The Show Must Go On: Dispatches from the 42nd 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. 27, No. 10Vol. 27, No. 11, and Vol. 27, No. 12, dispatches from the 42nd Denver Film Festival: “Denver Film Festival: Brit Withey Tribute,” “The show must go on,” and “Life is no way to treat an animal.”

Back for number 42, the Denver Film Festival (DFF) returns Oct. 30 through Nov. 10, under a dark cloud. This will be the first DFF in over 20 years without Artistic Director Brit Withey at the helm. On March 31, 2019, Withey died in a one-car crash. He was 50.

Withey’s tastes leaned toward the dark and daring. If you entered the evening’s showing and saw Withey waiting in the wings to introduce the movie, you knew you were in for an adventure. His absence will be palpable, but the six movies Withey selected before he died will be screened, as will a three-film tribute to Hungarian filmmaker György Pálfi, a personal favorite of Withey.

Spanning two weekends, DFF comprises over 250 features and shorts. That’s more images than even the most insane cineaste could hope to see, and it all kicks off Thursday night with a red carpet presentation of Knives Out at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Following the screening, writer/director Rian Johnson will accept the 2019 John Cassavetes Award and discuss the movie and his career.

But what makes DFF a jewel in the Front Range’s cinematic crown isn’t just the red-carpet regional premieres—though Knives Out and Marriage Story do make for strong openers and closers—but movies of every possible stripe. Take Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Oct. 31, Nov. 3), a sensitive and subversive romance set in 18th century France between a painter and her subject. Though they are forbidden to be together, their love shrinks the world around them, making the movie feel like there isn’t an ounce of life outside this frame. They are a nation of two, and no one else exists.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is easily one of the best movies at the fest, as is the no-budget cinema-diary, Nightcrawlers (Nov. 1,2,9). Shot by Stephen McCoy over five years, Nightcrawlers is a ground-level look at homelessness and addiction. McCoy—who ended up both homeless and addicted to heroin while making the documentary—offers no commentary, no Freudian causality, and no solutions. Instead, he simply watches others and himself. That would be enough, but Luc Benson’s stream-of-consciousness editing is what makes Nightcrawlers soar. Rarely has depravity been presented this bluntly—and poetically.

Blunt and poetic has always been Errol Morris’ strongest suit, and his latest documentary, American Dharma (Nov. 5, 7), is no exception. This time, the man before Morris is Steve Bannon, the architect behind Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and, at one time, the most hated and feared man in America.

Bannon describes himself as an “apocalyptic nationalist,” and you don’t have to listen long to believe it. You may think you know Bannon and what he represents, but with American Dharma, Morris proves that what you know is barely the tip of the iceberg. Want to know how we got here? How popular culture was perverted and manipulated? How fear became commodity and anger promised freedom? Then gird yourself, America Dharma has some answers, but also bottomless questions.

Directed by Matthew Rankin, The Twentieth Century (Nov. 8) is one-half quirky bio-pic about the rise of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and one-half spoof of King and the notion that a bio-pic can be a truth delivery device.

Shot entirely on stylized, off-kilter sets—looking like leftovers from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse—and with a gender-bending approach to casting à la Monty Python, The Twentieth Century looks at the waning years of the 1800s and the dissent between Canada’s two political parties. The one in power is imperialistic and miserable; the challenger wants to pull out of foreign wars and embrace kindness and compassion. It’s absurd, comic, and blunt in regards to gender and class, life and death. You won’t know what hit you.

Moving south and to the modern-day, Premature (Nov. 10) is set among the streets, parks, and apartments of Harlem, New York. Seventeen-year-old Ayanne (Zora Howard, who co-wrote the movie with director Rashaad Ernest Green) has hopes and dreams, but they all hit a sizeable bump in the road when she meets and falls for Isaiah (Joshua Boone).

The romance of Premature starts typical—even hewing toward ’90s Cinemax after dark—but when Ayanne learns an unsavory truth about Isaiah, their soft-focus love turns harsh, raw, and cold. How quickly the sheen of love can be stripped.

But Premature’s best moments come not from the relationship of Ayanne and Isaiah but of Ayanne and her friends—a rowdy group who talk too loud, drink too much, and party too hard. As the movie’s signature song suggests: We were too young to act so old. Premature is honest and true, and between Howard and Green, it creates hope for future collaborations.

But there is little hope in Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You (Nov. 9), a movie that strikes both the most distressing and resonate chord of DFF.

Set in present-day London, Sorry We Missed You follows a working-class family, the Turners, as they try to keep their head above water financially and emotionally in the freelance and gig economy.

Sorry We Missed You is a harrowing look at what it takes to survive in a world that has little interest in seeing you succeed. Loach’s films have long advocated for the working class, but they seem worse off today than ever before. Sorry We Missed You reflects that. There is nothing glamorous, stylish, or attractive about this world. And why should there be? The characters don’t want any part of it either. Watching the final shot of the movie calls to mind one of Kurt Vonnegut’s signature aphorisms: “Life is no way to treat an animal.”

The Turners deserve better. So do Ayanne and her friends and all those Canadians who refuse to enslave Africans. It’ll take more than just watching a few movies, but you got to start somewhere.