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Shattering previous attendance levels, last week’s Savannah Film Festival brought nearly 4000 people from all walks of life to enjoy new films and familiar celebrities at what is becoming one of the nation’s most highly regarded events of this type.

Beginning with Kathleen Turner’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Festival went on to feature such luminaries as Jason Patric, director Norman Jewison, legend Peter O’Toole and preeminent film critic Roger Ebert, all of whom acknowledged the specialness of the Savannah Film Festival -- both the location and the event itself.

Special screenings of new films, like Kinsey and Finding Neverland played to overflow audiences at the Trustees Theatre.

While Peter O’Toole’s offering was technically not a new film, odds are that it was new to most who attended the screening. The Irish-born actor personally chose 1999’s Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell to be shown after he picked up his own Lifetime Achievement Award from SCAD President Paula Wallace.

A tour de force by O’Toole, Jeffrey Bernard is a filmed stage performance of the smash West End hit starring O’Toole as the hard-drinking, hard-gambling dissolute British journalist of the title -- which echoes the euphemism printed by his newspapers when Bernard was too drunk to write his column that week.

For many in the audience, the highlight was O’Toole taking questions after the screening. Though at age 72 a far cry from the dashing young matinee idol he was in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole seemed to visibly get younger as he reminisced about his hard-partying days with fellow British actor and legendary drinker Richard Burton.

“You want a yarn?” O’Toole asked the audience to cheers. He told a story of the time he and Burton wandered home after a night of debauchery in London, so drunk they could barely stand up. Finally, they end up literally in the gutter, unable to continue. Just then fellow actor Alan Bates walks up out of the blue and without missing a beat says, “Well, hello. I’m considering taking up the commercial cinema.”

O’Toole, laughing so hard he could barely get out the punchline, did his best imitation of his old friend as Burton replied to Bates: “So, you’re going to join us then?”

Guess you had to be there.

Saturday’s screening of Finding Neverland was standing-room-only, perhaps driven by incessant rumors that star Johnny Depp would personally attend the screening (he didn’t).

An old-fashioned -- and unconsummated -- love story about the relationship between Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie (Depp with an accurate yet perfectly understandable Scottish accent) and a widow (Kate Winslet) raising several young sons later immortalized as the “Lost Boys,” Finding Neverland had many in the Trustees Theatre audience discreetly wiping away tears at the end. All in all, a delightful film that will only enhance Depp’s reputation as an actor who consistently takes roles against type.

Though also a skillfully made and well-acted film, Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson as the eponymous 1950’s sex researcher, is a more acquired taste. Much like the real Dr. Alfred Kinsey himself, the film deals with sex and sexual situations in a sometimes alarmingly frank manner.

In introducing the film, Roger Ebert said he thought Neeson was likely to get an Oscar nomination for Kinsey (though I suspect many of Neeson’s female admirers may be put off by his extended makeout scene with a male actor). But as Kinsey’s wife, Laura Linney turns in what may be an even better performance.

If this year’s Savannah Film Festival is any indication, attendance will only rise still more at next year’s festival, to be held Oct. 29-Nov. 5, 2005. Judging by the crowds I saw at the Trustees box office this year, my advice is to get your tickets early and often. It’s a hell of a show.