The Cinema Awaits: Dispatches From the 40th Denver Film Festival

On Oct. 5, the Denver Film Society announced the full program for the 44th Denver Film Festival. Running November 3-14, this year’s DFF will be in-person and virtual, with plenty of activities and talks. I’ve been attending DFF since I was in college (back when it was the Starz Denver Film Festival) and covering it since 2014. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking back at DFFs past in preparation for festival present. Up next, from Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 13 and Vol. 25, No. 14, dispatches from the 40th Denver Film Festival: “The cinema awaits” and “The cinema remains.”

The Denver Film Festival (DFF) turns 40 this year, and for the next two weekends, the Sie Film Center, the UA Pavilions, and the Ellie Caulkins Opera House become the center of moviegoing in the Centennial State. With roughly 150 movies to choose from, DFF offers viewers a strong slate of heavy hitters, foreign imports, and a plethora from Colorado filmmakers. High time to head down to Denver and catch a flick or three.

DFF opens strong on Nov. 2 with nine at the Sie, the best being Darkest Hour, an energetic and invigorating backroom drama about Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) from his appointment as Prime Minister of England to the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Though Darkest Hour only covers a few weeks, there is a weariness weighing on Churchill, a weariness Oldman captures with precision, even under a mountain of makeup. All the performances in Darkest Hour are stellar, including Lily James as Churchill’s secretary and Ben Mendelsohn as King Edward VI, but it’s director Joe Wright’s ability to film talking and thinking cinematically that sets it apart. Darkest Hour could have very well been a filmed play with outstanding performances, but Wright knows his way around a camera, and the audience is all the better for it.

The same is true for the Chinese film Dragonfly Eyes (Nov. 3-5) from director Xu Bing. This half-documentary, half-narrative is constructed entirely from closed-circuit cameras—dash cams, security footage, red-light cameras, etc.—that were uploaded to a cloud service in 2013 and made available for anyone with time on their hands.

But Xu Bing doesn’t simply rely on observation; he favors imagination, using the footage as a jumping-off point to construct narratives between the individuals seen on screen. The results are as engaging as they are horrifying, partly because of how much of our lives are being captured and collected and partly because of the ease with which false narratives can be constructed and made believable.

There is little false in Moving Parts (Nov. 3 and 5), a sober drama about the realities of immigration and human trafficking from Nederland-based writer/director Emilie Upczak. Set in Trinidad and Tobago, Moving Parts tells the story of Chinese immigrant Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian) seeking a new life and finding a harsh reality. Money and dignity are hard to come by and easy to lose; work is menial at best and demeaning at worse—not exactly pie in the sky.

There is no doubt many of the movies playing at DFF—and, frankly, any film festival—traffic in the harsh realities Moving PartsDragonfly Eyes, and Darkest Hour depict. For those needing a spiritual pick-me-up, look no further than Agnès Varda and JR’s documentary/art project par excellence, Faces Places (Nov. 5-6). We’ve talked briefly about this uplifting and joyous artistic relationship between an 89-year-old filmmaker and a 34-year-old photographer before, but Faces Places is worth repeating time and time again. 2017 hasn’t exactly been peaches and cream for everyone, but there have been blips of humanity and hope. Faces Places is that tonic. 

Back for a second weekend, the 40th annual Denver Film Festival offers plenty for moviegoers looking for something old and something new. From the masterpieces of yesteryear—Withnail and I (Nov. 9), Under Childhood: The Films of Stan Brakhage and Jane Wodening (Nov. 12), Breaking the Waves (Nov. 12)—to the future classics of tomorrow, DFF is the moviegoers’ place to be.

“Doing the same thing day in and day out is tough, but that’s what you’ve got to do to make it work.” So sayeth Osamu Tomita, one of Japan’s greatest ramen chefs, a man who has slung noodles across his counter six days a week for the past ten years.

On his days off, Wednesdays usually, Tomita travels around Tokyo sampling other ramen bowls, three typically, considering what each offers and what each lacks. He is a man of process and devotion, and documentarian Koki Shigeno captures Tomita’s pursuit of perfection and satisfaction with salivating precision in Ramen Heads (Nov. 9).

Satisfying is the best way to describe the works of South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, who has two films at the fest: The Day After and On the Beach Alone at Night (Nov. 10-11). The latter centers on Young-hee (Kim Minhee), a popular actress who pushes against the patriarchy, stating simply, “I want to live in a way that suits me.”

Relying on social pyrotechnics rather than physical explosions, On the Beach is a premier example of what engaging dialogue and simple camera compositions can achieve.

There is nothing simple about Thirst Street (Nov. 10-11), but it just wouldn’t be DFF without a movie from Nathan Silver. Much like Hong, Silver has been refining his cinematic skills, finding a new gear in visual storytelling.

Set in Paris, one lit by sleazy neon and photographed through hazy lenses, Thirst Street follows Gina (Lindsay Burdge) as she recovers from her husband’s suicide, falls in love with a nightclub bartender (Damien Bonnard), and is consumed by romantic obsession.

Obsession doesn’t even begin to describe the life and times of figure skater Tonya Harding. Directed with delicious zeal by Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya (Nov. 11) draws from the confessional and completely contradictory first-person accounts of Harding’s rise to infamy—from her lower-class upbringing in Portland, Oregon, to her public demise at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.

Everyone knows Harding’s relationship with Nancy Kerrigan but I, Tonya tells a much different story: one of class, a domineering mother (Allison Janney, simply spectacular), and the cyclical nature of abuse. And, as Harding (exquisitely played by Margot Robbie) points out, the American audience was just as complicit in that abuse: “I was loved for a minute, then I was hated. Then I became a punch line. It was like being abused all over again. And you were all my attackers.”

I, Tonya is this year’s closing night film, one that will surely be remembered by the time the 80th Denver Film Festival rolls around.