By John Horn
10:00 AM EDT, August 28, 2013
A man adrift at sea. A woman adrift in space. And a young girl all by herself in the desert.
If there's a theme at this weekend's Telluride Film Festival, it's that solo travel may have its benefits but also carries more than a few risks.
Colorado's Labor Day weekend festival — which is starting Thursday, a day earlier than normal, to commemorate its 40th edition — is known for eclectic programming announced at the very last minute, and it's often difficult to detect trends.
But the inclusion of three films — Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity," which stars Sandra Bullock opposite George Clooney as astronauts detached from their space shuttle by a mission disaster, "All Is Lost," director J.C. Chandor's account of an unaccompanied sailor (Robert Redford) stuck in a sinking boat, and "Tracks" featuring Mia Wasikowska as a young explorer on a 1,700-mile trek — suggests this year's festival will make some moviegoers appreciate the roofs over their heads just a bit more.
In recent years, more by accident than design, Telluride has hosted the world premieres of several films that went on to take the best picture Oscar, including "Argo," "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire."
"It's incredibly fortunate that we're just really lucky that way," said Julie Huntsinger, who directs the festival with Gary Meyer and Tom Luddy.
Among the 59 features and shorts playing in Telluride, the awards contenders certainly include "Gravity" (premiering Wednesday at Venice Film Festival) and "All Is Lost" (which premiered at Cannes in May) as well as Jason Reitman's "Labor Day." Reitman's film is an adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel about a single mother (Kate Winslet) who decides to take in an escaped prisoner (Josh Brolin), sparking a rift with her young son (Gattlin Griffith). It's the third time the director has launched a movie in the mountain resort town, as "Labor Day" follows the Telluride premieres of his "Up in the Air" in 2009 and "Juno" in 2007.
The festival typically holds several "sneak previews" of movies that are not on the festival's official schedule, and candidates for those prime slots could include writer-director Steve McQueen's "Twelve Years a Slave" and the Hugh Jackman-Jake Gyllenhaal drama "Prisoners" from Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve ("Incendies").
In addition to "All Is Lost," the festival will show several other works that debuted to acclaim at Cannes, including Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," which stars Bruce Dern as a bitter man on a road trip with his son, and "Inside Llewyn Davis," Joel and Ethan Coen's folk music tale starring Oscar Isaac.
Although the Telluride festival is not known as a destination for sales agents and distributors looking for new movie titles to buy, the festival will show two up-for-grabs films likely to draw some buyer interest: Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin," which stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who can change her appearance into human form, and "Starred Up," a father-son prison drama from British director David Mackenzie ("Perfect Sense," "Mister Foe").
In 2012, Telluride showcased the French end-of-life drama "Amour," which went on to win the Oscar for foreign-language film, and this year programmers have scheduled several notable international films. Iran's Mohammad Rasoulof is showing "Manuscripts Don't Burn," and his fellow countryman Asghar Farhadi, maker of the Oscar-winning "A Separation," will show his latest, "The Past." Other high-profile foreign titles include "The Lunchbox" (India); "Bethlehem" (Israel); "Gloria" (Chile); and "Before the Winter Chill" (France).
Telluride typically presents some of the year's top nonfiction films (a year ago, it had the Oscar-nominated Israeli film "The Gatekeepers"). This time around there are new documentaries from Errol Morris (the Donald Rumsfeld film "The Unknown Known"), Werner Herzog (the death penalty story "Death Row: Blaine Milam + Robert Fratta"), Nicolas Philibert (the French radio chronicle "La Maison de la Radio") and the magician Teller (the art investigation piece "Tim's Vermeer").
Huntsinger said the usually silent half of the Penn and Teller prestidigitation duo will not only speak at a question-and-answer session following a screening of "Tim's Vermeer," but he also will be among the storytellers at a new Friday event called "Story Night," where he, Reitman, Buck Henry, Gregory Nava and others will tell original, 10-minute stories in an outdoor venue.
While the audience will have the final say over the quality of the festival's selections, Huntsinger said she, Luddy and Meyer were able to pick from a solid crop of contenders.
"I do feel there is an amazing amount of good cinema," she said. "And we're the lucky recipients of it."
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