Five fabulous film festivals -- Why we love Sundance, Telluride, Seattle, and more

Here’s a movie buff’s dream vacation: catching dozens of films months before they hit the theaters, chatting with directors about their work, and rubbing elbows with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Actually, attending one of the 200 annual film festivals around the world — from the Teheran Film Fest in February to the Sarasota (Fla.) French Film Festival in November — offers exactly that chance. Just this week, Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival gets under way in Utah, and Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter are expected to be on hand for the premiere of their film Once Around, the first American movie by director Lasse Halström (My Life as a Dog).

The festivals provide early peeks at both major upcoming releases and small films seeking wide distribution. The trick is finding a festival geared to the public. Can Cannes: It’s mostly for deal-cutting, and madness reigns along with the bikinis. ”Some of the screenings there are a feeding frenzy,” says Peter Scarlet, who runs the San Francisco International Film Festival. ”It’s like people beating each other over the head to get the last pound of butter in Petrograd.” By contrast, the nine-day Toronto Festival of Festivals, in September, may have the best selection of all. The biggest fest in North America, it shows nearly 300 movies.

For those who prefer to stay Stateside, here in chronological order are five great U.S. festivals, with tips and phone numbers. They usually don’t make their lineups until a month ahead, but you may want to order tickets earlier to be sure you’ll get in. So clip the list, take a celluloid vacation — and if you crash into Warren or Jack on the slopes, do say hello.

Sundance Film Festival
Park City has two claims to fame: its ski slopes and the Sundance Institute, started by Redford a decade ago to help budding screenwriters hone their craft. The festival grew out of that project, and when it launched sex, lies and videotape into the stratosphere in 1989, the town secured its reputation as the nation’s main showcase for new independents. Of the 100 films to be shown, two whose stars may be there: Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening) and Ken Russell’s Whore (Theresa Russell).

Great Discoveries: House Party; Metropolitan; Return of the Secaucus 7.

Words to the Wise: The shuttle buses can run late, so budget extra time. On Jan. 26, a skiers’ convention will clog Park City’s lodgings, but there should be plenty of rooms in Salt Lake City, 35 minutes away. Bring your skis — and check out the Riverhorse Cafe, upstairs at 540 Main Street in Park City.

San Francisco International Film Festival
The organizers of America’s oldest film fest are known for scouring the planet in search of honeys and scoring mass-market coups, too. This is also your best chance to see new movies by geniuses with tongue-twister names like Krzysztof Kiéslowski and Aki Kaurismäki.

Great Discoveries: Bagdad Cafe; She’s Gotta Have It; The Thin Blue Line.

Words to the Wise: Don’t miss the silent-film screenings in the grand old Castro Theatre, with its cathedralesque organ.

Seattle International Film Festival
Seattle is the country’s espresso capital, which may explain the festival’s penchant for viewing binges: When The Empire Strikes Back premiered in 1980, screenings ran around the clock; even the 3 a.m. showing was packed. Rumor has it that 1991’s speaker will be one of our top directors, unless his latest work provokes the Mafia to rub him out.

Great Discoveries: Blood Simple; Choose Me; Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Words to the Wise: Shhh! This fest boasts a concurrent Secret Festival of movies entangled in legal woes or not ready for release. Tickets are available to the regular festival’s series-ticket holders, though viewers are sworn to secrecy. ”I would be strung up and barbecued if I told you some very high-profile films we’ve shown,” says Seattle’s director, Darryl Macdonald, ”such as works by a major director in England and America known for thrillers that were tied up in litigation for 20 years and released after we showed them.”

Telluride (Colo.) Film Festival
Telluride is a snug, breathtaking Rocky Mountain town with one main street, so you simply can’t help bumping into movie people. Last year’s Telluriders got to see Cyrano (and its star, Gérard Depardieu), White Hunter, Black Heart (and its director-star, Clint Eastwood), and a revival of the late John Garfield’s He Ran All the Way, squelched in the ’50s by McCarthyism.

Great Discoveries: My Left Foot; Roger & Me; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

Words to the Wise: The planes from Denver to Telluride hold about 16 people, and if you haven’t made reservations by March, you probably won’t get on. Arrive at the theaters early and have someone bring back fine cuisine, available by the slice from Eddie’s Pizzeria.

New York Film Festival
New York shows only about 30 movies, but it’s still the most influential festival in the Western Hemisphere. Opening night at Lincoln Center is a pageant of the rich and famous — and they’re building a new theater to house sideshows to the main events at the two bigger auditoriums.

Great Discoveries: Miller’s Crossing; Ran; The Big Chill.

Words to the Wise: Hit the seminars, in which all comers are invited to give the filmmakers a piece of their mind. ”We had a wild and woolly panel in 1990 for Abel Ferrara’s King of New York,” says Phillip Lopate, a festival organizer. ”Ferrara and almost 25 people were onstage, almost like a street gang, and half the audience loved it and half thought it was disgusting.” How New York.