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‘Birdman,’ ‘Wild,’ ‘Imitation Game’ and an ‘Apocalypse Now’ treat set for 41st Telluride

TELLURIDE – With all the reindeer games going on in the fall festival world, a lot of the drama and mystery surrounding Telluride's perennially on-the-lowdown program began to seep out like a steadily deflating balloon this year. Toronto, Venice and New York notations of “World Premiere,” “Canada Premiere,” “New York Premiere” or “International Premiere” and the like made it all rather obvious which films were heading to the San Juans for the 41st edition of the tiny mining village's cinephile gathering, and which were not. But the fact is, if you're in it just for the surprises – or certainly, for the awards-baiting heavies – you're never going to be fully satisfied by the Telluride experience. That having been said, this year's program might just be the most exciting one in my six years of attending.

Starting with all of the stuff we were expecting, indeed, Cannes players “Foxcatcher,” “Mr. Turner” and “Leviathan” will play the festival from the Sony Pictures Classics stable. SPC co-chiefs Michael Barker and Tom Bernard have been two of the most vocal detractors of Toronto's strictures this season, though it has always been clear that Telluride – with its focus on high brow and concentration of Academy voter attendees – has always been the better fit for their brand of product. The company will also hold its annual dinner in celebration of the talent from these films and more (“Merchants of Doubt,” “Wild Tales”).

Other Cannes premieres set for a North American launch here include the Dardennes' “Two Days, One Night” with Marion Cotillard, Xavier Dolan's award-winning “Mommy,” Gabe Polsky's Cold War/Soviet hockey team documentary “Red Army” and Tommy Lee Jones' western “The Homesman,” with Hilary Swank.

Meanwhile, after opening the Venice fest on Wednesday, Alejandro González Iñárritu's “Birdman” will land stateside here before bypassing Toronto en route to New York in October. (Fox Searchlight will in fact have another hefty presence in Telluride with both that film and Jean-Marc Valleé's “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon.) Other Venice titles that will drop in Telluride after premiering on the Lido include Ramin Bahrani's “99 Homes” with Andrew Garfield and Joshua Oppenheimer's “Act of Killing” follow-up “The Look of Silence.”

Like “Wild,” The Weinstein Company will debut Morten Tyldum's “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch here before heading up to Toronto next week, as will Open Road Films with Jon Stewart's directorial debut “Rosewater.” And after seeing his break-out moment, “Starred Up,” land at Telluride a year ago, actor Jack O'Connell is back with another play ahead of his big “Unbroken” turn later this year in Yann Demange's “'71.”

Speaking earlier of Swank, the two-time Oscar winner will be receiving the festival's highest profile tribute this year, the early workings, perhaps, of a significant Oscar push for “The Homesman.” New kid on the block Saban Films acquired the film out of Cannes, but Roadside Attractions will be handling campaign particulars. German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff will receive the other tribute as his latest, “Diplomacy,” screens in the program alongside his 1992 Billy Wilder documentary “Billy, How Did You Do It?” and his 1970 Bertolt Brecht adaptation “Baal.” Gian Luca Farinelli of the Cineteca di Bologna, meanwhile, will receive a Special Medallion, in keeping with Telluride's commitment to spotlighting what many at this fest consider God's work in the field of film preservation.

But let's talk about what really has me hopping for this year's festival. Again, those who have come here in recent years clamoring for just the Oscar stuff miss out on powerful presentations like a fascinating and painstaking “Trip to the Moon” restoration, or a 70mm screening of Ron Fricke's “Baraka,” or just last year, a new DCP of Werner Herzog's masterpiece “Aguirre the Wrath of God.” Well, this year, let's just say “Apocalypse Now” fans will have a whole lot to chew on.

I had a feeling last year that, on the occasion of Telluride's 40th anniversary, festival brass might reach back to inaugural tributee Francis Ford Coppola for something special. They held off a year, is all, and with the legendary director's iconic 1979 opus celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, the festival will be presenting a new DCP of the film's original cut, supervised by Coppola himself. But that's not all. A once-in-a-lifetime experience is here to be had as filmmaker James Gray (“The Immigrant”) hosts a close-up of the film with producer Fred Roos, editor/sound editor Walter Murch, Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Coppola himself. Roos will use screen tests to discuss casting of the film while Murch, Storaro and Coppola will present sequences to reveal how and why they were created.

BUT THAT'S NOT ALL.

Naturally, with any “Apocalypse Now” retrospective, a screening of Eleanor Coppola's stunning 1991 making-of documentary “Hearts of Darkness” is in order (and if you've never seen that film, seek it out). So that's on the docket. And in addition, a conversation with the film's creative consultant, Dennis Jakob, and filmmakers Errol Morris and Guy Maddin will go down on Monday. I mean…just…#swoon.

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