Regardless of who goes home with the gold at this year’s Oscars tomorrow night, the winner is the buzzmeister extraordinaire: the Telluride Film Festival.

The directors of the Telluride Film Festival, first founders Bill and Stella Pence, and now Tom Luddy, also a co-founder, with Gary Meyer and Julia Huntsinger are renowned for sticking cotton in their ears when it comes to Industry chatter. Year after year – and we are approaching #39 – this elite fraternity of cineastes with portfolios have eschewed standard Industry fare (gloss and celebrity, mind-numbing plots, special-effectathons, testosterone-injected blood and gore fests, crowd-pleasing franchises). Their focus has always been on ribbons of dreams that showcase intelligent storytelling and superior filmmaking, the art, not the business, of film making.

Let the record speak for itself. Here’s a short list of Oscar winners launched in Telluride from 2010 alone, “The King’s Speech,” “Black Swan” and “Inside Job.” Add to that from other years: “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “Capote,” “Walk the Line,” “Brokeback Mountain” “The Crying Game,” and “Sideways.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We are talking nearly four decades of striking gold in this mining town.

Now look at this year’s list of Oscar nominees. For Best Picture (also Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay) “The Artist” is in a head to head contest with “The Descendants.” Guess where the two films premiered in North America. “Hot ticket” was invented here.

(Footnote: Scorsese is also a Telluride regular, but his film, “Hugo,” was not ready for Telluride this year. It opened in November around Thanksgiving. According to many film buffs around town, “Hugo” is The One. It’s the nuts: the most original, the most extraordinary. But it does not have the buzz that surrounds the other two top picks.)

So our pick? Tough one. “The Artist” celebrates the art – and big time, the history – of filmmaking. Check. And it’s original  – read silent and shot largely in black and white – and oh so charming. Check again. We tend to favor films that show people being people, warts and all, but leave the lid on the sugar bowl. More or less. Both “The Artist” and “The Descendants” do that well, combining comedy and heartbreak with aplomb –  although, through Clooney’s character Matt King, “The Descendants,” provides the better mirror on who we are. “The Artist” is a wallow in nostalgia. “The Descendants” eschews escapism and dares to be set in the present. Performances by both Jean DuJardin and George Clooney are pitch perfect, but Clooney has won before. (Best Supporting Actor in “Syriana” in which he also played against type.) And both screenplays are knockouts, smart and spare.

So here’s our prediction: “The Artist” marks the official end of 9/11 and our adversarial relationship with France. Once again, we can shout our order for “French fries.” “The Artist” walks away with the night.

In the category of Best Supporting Actress, out of Telluride, it’s “The Artist’s” Berenice Bejo versus “Albert Nobbs’s” Janet McTeer. If the Academy should decide to toss a bone to “Nobbs,” – and that is doubtful –  it will be to McTeer, not Glenn Close. McTeer dazzles in the role of a strapping, broad-shouldered painter and Nobbs’ (Glenn Close) “sista” in solidarity.

Three of the films in the category of Best Foreign Language Film got their start in Telluride: “A Separation,” (Iran), “Footnote” (Israel) and “In Darkness.”  What all three have in common is an Everyman focus: skilled directors show ordinary (read “flawed”) people prone to pettiness, jealousy, and anger, rising to the occasion under extraordinary circumstances, a TFF38 theme.

“Footnote” is Joseph Cedar’s complex and poignant satire of Freudian psychology (as played out between a father and son) and the Israeli intelligentsia. Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness” is a profound and compelling portrait of hope and redemption against the odds. But Asghar Farhadi’s  “A Separation” breaks the mold: like Iranian films of the past featured here, this one is not about a mystical journey or The Other. It features people like you and me, who wind up in trouble, people whom we might want to talk to over dinner. At a time when relationships between the U.S. and Iran are, shall we say, tense, “A Separation” is an out-stretched hand. Politically as well as artistically it gets the nod.

In the category of Best Documentary, only “Pina” emerged from Telluride. But putting “only” and “Pina” in the same category is a travesty. Wim Wender’s look-see at the life and work of the choreographer Pina Bausch is ground-breaking and seminal, a breath-taking portrait of an artist shot in 3D for greater impact. Given current events, too bad John Shenk’s “The Island President,” a profile of the career of Mohamed Nasheed, the charismatic young leader of the Maldives, did not make the cut out of the Telluride box. Too bad too, “Pina” is up against “Undefeated,” which is backed by (like “The Artist” and Michelle Williams and Kenneth Brannaugh of “My Week With Marilyn”) the Weinstein juggernaut.

You can’t win them all.

Unless you are Telluride.

In which case, you are represented across the board and generally steal the SHOW.

Ironic isn’t it?  One way, one film or the other, The Industry always winds up bowing to the Telluride Film Festival.

Always the David in a field of Goliaths.

Nimble and smart….

Photo credits, from 2011 Telluride Film Festival: Clint Viebrock

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