Highlights from the 39th Denver Film Festival

I saw my first movie in theaters when I was a teenager. Growing up, my family didn’t particularly gravitate towards going to the movies as a social activity, and indeed, while South Africa has many movie theaters, going to see films on the big screen didn’t hold the same type of cultural cache for South Africans as it does in the U.S. Admittedly, I also easily experience sensory overload, and as a kid, I was devastated by movies like The Sound of Music, so staying away from the big screen was probably a strategic choice on the part of my parents. Those same factors, however, also contributed to the sheer magic that the cinema screen holds for me today. That first movie I saw was unexceptional–the sequel to Steve Martin’s Cheaper by the Dozen–but the experience was exhilarating. Since then, my taste in movies has drastically improved and, while I probably invest more time in watching television, I still revel in the theater experience.

Come November every year, my excitement builds as potential Academy Award nominees begin premiering, replacing the lackluster summer and fall blockbusters with creative and daring cinematic narratives. I have already seen a couple, Moonlight and Arrival, which were both fantastic, and I’ll be reviewing many of these films in the coming weeks. However, before we get there, I want to revel briefly in a theater experience that transcends even Academy season: the film festival experience.

Well programmed film festivals bring together truly innovative independent films (i.e. the kind that the Academy overlooks because they’re too unconventional) and engaged, thoughtful audiences. There is nothing like sitting in a packed theater watching a film that challenges your expectations with others who are equally committed to dialoguing with the film. A couple of weeks ago, I got to check out the highly acclaimed Denver Film Festival, which just celebrated its 39th year. I’ve been wanting to visit this festival for a while, and now that I live in Boulder, it was just a short drive away!

I saw five films over the two weeks of the festival, accompanied by either my husband or friends. The screenings were held in the Sie FilmCenter (home of the Denver Film Society) and at the United Artists Denver Pavilions multiplex in the heart of downtown Denver. Unfortunately only one film was followed by a filmmaker Q&A (another fantastic element of film festivals), but that was likely because I saw most of the films in the second week by when most filmmakers had probably left. 

Of the five, four were really fantastic, but I want to briefly highlight two films that we particularly loved and that may actually make it into art cinema houses or, at the very least, to your Netflix stream. So make a note of them in your Letterboxd account! (If you don’t have a Letterboxd account, it’s like Goodreads for movies.)

(1) Always Shine (Sophia Takal, 2016)

Always Shine is a psychological thriller starring MacKenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) and Caitlin Fitzgerald (Masters of Sex) as best friends whose relationship has recently come under strain. Both women are actresses trying to make it in Hollywood but with unequal success. In order to try to restore their friendship, they plan a weekend retreat in Big Sur; however, the weekend quickly falls apart. 

One might expect a cliché film capitalizing on the tropes of “female friendship drama”; however, the film brilliantly and directly tackles those tropes in the narrative. From the beginning, we see how the women are operating inside a world constructed for them by men, where the lines they speak either on set or in daily life are interpreted and understood from the male perspective. As the tension builds, the viewer quickly realizes that the struggle in the film is not between the female characters but, in fact, between the women and the patriarchy which tries to dictate their story. Takal cleverly plays with the traditional elements of the horror genre, subverting our expectations of the “virginal” and “promiscuous” characters. All this takes place against the perfect backdrop of the creepy but beautiful Big Sur forests and oceanscapes.

(2) Trespass Against Us (Adam Smith, 2016)
Unlike Always ShineTrespass Against Us focuses on two male characters: a father and son played by Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender, respectively. Colby Cutler is the head of a successful, though somewhat chaotic, crime family operating in the British countryside. Their uniforms are tracksuits, and their fortress is a ring of camper vans. Dogs, chickens, and goats wander aimlessly around the complex. Despite their unassuming appearances, the family members repeatedly thwart the police with their carefully planned antics. Chad, Colby’s son, clearly shares his father’s wily genes, but he wants out of the family business so that he can focus on providing a better life for his wife and son. At the core of the story are the three generation of men (grandfather/son/grandson) who are all trying to navigate their purpose in the world while taking into account family, society, and religious convictions.

What ensues is a surprisingly heartfelt dark comedy about both familiar struggles, like trying to determine one’s identity apart from one’s family, and more unfamiliar struggles, like trying to lift oneself above a heritage of crime and poverty. The film is both fun and tragic, optimistic and resigned. Smith moves between these elements deftly, weaving together a cohesive narrative that is extremely compelling and unlike any other “organized crime family film” that I’ve seen.

 

 

Check out the trailers for both films and add them to your watchlist. I’ll be back at the Denver FF next year, so please let me know if you want to join me for a screening or two. In the meantime, I hope you get a chance to see some fantastic films this winter season. I, for one, am particularly excited for Rogue One. What are you looking forward to seeing?

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