The Best is Yet to Come: Dispatches from the 43rd 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. 28, No. 9Vol. 28, No. 11, and Vol. 28, No. 12, dispatches from the 43rd Denver Film Festival: “The best is yet to come,” “Seven shorts and a feature,” and “Six shorts and a feature.”

Neither wind nor rain nor sleet nor snow stopped the Denver Film Festival before—though the blizzard of 1997 tried when it dropped 21 inches and shut the city down. That year Jack Palance received DFF’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the legendary cowboy accepted the award inside the Warwick Hotel. The crowd that night may have been small, but they were mighty (even money says they were staying at the Warwick or lived close by).

At least in the time of pandemic, we won’t have to brave the elements to attend this year’s DFF. We won’t even need to go any farther than the living room as all 180-plus movies programmed will be virtual (save for three, more on that in a minute).

That shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s not the only thing different this year. For starters, DFF is seven days longer (Oct. 22-Nov. 8), tickets are cheaper, and the recognizable Hollywood studio titles are all but absent (because Hollywood studio films are all but absent from 2020 in general). There’s an upside to that: More space for foreign and independents, not to mention all the homegrown movies featured in the Colorado Spotlight sidebar.

Steven Yeun and Alan S. Kim in Minari (image courtesy A24).

This year’s heavy hitters: Minari, the story of a Korean-American family searching for the American dream on a small Arkansas farm—it won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. dramatic feature at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; Apples, the Greek breakout hit from 2020’s truncated festival season; and Nomadland, the recipient of both the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award.

Nomadland will be one of three movies getting the drive-in treatment at Red Rocks (Thursday, Oct. 22). The other two are Nine Days, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance (Saturday, Oct. 24), and Ammonite (Thursday, Oct. 29). All three shows begin at 7 p.m.

DFF’s biggest get this year: nonagenarian documentarian Frederick Wiseman and his latest work, City Hall. Wiseman has spent his career exploring American institutions with a hands-off observational approach, and this look at Boston’s City Hall couldn’t be timelier. We’ll talk more about City Hall and Wiseman’s legacy when CU-Boulder’s International Film Series rolls out a Wiseman retrospective in November, but ticket buyers to DFF’s screening of City Hall will also be treated to a post-screening Q&A with Wiseman, who is receiving this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mayor Martin Walsh in City Hall (image courtesy Zipporah Films).

There’s more, a lot more: The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel picks up where the documentary The Corporation left off in 2003 and throws coronavirus and social unrest into the mix; 76 Days captures the genesis of the coronavirus pandemic from the frontlines of Wuhan, China; and Shiva Baby is the comedic antidote you’ll need after all those weighty docs.

Dawit Tekelaeb and Daniel Gad in White Eye (image courtesy DFF).

Let’s turn our attention to the shorts. You can find more than 80 programmed into specific blocks: Animated, Avant Garde, Colorado Spotlight, Documentary, Narrative, Student Shorts, and more. We’ll focus on the Shorts 1: Narrative collection—seven shorts, all of them good, three of them great: Lance (In a Neck Brace), the story of a young man trying to get over a failed relationship with the assistance of an audiobook; White Eye, a stolen bicycle reveals a world broken by intolerance; and Exam, a sister becomes her brother’s drug mule. Looking to get the most bang for your festival buck? Start here.

Moving now to feature-length fare, Undine—the latest from German filmmaker Christian Petzold—is a curious little mystery about one woman, two men, and a whole lot of water.

Derived from the Latin word for wave, unda, Undine is a water nymph in European mythology, which ought to clue you in to what kind of character Undine (played by Paula Beer) is. She’s a historian by trade—the city of Berlin is her métier—and she’s in love with two men: Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), who we learn little about, and Christoph (Franz Rogowski), a diver who maintains a dam turbine in the mountains outside of Berlin.

Christoph is the more smitten of the two. Maybe because every time he dives, he sees an ancient stone arch with the name “Undine” painted on it. Who painted the name, when they painted it and why remains a mystery. He also sees an enormous catfish in the reservoir. Whether or not anyone beyond Christoph can see the catfish is up to the viewer.

Paula Beer in Undine (images courtesy Christian Schulz/Schramm Film).

Undine may not be a direct movie, but it is an engaging one—and a bit mischievous. Petzold makes viewers ask a lot of questions but refrains from giving them too many answers. The clue, if there is one, might lay in the movie’s central metaphor: Berlin. Through the film, Undine lectures tourists about the city, its history, and its architectural makeup. As she points out, Berlin is oblique by design. A museum built in the 21st century is meant to look like an 18th-century palace repurposed. Centuries of regime changes allowed for foreign influence. Citizens can travel through centuries by merely walking across the street. It’s as if time has collapsed in on itself. For example, when Christoph returns to Undine’s apartment, he finds another couple living there. We’ve been here for months, they tell Christoph. But Christoph points to a wine stain on the wall; he made that when he knocked a glass off Undine’s nightstand just a few weeks ago.

Some movies have unreliable narrators; Undine plays more like an unreliable narrative. It may not have the profundity of Petzold’s previous films, Phoenix and Transit, but it’s a transfixing work that pulls you down deep.

Aris Servetalis in Apples (image courtesy Cohen Media Group).

Apples from Greek director Christos Nikou is the closest thing we’ll get to an art-house hit in 2020, and the premise is so bonkers it feels real: There’s a pandemic goin’ ‘round, and it’s claiming memories. How and why are never explained. All we know is that it strikes suddenly, attacks without prejudice, and causes immediate amnesia. It hits Aris (Aris Servetalis) while he’s riding the bus, causing him to miss his stop. “Which stop did you want?” the driver asks when he sees Aris still sitting there after the bus pulls into the station. Aris doesn’t answer. The driver asks another, “What’s your name?” Aris replies with a silent stare. “I’ll call an ambulance,” the driver says with familiarity.

With no identification card to notify next of kin, no memories to draw on and no past to speak of, Aris enters a recovery program that assigns him a series of daily tasks and a Polaroid camera to document them with the hope that Aris will build a new life and flourish. Aris is dutiful in the program, but he’s also detached. There’s a sense that something beyond his misplaced memories has broken his spirit—an irrevocable loss well beyond middle-age loneliness. His only comfort: apples, which he eats by the bushel. “Yes,” a grocer says when he sees Aris stocking up on the ruby-red fruit, “good for the memory.”

Whether or not Aris intends to keep his memory sharp is a question left to the viewer. It certainly seems as if Aris wants to hold at least one memory at arm’s length—a feat director Nikou achieves aesthetically throughout the film. His color palette is cool; his framing is plain. No character behaves with recognizable emotion beyond curiosity, and the world around Aris feels depopulated. Greece has never looked this empty. But the world has never felt this hollow, and it’s fortuitous that Apples is reaching audiences at the exact moment when the story on the screen matches the world surrounding it.

There’s plenty more to say about Apples, but that’s a discussion best left ’til after the movie. Instead, we’ll turn our attention to the documentary shorts program. All six are good and can conveniently be divided into three categories. Do Not Split and Unforgivable are fly-on-the-wall observations of current events, Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business and Halpate are works of portraiture, and The Shawl and Mizuko are documentaries by way of personal essays. Those last two, from filmmaker Sara Kiener and directors Kira Dane and Katelyn Rebelo, respectively, are two of the best movies—long or short—playing this year’s festival. Both are animated, and both are so effective, to summarize them here would be a disservice to their technique.

Mizuko (image courtesy DFF).