10/31/2011 02:20 pm ET | Updated Dec 31, 2011

Denver Film Festival Preview, Part 1: Turn on the Leading Manpower

George Clooney may be able to do a lot of things, but he isn't a song-and-dance man. That's unless you count his hokey hoedown and country croon as a member of the Soggy Bottom Boys in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

After beginning a mostly unremarkable TV career that included a recurring role in The Facts of Life, he developed his acting chops, eventually found more meatier and meaningful projects than Batman & Robin and earned a reputation as the nicest guy in La La Land.

So Gorgeous George doesn't need a pencil-thin mustache or a pair of tap shoes to remain one of Hollywood's most recognizable and bankable movie stars. After all, he's the two-time Sexiest Man Alive and an Academy Award winner.

Directing himself in The Ides of March, Clooney plays a handsome, charming governor saying all the right things ("We will lead the world again, like we used to") while aiming for the presidency (the line for the polling booth starts here).

Then there's his latest role, which requires far less sex appeal and a little bit more wear and tear. Still, that leading manpower he and several high-profile actors possess will drive the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival that begins Wednesday (November 2).

In The Descendants, the "Big Night" red carpet presentation (8 p.m., November 5, Ellie Caulkins Opera House), Clooney finally plays against type.  As Matt King, a Hawaii land baron and middle-aged father of two girls, he's the faithful husband worried about facing a broken marriage. Clooney and Alexander Payne's moving comedy-drama already are getting critical acclaim after successful film festival runs from Telluride to Toronto.

In the race for Oscar, though, Clooney might find some stiff competition from French actor Jean Dujardin, who sings, dances and sword fights his way through Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist. THE_ARTIST_THE_ARTIST_POSTERAs dashing, mustachioed George Valentin, Dujardin utters nary an audible word throughout a black-and-white film (with intertitles) set in the golden age of silent Hollywood before talkies were born.

The Artist, the festival's "Closing Night" presentation (8 p.m., November 12, Ellie Caulkins Opera House), has earned Dujardin the award for best actor at Cannes. The film also is considered an early favorite to win best picture come Oscar time.

Festival director Britta Erickson does admit The Artist was a risky choice to close at the festival's biggest venue, though. "A hard sell but folks who take the risk to get out of their comfort zone will be greatly rewarded," she said. "I'll offer a money-back guarantee to anyone who does not walk out of 'Closing Night' happy."

Initially setting out to find movies that bring out the best in women, Erickson said The Descendants and The Artist feature "really amazing performances by strong leading men" and were chosen because "they are quite simply two of the best films of the year."

Still not man enough for festival-goers? A few more hunks featured in special presentations don't have to rely totally on their acting ability.

Macho matinee idol Michael Fassbender appears in two tense dramas that take decidedly different turns. As psychiatrist Carl Jung opposite Viggo Mortensen's Sigmund Freud in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method (2:30 p.m., November 13, also starring a frenzied Keira Knightley), the German-born actor shows a sensitive, compassionate side.

In British director Steve McQueen's Shame (9:15 p.m., November 9, also starring Carey Mulligan), the winner of Venice's best actor award portrays a sex addict who reveals much more than his promiscuous nature and a love for Internet porn.

In Coriolanus (6 p.m., November 9, co-starring Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave), Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut and handles the title role in Shakespeare's late-career tragedy about a power hungry man. Fiennes, who played evil Nazi commandant Amon Goth in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, said his role models for this latest flawed character included Ariel Sharon and Vladimir Putin. Gerard Butler plays guerrilla leader Tullus Aufidius, Coriolanus' sworn enemy who becomes a primary ally.

"The ability to transcend their leading man-ness," is what Erickson said makes a great leading man. The best of them are helping keep Hollywood afloat, along with the big-bang-for-your-buck blockbusters and special effects extravaganzas.

Calling Clooney "the best actor working today," Erickson likes his odds while handicapping the Oscar race for best actor.

"Fassbender is fascinating ... but as much as some might feel like he should win an Oscar for his totally exposed body in Shame, I wouldn't place a high wager on him walking off with a little gold man," she said. "I think Clooney can make a run at taking Jean Dujardin's best actor Oscar, which would be an upset as the Academy is going to be all over The Artist."

George Clooney profileEven at age 50, Clooney still has drawing power. While he promoted The Descendants in Telluride (right), the tiny southwestern Colorado mountain town turned into a human landslide. Film geeks and celebrity stalkers alike looked like deer in headlights as Hollywood's most eligible bachelor cruised past the New Sheridan Hotel on Colorado Avenue, upstaging the free outdoor show that was about to take place in Elks Park. If buzz was building, it wasn't all about the movie.

Not that he couldn't maintain any sense of privacy. After the first showing of The Descendants in the Mountain Village, Clooney walked casually with a small entourage into the Hotel Madeline, where he sat undisturbed at the bar, a short walk from the Chuck Jones' Cinema but far enough away from the maddening and adoring crowds.

In Telluride over Labor Day weekend to receive the festival's Silver Medallion for a "significant contribution to the world of cinema," Clooney was interviewed by Scott Foundas as part of his tribute. He discussed his latest role after watching clips of some of his most endearing performances.

Now saddled with more gray hairs and wrinkles, the quick-witted Clooney took the opportunity to laugh at himself after viewing a touching scene from The Descendants that includes Shailene Woodley, a remarkable young talent who plays his 17-year-old daughter. Descendants, The copy"If you haven't seen (the film), she cries underwater, which really pisses me off that she can do that," he said (Clooney, left with Woodley).

As far as choosing this role, Clooney said, "Sometimes acting gigs are about timing. You have to be sort of the right age to do them and the right place in your life and your career to do them.  And this one was one where it felt like, you know, as I age rapidly on screen -- that's the funniest thing watching this clip reel.  You're like . . . 'What the hell? This is hard to watch. I'm like AARP Sexiest Man Still Alive.' "

Asked last week about Clooney's comments, Erickson said, "I do love that he's so grounded and willing to poke fun at himself. He's the sexiest man alive with no need for qualifiers. AARP should pay him for that plug."

During his tribute, the easygoing actor, who often is compared to screen legends Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, tried to deflect the attention away from himself onto his costars.

He mentioned Judy Greer, the Denver Film Festival's 2011 John Cassavetes Award recipient with whom he shares a hysterical -- and heartbreaking -- hospital room scene in The Descendants. It's one that Erickson said the hard-working character actress completely steals.

Clooney mentioned his previous film experience with Greer.

"Her first job ever was one of the opening scenes in Three Kings with me when we were having sex on a chair. And it was her first acting gig. Sorry, Judy. ... Fine with me. But I can watch her do anything. She could read a telephone book. I love watching her work."

Clooney also praised Payne, the Academy Award-winning writer of Sideways who's known for walking the tenuous tightrope between comedy and tragedy.

"Alexander's just this nut, man. He has this way of turning things so quickly," Clooney said. "Things will be very funny, then very sad and then very funny again, just on a dime. And it's a real skill. It's not something you can learn. You actually have to have that in you. I don't know many people who do."

Artist, The copyHazanavicius, a French writer-director who cast his wife, Berenice Bejo, as Peppy Miller, a wide-eyed female extra who eventually outshines her leading man, might have that same deft touch with "The Artist." (Bejo, right, with Jean Dujardin.)

Along with man's best friend -- Valentin's lovable dog Jack rescues him from an apartment fire -- the film also includes small but saucy parts for American actors John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller and James Cromwell, the lanky character actor who plays Valentin's butler.

Cromwell, who also appears in Hideaway (formerly titled A Year in Mooring) at the festival, will be in Denver to receive the Mayor's Career Achievement Award on November 13.

Just as crowd-pleasing but not as snooty as last year's The King's Speech, The Artist is funny, witty, entertaining and dramatic while depicting the era just before the stock market crash. There were even enough letters for the landmark sign in the hills to read "Hollywoodland."

 A forerunner of stars such as Errol Flynn and William Powell (The Thin Man), Dujardin's character takes a downward turn when he fails to make the transition from silent to talking pictures. "I'm not a puppet," Valentin says. "I'm an artist."

The Artist is the third film in which Hazanavicius and Dujardin have worked together, but the director admitted he had never cast the actor in a role that required such range until now.

"I really love him when he acts like Vittorio Gassman, extroverted, solar-powered and brilliant," Hazanavicius said in the production notes. "My idea was to start from there and bring him into something more introverted, more enclosed. . . . He also has a timeless face, a face that can easily be 'vintage.' "

That'll likely be more than one man's (and woman's) opinion.

And with an event featuring Dujardin, Clooney and many more macho men,  the Denver Film Festival -- whose motto for 2011 is "Roll Out the Red" -- might want to consider this instead as a message to its discerning viewership: "You've Got Male."

This is the first in a two-part series. Part 2 will include other festival highlights, features and shorts from Colorado filmmakers and additional comments from festival director Britta Erickson.

Publicity photos courtesy of the Denver Film Festival.

Telluride photo by Michael Bialas. See more of George Clooney and the 2011 Telluride Film Festival.

A previous version of this story appeared in The Pueblo Chieftain.