Like cinema itself, the Telluride Film Festival seesaws on a delicate question: How does any movie stand a chance when competing with the most spectacular of nature’s beauties?

In a commuter plane half the size of a subway car, you slingshot vertiginously over soaring rock faces and alight, as if by Aeolian caprice, on a postage stamp, which they’ll tell you is the second highest airport in the world. (Quito takes the prize.) If the thin air doesn’t set your head spinning–as it does mine the first couple of days–all you have to do is look up. Or for that matter, look around and watch other people looking up: As in New York, you can tell the tourists by the craning necks. Except here the skyscrapers are vaulting, evergreen-studded mountains that frame the town in a narrow oblong valley. Off in the distance at one end is a waterfall that seems to trickle from the sky. At the other end, the gap between mountains forms a proscenium for the most extravagant sunsets I’ve ever been stunned by on leaving a movie theater.

Fortunately, Telluride contains a halfway house of sorts for those torn between nature and cinema. Called the Abel Gance Open Air Theater, it is named for the Promethean visionary of early French cinema who in 1979, at the age of 90, sat in a window of the New Sheridan Hotel and watched his panoramic epic Napoleon, a film he and the world hadn’t seen in 50 years, projected for a delirious crowd in Telluride’s central square. Though the square has shrunk since then (it’s still big enough for a full-sized movie screen), the festival’s nightly outdoor shows memorialize Gance’s visit.

The first night I attend, there are chilly, rain-speckled gusts blowing down from the mountain, making the whole experience akin to an all-natural version of Sensurround. It couldn’t be more appropriate; the film on display has its face to the elements, too.

George Butler’s The Endurance recounts the ill-fated 1914-16 voyage of explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew into the wastes of Antarctica and a lengthy imprisonment by ice. Although the expedition’s harrowing story has been told countless times before, including in shipboard photographer Frank Hurley’s amazing 1919 film South, Butler’s documentary (which integrates Hurley’s footage with freshly shot views of the polar region) offers the most sumptuous and captivating account of it I’ve yet encountered. Among mythic man-versus-nature collisions, the fate of Shackleton’s ship not only resonates as loudly as that of the Titanic, it comes to us via a trove of awesome and authentic images which easily surpasses the documentation of any comparable disaster.

While most festivals offer sightings of filmmakers as well as films, the population of Telluride–festival and town–is small enough that the ratio of auteurs to filmgoers may be higher than anywhere in the world. Those fielding questions or hanging around Colorado Street this year include Ang Lee, Al Pacino, Barbet Schroeder, Phil Kaufman, Paul Schrader, Edward Yang, Patrice Leconte, Amos Gitai, Ken Burns (who premiered his 19-hour documentary Jazz), Werner Herzog and Stan Brakhage, as well as the subjects of four tributes: the Korean master Im Kwon Taek (his Chunhyang opens in the United States early next year), writer Elmore Leonard, and actors Stellan Skarsgaard and Norman Lloyd (who once dangled from the the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s Saboteur). Other actors on hand to support films include Boesman and Lena‘s Danny Glover and Angela Bassett and Shadow of the Vampire’s Willem Dafoe.

Telluride is also small enough that a popular film has the chance to generate considerable buzz between its first and last screenings. This year, word-of-mouth’s prime beneficiary was a stark and haunting new movie from Iranian Kurdistan. One of two films that seemed to announce a new generation in Iranian cinema when they shared the Camera d’Or (best first film) prize at Cannes earlier this year, Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses chronicles the perils faced by Kurdish children involved in smuggling goods across the mountainous Iran-Iraq border. Like many Iranian films, it seems modeled on the unvarnished humanism of Italian Neorealism, yet its skill and passion clearly belongs to an original.

Ghobadi, who is 30, grew up in a Kurdish village and worked as both an actor and an advisor on two recent films set in Kurdistan, Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us and Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards. Making his first visit to the United States, the outgoing director told filmgoers that he found Telluride a ringer for the mountains of his native region. Ghobadi has much to look forward to: The first Iranian film shot mostly in Kurdish, A Time for Drunken Horses opens in Paris this week, and is a leading contender to become Iran’s nominee for the 2001 Best Foreign Film Oscar.

The other film receiving the kind of passionate response that guarantees sold-out extra shows was Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (A One and a Two), the winner of the Best Director prize this year at Cannes. As a longtime admirer of Yang’s work, I was pleased to see the enthusiasm that Telluride showered on Yi Yi, a complex, meditative and ultimately very moving tale of an extended Taipei family experiencing various highs and lows over a period of several months. Effortlessly blending the serious moods of the director’s films of the ’80s with the analytical comedy he explored in the ’90s, the new film evidences the brainy rigor that characterizes all of his work, yet it’s also his most relaxed, warmly emotional film to date. It drew a particularly effusive appreciation from Werner Herzog, whose Aguirre, the Wrath of God Yang credits with inspiring his career.

Among the European films at Telluride, there were both classical and avant approaches on view. The former was impressively represented by Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of St. Pierre, an elegantly austere 19th-century drama about a drunken sailor who commits a crime on a French island off Newfoundland and the couple who tries to stave off his execution as the village awaits the arrival of a guillotine. Though the film doesn’t quite match either the romantic sweep or the intellectual acuity of The Return of Martin Guerre, it’s in the same, recently beleaguered French tradition, and it benefits greatly from its terrific cast; besides Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil, who play the altruistic couple, the movie features director Emir Kusturica as the convict. I’d never seen Kusturica on screen before, but this performance could give the hulking Serb a whole new career. His work is both imposing and impressively controlled.

Among trendier Euro excitements, Kristian Levring’s The King Is Alive, the latest product of the Dogma 95 hype machine, offers a busload of international actors playing tourists who get stranded in the Sahara and decide to battle their mounting desperation by rehearsing an impromptu version of King Lear. While the film occasionally lapses into banefully obvious and overheated melodrama, it doesn’t do so nearly as often or as egregiously as many of its Dogma cousins, and its sensuous digital photography equals any previous Dogma production. But the movie’s chief asset is the strong work Levring gets out of a cast that includes Janet McTeer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Davison and Romaine Bohringer.

Given the rate at which much European cinema is disappearing before the onslaught of Hollywood, it’s little surprise to see European culture being appropriated by sojourning American filmmakers, a phenomenon exemplified with differing results by two films at Telluride. As he did in Henry and June and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Phil Kaufman brings a kind of respectful California earnestness to spicy material in Quills, an account of the latter days of the Marquis de Sade. Ultimately, the film doesn’t have much that’s really provocative to say about its extremely provocative subject (who’s well played by Geoffrey Rush), but Kaufman’s assured handling makes the most of the period setting and a cast that also includes Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine.

Extravagantly clueless by comparison, E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire deprives legendary director F.W. Murnau of his sexuality, and thereby robs its own account of the making of Murnau’s vampire classic Nosferatu of both heat and resonance. Veering awkwardly between spoof and spooky homage, the film has one virtue in the hammy fun that John Malkovich and, especially, Willem Dafoe have in playing (respectively) Murnau and his creepy leading man, actor Max Schreck.

I came out of Shadow of the Vampire ready to return to the attractions of nature, but fortunately the Abel Gance Open Air Theater offered another agreeable compromise. The weather on the festival’s final night was chilly but clear when I caught Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Knowing the film is a martial arts extravaganza that’s aimed at being a crossover from art-house to general audiences, I was expecting a bright, flashy and relentlessly paced Hong Kong-style action film. But, aside from a number of spectacular fight scenes, Lee’s movie, which centers on women warriors brilliantly played by Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, is dark, brooding and eerily mysterious.

Will it work with American moviegoers to the point of drawing multiple Oscar nominations to a Chinese-language film? I wouldn’t hazard a guess on that, but I found the film one of Lee’s most fascinating and accomplished works to date, and I wasn’t alone. The crowd under the stars in the theater named for Monsieur Gance cheered it repeatedly. EndBlock