By Walter Chaw, Special to Denverite
Film festivals serve many functions in the cultural dreamlife of a city. Where small festivals tend to cater to a specific niche, a festival the size of the Denver Film Festival, now entering its 42nd year with some 250 screenings over 12 days, forces audiences to choose a method of engagement.
Some attend festivals for the galas: those red carpet shows featuring heavily-promoted pictures that will eventually get a wide public release (mystery “Knives Out” is the first this year). Some go for the amazing opportunity to engage with academics and filmmakers through panel discussions and Q&A. An intrepid few even attempt it as an endurance test to see how many films they can knock off before the dust settles on another year.
The best way to approach a festival like Denver’s, though, is by digging deep into the program: discovering films from other countries, new voices, emerging talents. A festival is often the only place you’ll ever have the chance to some of these films in a theater and what’s more, in the company of fellow travelers. Luckily, Denver Film has provided a six-film pass ($90 for non-members, $66 for members) for just such an exploration of the festival, which runs Oct. 31-Nov. 10.
Here are six movies that span genre, time and space to help you make the most of your investment.
Get some popcorn, get hydrated, and let’s get started.
“Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains”
(Gu Xiaogang, China, 150min)
The debut film and first of a projected trilogy by Chinese filmmaker Gu Xiaogang, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains shares its title with Huang Gongwang’s famous painting and, accordingly, takes a painterly approach to its Dostoyevskian tale of a family of brothers slowly falling into ruin. The pace is as patient as the camera is poetic, telling its story in long tracking shots up and down the Fuchun River. Nature is the first testament to the temporariness of man’s troubles here, marking the film as a work of real Romanticism in all its melancholy regret and an epic in both style and substance.
(Yolande Zauberman, Israel, 105m)
As a child, Menachem Lang was repeatedly raped by his ultra-orthodox rabbis in the Israeli town of Bneï Brek. Lang at 35 is understandably bitter and on a mission. Zauberman’s documentary soars when it captures him as a “Pied Piper” for other men who have been similarly abused, resulting in scenes of confession and empathy that reminds at times of Jairus McLeary’s remarkable “The Work.” It’s a difficult watch but a cathartic one. A favorite of late programmer Brit Withey’s and a choice for last year’s fest, circumstances conspired to delay it to this year. It’s making its U.S. debut.
(Rashaad Ernesto Green, U.S., 86min)
Co-written and starring an arresting Zora Howard, “Premature” follows 17yr-old Ayanna (Howard) as she enters into an affair with older Isaiah (Joshua Boone). Drawn by his good looks and casual charm, the film details her emotional and sexual awakening against the sights and sounds of a close New York City summer. Her friends and family provide a natural rhythm to the piece and Greene is smart enough to let the story take its course at its own pace. Unforced, intimate, natural, it starts with Ayanna in the middle of a sentence and then just follows along for a while. She’s good company.
(Zhou Shengwei, China, 95min)
A major cause for celebration for those wired a certain way, Zhou’s “She” is a stop-motion animation starring toothy, screw-bedecked shoes commenting through their labors on industrialization, gender politics, and Kafkaesque dehumanization. Strange, often off-putting, it’s the fable of a rebel, a woman, upsetting a mechanized, sadistic patriarchy at high cost to herself beneath the all-seeing eye of its surveillance state. A parable for its own existence (and a tribute to the filmmaker’s mother), it’s a six-year labor of… is it love? that suggests that our world is a vile nightmare of consumption and paranoia. It’s essential should you endure it.
“Daniel Isn’t Real”
(Adam Egypt Mortimer, U.S., 99min)
A fantastic horror film befitting the season, “Daniel Isn’t Real” is the homicidal demon version of Drop Dead Fred everyone was waiting for. It’s the story of a kid who develops an imaginary friend to help escape the trauma of his day-to-day (and images he accidentally consumes of a mass shooting at the local diner), locks said friend away in a dollhouse when things get a little out of control, and then, years later, discovers his buddy’s escaped his prison. As imaginatively disgusting as it is genuinely terrifying, it’s a fresh take and a delight for the genre fan.
“Varda by Agnes”
(Agnes Varda, France, 115min)
It’s not often a filmmaker gets to craft their own eulogy, but so it is with legendary Agnes Varda’s beautiful “Varda by Agnes.” Easily one of the best films of the year, the documentary is a survey history of the “Cleo from 5 to 7” filmmaker’s career as the nonagenarian offers her recollections and, as she jumps from film to film and era to era, connects the dots of her extraordinary career. A work to be treasured by neophytes and cinephiles alike, it’s ultimately best read as a meditation on time and memory, and how film can tell the entire story of a life if you listen.
You don’t have to stop at six, though.
Should these films whet your appetite for more, catch a special presentation of John Cassavetes’ incomparable masterpiece “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s one of Brit Withey’s favorite films and, if you knew him, you’d know how much it would have meant to him to have a full house for this revival. Brit was one of the good guys. He is sorely missed.
Finally, catch if you can all fourteen hours of Mark Cousins’ essential documentary “Women Make Film.” It’s a towering achievement chronicling eleven decades of women filmmakers. It bridges a gap the film industry itself has yet to bridge and in its exhaustive scholarship and entertaining style, will be seen as a landmark work in the battles for representation looming ahead.
Walter Chaw is senior film critic for filmfreakcentral.net and author of a monograph about the film Miracle Mile. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with an introduction by James Ellroy, is due in spring of 2020.