s not all dark and it’s not all commercial either.”

This year’s slate of films includes 12 Years A Slave , which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt. Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was abducted from the North in 1841, the film traces his journey to New Orleans, where he is at the mercy of a ruthless plantation owner. The film is directed by Steve McQueen, a young British filmmaker who has attracted both praise and controversy with his previous films Hunger , about the Irish hunger strikers in British prisons during the Troubles, and Shame , which starred Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in New York City. 12 Years A Slave will screen in Hanover on Friday, Sept. 20, at 5:15 and 8:15 p.m. Since 2010, all Telluride at Dartmouth films have been held in Spaulding Auditorium.

Another movie being talked about post-Telluride, said Stowe, is the documentary The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden . Directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine previously made the 2005 documentary Ballets Russes , about the famed 20th-century ballet company.

The Galapagos Affair follows the efforts of German emigres to start a commune in the late 1920s on the small island of Floreana in the Galapagos, off Ecuador. But egos clash, arguments over the direction of the settlements on Floreana become bitter and in 1934, there were a series of mysterious deaths that might have been murder. The film, said Stowe, looks at people’s illusions about living in what they think is paradise, and the darker reality of human connection in a rigorous landscape and climate. It screens on Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 4 and 7 p.m.

A charming sleeper of a film, The Lunchbox , from India, could be described as a 21st-century version of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner , in which two people who work together fall in love by writing letters to each other. Because the letters are written under assumed names, the writers don’t realize that the person they despise at work is, in fact, the same person whose letters have enchanted them.

In the Mumbai version, a lonely wife sends lunch to her indifferent husband but one of the lunches mistakenly ends up with a widowed accountant, whose imagination is captured by what she reveals of herself in her notes to her husband. Actor Irrfan Khan, who starred in The Life of Pi , plays the accountant. The Lunchbox will be shown on Sunday, Sept. 22, at 4 and 7 p.m.

Other films at Telluride at Dartmouth include the latest movie from Alexander Payne, who has directed the Oscar-nominated films Sideways , The Descendants and About Schmidt . Nebraska , which won a Best Actor award at Cannes for Bruce Dern, is about a bitter alcoholic who embarks on a road trip with one of his estranged sons. Nebraska screens on Saturday, Sept. 21, at 4 and 7 p.m.

On Wednesday, Sept. 25, Before the Winter Chill , will be shown at 4 and 7 p.m. Starring Kristen Scott-Thomas and Daniel Auteuil, and directed by Philippe Claudel, the film dissects the foibles of an affluent French couple whose marriage is on shaky ground. If it sounds all too familiar, Stowe said the film takes unexpected turns that leave the audience unsettled and uncertain as to what happens next. The final film is The Invisible Woman , directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens, who, at age 45, fell in love with a young actress Ellen Ternan. After separating from his wife of more than 20 years, Dickens carried on a 12-year relationship with Ternan in what was considered an open secret. The film explores the relationship between artist and muse, and the perils of the kind of fame Dickens had. The Invisible Woman screens on Thursday, Sept. 26, at 4 and 7 p.m.

One of the great things about Telluride, both in Colorado and in Hanover, is that audiences get to see a film before there is a consensus of critical reaction, said Stowe. In a world in which almost nothing is a surprise anymore, seeing a film without really knowing much about it ahead of time is one of life’s unpredictable pleasures. Yes, it could be a disappointment. But it could also be one of the best films you’ve ever seen, and the only way to find out is to go.

For information and tickets, call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422 or go to hop.dartmouth.edu.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.