The Telluride Film Festival asks its attendees to take a leap of faith that the secretive program will be worth the effort of getting there.
30 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 3:05 PM

Critic Roger Ebert, to whom the 40th annual Telluride Film Festival is dedicated, once said the Telluride experience was “like Cannes died and went to heaven.” I've never been to Cannes, but this week marks my first trip to Telluride, a thumbprint town (pop. 2 291) hidden in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. At almost 3000 meters, Telluride is about to bring some 4500 festival visitors closer to heaven than perhaps they had planned on being this summer.

The Telluride festival holds itself coolly apart: There are no red carpet arrivals or photo calls, minimal sponsorship, no competition, and—to this journalist's chagrin—no media passes. Difficult to access (flights are prohibitively expensive, and Denver, the nearest major city, is a nine-hour drive away) and unfriendly to press, Telluride is like summer camp for the elite (or the merely lucky) cinephile. In addition to a three-day program of much-anticipated films, tributes to various industry figures, and a literary presence (this year Don Delillo, Phillip Lopate, Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, and Joyce Maynard are here to introduce favourite films, including La Jetée and Satyjit Ray's Manhanagar), a student symposium brings 25 young people in from all over the country for a weekend of film and conversation.

I was traveling with two such students yesterday, through hours of American frontier and red rock mountains embossed with bones and fossilized dinosaur tracks. (It's a landscape reminiscent, we decided, of Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller.) It is another quirk of the festival that they don't announce their lineup until the morning before it kicks off, so it was in between gasping at mountains and gasping for air that I discovered, via smartphone, just what I was riding into Telluride to see.

This year, what Telluride calls 'The Show' comprises just 27 films, a kind of primer for the coming season. Leading the program is Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film, in which Oscar Isaac plays a budding 1960s folk singer, with a cast that includes Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, and Justin Timberlake. The Coens are also one of three festival honorees, including Robert Redford, whose Sundance, another mountain festival, is the antithesis of Telluride's defiant understatement, and T-Bone Burnett. Other 'Show' standouts include Alexander Payne's Nebraska, John Curran's Tracks, Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, Jonathan Glazer's alien fantasy Under the Skin, Palme D'Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Colour, and Death Row and The Unknown Known, new documentaries from Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, respectively.

Having settled into my mountain lodgings and taken a stroll into the town center, where a message board with actual meet-up messages tacked to it still stands, I went to stock up for a long weekend. I asked the grocery checkout clerk, a teenage girl, if the tripling of her town's population every Labor Day weekend was fun or just a source of annoyance. “It can be fun,” she said diplomatically. “As long as people are nice. Which they often are not.”

Ah yes. You can keep out the press, the paparazzi, the party crashers, and the dealmakers, but the film world's baseline entitlement tends to travel very well. Perhaps Telluride is not so different; we shall see. Over the next week I will be checking in with reviews and blog coverage of the various premieres, tributes, dedications, and secret, last-minute screenings marking this eccentric festival's fortieth year. To the mountain!