Downtown Denver went Hollywood last night at the grand opening of the 33rd annual Starz Film Festival. Outside the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the red carpet swarmed with international directors, diamond earrings, and autograph-hunting tweens. Local filmmakers Daniel and Erika Beahm kept things down to earth—Denver-style—sporting temporary tattoos promoting their new film, Leading Ladies.

Big names in attendance included John Cameron Mitchell, director of last night’s opening film, Rabbit Hole. The emotional drama stars Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman coping with the death of their four-year-old son, causing a tear-stained audience at the after party to beeline for the appetizer table instead of the dance floor.

Eckhart earned a thunderous applause when he accepted the 2010 Excellence in Acting Award. The role was a challenge for the actor, best known as the twisted-villain/attorney Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. “I loved being the psychotic, two-faced man exploring the dark-side. But this movie was deep, and it was a positive change to finally play the good guy who gets the girl at the end,” he told us from the red carpet.

Festival director Britt Erickson describes this year’s film showcase as the most ambitious to date, with Oscar-buzzing titles like 127 Hours by director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), legendary director Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, and over 200 others. A documentary filmmaker herself, Erickson says she’s most excited for some of the local, lesser-known titles.

There will be a record number of locally produced flicks due to the growing cinematic interest in Colorado (thanks, Precious). One of the most promising, We Are the Sea, chronicles a high-school teacher’s search for meaning, scored beautifully by Iron & Wine. Denver-based director Neil Truglio spent many years working for the film fest and described his first night on the other side of the velvet rope as, “Totally surreal.”

This year’s festival also comes with the pain of tragedy, after one of its filmmakers, George Hickenlooper, unexpectedly passed away last weekend. The cousin of Denver Mayor and Colorado Governor-elect John Hickenlooper is reported to have died of natural causes. In his honor, there will be multiple screenings of his final film, Casino Jack, about corrupt Bush-era lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

One of the most notable additions this year will be the new Starz FilmCenter opening on East Colfax. We caught up with the man who co-founded the festival 33 years ago, Ron Henderson, who spoke to us about the new building.”I couldn’t be more excited. It’s completely state-of-the-art in a neighborhood location, impressive bar, and stadium seating,” he said. A lifetime lover of cinema, Henderson says if a movie were to be made about his life, he’d want Al Pacino to play him. “Or maybe Robert Redford,” he said. We asked why not. Is Redford not good-looking enough? “Yeah that’s it, and he’s too old for me,” Henderson added, laughing without missing a beat.

If you missed last night’s diamond-studded gala, you can still catch superstars like actor Elliot Gould at tonight’s grand opening of the new Colfax building and a special Q&A with Danny Boyle on Saturday. And check out our gallery of pics from last night’s red carpet.