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Filmfest concentrates contenders

Stewart Oksenhorn

In New York or Los Angeles, a film fanatic might be able to see virtually every major late-year Academy Award contender over the next two weeks. But such a feat would require superhuman coordination of movie timetables and numerous subway trips to cinemas far and wide.Outside of the country’s two film capitals, even the Flash couldn’t see all the likely Oscar nominees. Many of those films are given end-of-year releases in New York and Los Angeles – just enough to make them Oscar eligible – and don’t come to other markets till weeks or months into the new year.So for the serious movie nut, Aspen is the place to be for the holidays. Thanks to Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings, filmgoers can, over two weeks in one theater, see almost all the films and performances generating Oscar buzz.(OK, there is one other program, the Maui Film Festival’s First Light Academy Screenings, that rivals – and, in number of screenings, even surpasses – Aspen Filmfest’s. But with all that warmth, and the lack of snow, Maui is a very un-Christmasy place to be over the holidays. How’s Santa going to find a chimney to scoot down on Maui?)The Aspen version of Academy Screenings begins Sunday, Dec. 19, and runs through Jan. 1, with as many as three screenings a day. (There are no screenings set for Dec. 24-25.) The series features 26 films, each of which gets one screening. All films are shown at Harris Hall, and screenings are open to the public.”It’s really easy to get to the screenings,” said Aspen Filmfest Executive Director Laura Thielen. “So you have this concentrated ability to see them back-to-back. And seeing them all in one venue, it’s an immersive filmgoing experience.”The theory behind the Academy Screenings is that oodles of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the organization that hands out Oscar – are vacationing in Aspen over the holidays. And that making it as easy as possible to see the films will encourage members to actually see the films they are voting on. The idea seems to have enough substance to it to persuade film distributors – the Academy Screenings have expanded from 10 films when Thielen first arrived in Aspen nine years ago to this year’s bounty of 26 titles.”The reason the series is so complete is distributors know about it and want to be part of it,” Thielen said. The films make up the cream of the late-season rush of prestige pictures. The series includes director Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” the tale of two friends talking and drinking their way through California’s wine country that has earned seven Golden Globe nominations and the Gotham Award for best film. Six of the films chosen among the National Board of Review’s top 10 are included: “Vera Drake,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Sideways, “Kinsey” and “Hotel Rwanda,” as well as “Finding Neverland,” the Board’s pick for best film.Actors featured in the Academy Screenings series generating Oscar talk include Sean Penn as a man spiraling downward in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”; Annette Bening as a 1930s English stage diva in “Being Julia”; Laura Linney as the wife of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in “Kinsey”; and Kevin Bacon as a child molester returning to his hometown in “The Woodsman.”Also included are three of the National Board of Review’s top five foreign films: the Spanish language “The Sea Inside” and “Bad Education,” and the French language “The Chorus.”Among the other titles are “Birth,” “Imaginary Heroes,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Merchant of Venice” and the animated films “The Polar Express” and “The Incredibles.”The series begins Sunday with “The Polar Express,” a Christmas tale starring Tom Hanks in numerous roles, showing at 5 p.m.; and “The Very Long Engagement,” a French World War I drama starring Audrey Tautou and adapted from the Sebastian Japrisot novel, at 7:30 p.m.The Academy Screenings has a fine track record of presenting films that do go on to Oscar wins. Last year’s series featured “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which earned 11 awards including best picture; “Cold Mountain,” for which Renée Zellweger won a best supporting actress Oscar; “Fog of War,” winner in the best documentary category; and “The Barbarian Invasions,” which won best foreign film.Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings:Sunday, Dec. 19, through Jan. 1, various times at Harris Hall. (No films are scheduled for Dec. 24-25). Tickets: at the Wheeler Opera House box office or at the doorFull schedule is available at http://www.aspenfilm.orgStewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com