The 39th Denver Film Festival — Day 4 & 5


Arthur Martinez, Nathan Silver, Mike Ott
Arthur Martinez, Mike Ott, Nathan Silver

If acting is reacting, what is Actor Martinez? Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, a Denver-based actor, Arthur Martinez (playing himself), hires two indie directors, Mike Ott and Nathan Silver (also playing themselves), to make a movie about his life. They oblige, and all three quickly disappear down the hall of mirrors that make up self-reflexive cinema. The audience is never quite sure if they are seeing the movie Ott and Silver are making or if they are watching the movie Ott and Silver are making about the movie that Ott and Silver are making. It’s like Charlie Kauffman’s Synecdoche, New York with a modest budget.

Actor Martinez is a masterwork that questions the very nature of seeing. The camera slowly zooms in (subjective) and out (objective) on Martinez’s face and his surrounding space, constantly changing how he interacts with his surroundings, specifically, the frame.

Both Ott and Silver were working from a two-page outline, and the movie shows—it is energetic, loose, and thoughtful—but it has none of the vapid navel-gazing that plagues movies of this type. Running less than 80 minutes, Actor Martinez is lean, potent, and downright entrancing.


"The Red Turtle"
“The Red Turtle”

Firmly in the realm of fairy tale, Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit’s debut feature, The Red Turtle, is breathtaking and magnificent. The story is simple: a man is shipwrecked on a deserted island. After finding ways to survive, the man constructs a raft to sail home but only makes it past the breakers before a giant red turtle destroys his raft. The man swims back to safety, curses the turtle, and sets out to make another raft. This one is also destroyed by the turtle and for no apparent reason.

To go further into the story is to give away one moment too many of The Red Turtle’s engrossing allure. Dudok de Wit presents his tale without a word of dialogue, and not one is needed. The artistic style is equally spare, which only adds to its openness. There is much to chew on it The Red Turtle—the struggle for survival, how life lives off of life, and how the beauty of nature can humble even the hardest of hearts—but none of this is presented in a manner that bludgeons. A work of art worthy of Studio Ghibli, and that is saying something.

THE ECCENTRICS. ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET (Excentrycy. czyli po slonecznej stronie ulicy)

Natalia Rybicka & Maciej Stuhr
Natalia Rybicka & Maciej Stuhr

After fleeing Poland for England during the war, jazz trombonist Fabian (Maciej Stuhr) returns to the Eastern Bloc dressed in dapper suits, driving a Bentley, and ready to build a big band. One that Glenn Miller, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway would be proud of.

But big band is gaudy, and post-World War II Poland is austere and drab. The war drained the life out of the country, and her citizens and a little jazz is just what the doctor ordered. Fabian’s band gains notoriety—and a stunning brunette vocalist, Modesta (Natalia Rybicka)—but music can’t change everything, particularly the past. And Poland has a rough past.

Directed by Janusz Majewski—who co-wrote the screenplay with Wlodzimierz Kowalewski—The Eccentrics. On the Sunny Side of the Street is a bright and chipper look at a not-so-bright and chipper time. But that doesn’t make The Eccentrics lightweight: The final act brings a dark past to light and reminds the viewer that as powerful as music is and can be, it can’t undo all the damage that’s been done before.


"Granny's Dancing on the Table"
“Granny’s Dancing on the Table”

Eini (Blanca Engström) has a tough life. Her father (Lennart Jähkel) is utterly terrified of the world, of Eini’s oncoming adulthood and her sexuality. To suppress this, he and Eini live in a cabin in the woods where he works her to exhaustion, beats her, and frightens her with stories of the outside world. But the 13-year-old Eini knows better. She knows of her Granny’s tale, a tale of a woman equally mistreated, misunderstood, and controlled. Somehow Granny managed to overcome the hardships, and Eini will too.

Granny’s Dancing on the Table, from Swedish writer/director Hanna Sköld, is a tale of two women told with two styles, live-action for Eini’s story and stop motion animation for Granny. The effect between the two is sometimes jarring and sometimes relieving—the animation provides a separation between the horror and the individuals involved—but provides an overall unsatisfying disjunction. One or the other might have been a sufficient story, but the two together distract more than they add.


Samuele Pucillo
Samuele Pucillo

When Fire at Sea was awarded the top prize at this past Berlin Film Festival, head juror Meryl Streep called the movie a “daring hybrid of captured footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do. It is urgent, imaginative, and necessary filmmaking.”

Fire at Sea is all of that and more. It is enjoyable. Contrasting the plight of African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety with the daily lives of the inhabitants of the Sicilian island, Lampedusa, director Gianfranco Rosi composes a magnificent look at human life. As if one of Wender’s angels descended to observe as closely as possible, Rosi presents his observations without commentary or context. Just the lives of these people, the struggles they face, the horrors they overcome, and, in the case of Samuele Pucillo, the small moments that make it all worthwhile.