After 12 days of screenings at three locations, the Denver Film Festival finally concluded yesterday. This weekend the directors of the Denver Film Society made remarks about the success of the festival this year and the high-quality movies they had the pleasure of showing. On three separate occasions, there was a Red Carpet at Ellie Caulkins Opera House, with actors, directors and other important people stopping for interviews and pictures. The first night brought Emma Stone and director Damien Chazelle, turning the red carpet into a paparazzi scene that’s highly unusual for Denver (see our recap here.) Sie FilmCenter on East Colfax—the headquarters for the Denver Film Society— seemed busy at almost any time of day, but especially on weekends, when everyone chatted and drank before and after their movies. Here at 303 Magazine we managed to see over 30 films, documentaries, shorts and even tried out the virtual reality systems. Check out our reviews to see what you missed or to figure out what to put on your watch list for the next few months.
Reviewers by color: Cori Anderson, Tyler Harvey, Brittany Werges
Award Winners & Honorable Mentionable
Best Feature Film Winner
The Last Family
Award: The Krzysztof Kieślowski Award for Best Feature Film
When I attended the screening of The Last Family it did not occur to me it could win one of the biggest awards of the entire festival. Hosted in the smallest theater in all of DFF, the screening drew a niche and mostly Polish audience (due to the film’s origin). It was a modest turnout that did not shout “blockbuster,” like that of La La Land. However, just like the plot, The Last Family was not to be underestimated. The first film for director Jan P. Matuszynski The Last Family stars Andrzej Seweryn, one of Poland’s most famous actors. Seweryn portrays the real life post-surrealist artist Zdzislaw Beksinski in a precise performance that draws the audience into the lives of a highly dysfunctional late 20th-century family. The film, which used Beksinski actual recordings of his family, weaves through a range of issues including suicide, mental illness and death. The story is tragic and often disturbing, but it is ultimately defined by its ability to highlight intimacy in an otherwise dark and strange tale. It’s unforgettable and absolutely deserving of its award.
Award: The Krzysztof Kieślowski Award for Best Feature Film
The Ornithologist, a black humor film detailing the adventures of a bird watcher searching for a rare black stork in Portugal, took home Honorable Mention for “its striking visuals, daring symbolism and unique approach.”
Excellence in Acting Winner
La La Land
Award – Denver Film Festival Excellence in Acting Award (Emma Stone)
I’ve already seen this movie twice, and I’m already planning on seeing it again once it comes out in theaters in December. Dazzling and inspiring, with carefully selected color schematics and long-takes of song-and-dance sequences, this modern-day musical is nothing short of fantastic. Within the first few minutes, the immense effort it took to make this movie is apparent with an elaborate and downright exciting dance sequence that takes place on an L.A. freeway. Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) will wow you with his ability to create a story so sweet and so catchy that it will be stuck in your head for days. Co-stars Emma Stone (who appeared at the premier on the Red Carpet) and Ryan Gosling exude an on-screen chemistry that really captures the intricacies of a relationship. But the best part, to me, is the music. Between John Legend’s character who marries jazz with dubstep in order to keep it alive and Ryan Gosling actually playing the piano (he had one-on-one lessons in order to do so) I can’t imagine anyone coming away from this film without some form of appreciation for jazz. Garnering Oscar-worthy praise, La La Land will not disappoint, even for those who are not fans of musicals in the past.
People’s Choice Award Feature Film Winner
Award – Starz People Choice Awards for Best Narrative Feature
Based on a true story, this film follows the harrowing life of a young Indian boy who accidentally finds himself thousands of miles away from home and subsequently is adopted by an Australian couple (with Nicole Kidman as the adoptive mother). Twenty five years later he undertakes a journey to return to his birthplace and find his biological mother using Google Earth and luck. Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) stars as the adult, while Sunny Pawar makes his film debut and seriously steals the show as the young Saroo. You will need some tissues for this one—I heard grown men crying at the premier.
People’s Choice Best Short Film Winner
Starz People’s Choice Award for Best Short Film – The Chop
The Chop is a hilarious tale of a butcher so desperate for a job he disguises his own religion. The short contains light-hearted religious jokes and is even seasoned with tension and suspense. In the end, it felt like an old legend or fairytale had been recreated into a modern comedic masterpiece. Some of our other favorites from the Shorts 2 category included Big City. This film depicts a Sikh immigrant in Australia who faces discrimination as a taxi driver. When one eccentric passenger flags him down, the man’s evening turns into a comedic and inspiring adventure. With some great acting, cinematography and even twists, Big City is a wonderfully beautiful story. Also, we loved, A New Civilization is a taut thriller revolving around some dedicated volunteers on election day unwilling to give up voter ballots to a strange officer. The short escalates fast in a realistic tale of voting fraud turned violent. Chronicling the overlooked sacrifices that can be made when you stand up for what’s right, this suspenseful flick hits the spot.
Best Documentary Winner
Do Not Resist
Award – The Maysles Brothers Award for Best Documentary Film
This documentary is a sobering and sometimes frightening look at our continuing militarization of local police forces and begins with the protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The majority of interviews and first-hand looks are from the police’s point of view, rather than protesters, which makes for an interesting perspective given the message. It will make you question the role of police within our country and ultimately points the finger at the training of the forces rather than the individuals within them for the blame of escalating internal violence. This film also won Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Off the Rails
Award – Maysles Brothers Award For Best Documentary
Darius McCollum has Asperger’s, and at a young age he found joy and solace in the timetables and schedules of the New York City public transportation system. As a teenager, McCollum became a well-known character to the public transit workers and was taught how to operate the vehicles and trains. Through a series of unfortunate events, he was arrested for hijacking a subway train (though he safely operated the train and stopped at every stop, one station manager remarking that it was the most efficient run of that train in years). Now, McCollum is in his late 40s and has spent an accumulated 23 years in prison for hijacking public transit over and over again. Your first question should be: why hasn’t the transit system just hired the man? And the answer—his multiple felonies— is the heart of this documentary. It forces us to question the ultimate motives of recidivism and whether or not our criminal justice system has any justice in it. It is highly recommended for its ability to express the childlike love of McCollum while criticizing the system that condemns him.
People’s Choice Best Documentary Winner
The Eagle Huntress
Award – Starz People Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature
With only one screening of this documentary at the DFF, I was lucky to grab a seat in the front row after waiting in a “standby” line for an hour. And it was well worth it. Not only is this my absolute favorite documentary screened at the festival, it’s my favorite film in general. Following the amazing story of the first ever female eagle hunter in Mongolia, you will easily be enchanted by her grace, courage and fierceness in the face of centuries of status quo . Eagle hunting in the Kazakh people traditionally is passed from father to son. So when 13-year-old Aisholpan devotes her life to following her father’s footsteps she also makes a new path for all women behind her. Thankfully she has the support of her parents and grandfather, but other elder men in the eagle hunting tradition remain disdainful about her gender even after she wins first place at their local eagle hunting festival. Her story, together with the stunning scenery of the Altai mountains and breathtaking footage of a 15-pound golden eagle landing with great force on her arm make for an unforgettable documentary that should inspire everyone. It is girl power at its finest.
Best Actress Winner
I, Daniel Blake
Award – Krzysztof Kieslowski Special Juried Award For Best Actress
In this film, a widowed Englishman struggles to find his way through the labyrinth of bureaucracy for government assistance. Along the way he manages to help a young single mother with circumstances even worse than his in this movie by famed British director Ken Loach. Loach is no stranger to politics—he has repeatedly boycotted film festivals that support something he does not. This film is steeped in the sneaky, subversive and daily politics of living in an age where technology rules and no one feels accountable. Inherently Kafka-esque—with endless forms to fill out and strangers who judge the fate of a life— you will be aching for the first person to stand up for their humanity. Don’t worry, humor found a way in there too. But the laughs are shallow next to the depths of concern about each of the characters and their fates.
Best Independent Film Winner
Award – American Independent Narrative Award for Best Film
With actor Andre Royo (Bubbles from HBO’s The Wire) starring as the recently released convict Ashley Douglas trying to piece back together his life, Hunter Gatherer provides intriguing character studies more than it provides an intriguing plot. If you like dissecting relationships on screen, this film will satisfy those desires while still leaving some things a mystery. Royo’s wily performance is happily added to his growing list of memorable parts, but his on-screen counterpart Jeremy (actor/producer George Sample III) captured my attention more. Subtle and sweet, Jeremy’s character embodies an introvert—still on the surface but frothing with activity underneath. This movie excels in small moments and seeing beyond first impressions.
Free in Deed
Based on a true story of an impoverished mother and disruptively autistic son, Free in Deed won Honorable Mention for “its powerful storytelling, patient filmmaking, incredible ensemble performances, and complete confidence of vision from filmmaker Jake Mahaffy.”
Edge of Seventeen
Award – Denver Film Festival Rising Star Award (Hayden Szeto)
Yes, it may be a predictable American coming-of-age movie, but has moments of remarkable honesty compared to its predecessors (Pretty in Pink) and contemporaries (Superbad). There is no unlikely act of god that changes the course of events. There is no uplifting heroes or morals. But Woody Harrelson provides a realistic ideal of an adult that a teenager could confide in and Hailey Seinfeld excels in her role as the jaded protagonist. But it also leaves me hoping she can move into deeper parts in the future. However, the quick-witted dialogue and off-beat humor doesn’t make up for the broad generalizations of being a teenager in America.
The Avalanches’ “Subway”
Award for Starz People’s Choice Award for Best Music Video – The Avalanches’ “Subway”
One of my favorite segments of the Denver Film Festival was the Music Video Mixtape. I mean, who wouldn’t have a good time watching music videos in a movie theater for an hour-and-a-half? Here are some of the highlights. The Chemical Brothers kicked things off with a sci-fi dance feature for their track “Wide Open.” The music video offered fun digital animation combined with clever video transitions all while focusing on a wonderful female dancer. The segment winner The Avalanches‘ video for “Subway” is flat out hilarious. Next time you need something to smile about I strongly recommend visiting this humorous animated video filled with adult content and underlying political themes. Rio Volta‘s “Through My Street” showed us another side to construction workers in an amusing portrait involving karaoke and ballet-dancing backhoes. The series also screened a two-part video by Yeasayer that could be easily classified as an animation epic. The videos for “I Am Chemistry” and “Silly Me” were filled with horror, dancing and a variety of animation techniques.
Girls & Boys
The Spike Lee Student Filmmaker Award Winner – Girls & Boys
The Denver Film Festival First Look Series presents four installments of short films created by undergraduate and graduate students worldwide (DFF even flies some of them to Denver from other countries to attend the screenings). Each series offers a variety of shorts, all different and unique from one another. The series was truly a highlight of my DFF experience. Though all 25 films were stunning in their own ways, there were a few that really stood out above the rest. Here’s our best of [Note: Fist Look 1 is excluded as it did not fit into our viewing schedule]. Fairy Tales is truly a gem, marking itself as my favorite of the entire First Look series. The short film documented the odd, funny and touching story of a young fashion designer and outcast in China who has become an internet sensation. Inspirational, touching and heartfelt, Fairy Tales is a must watch. Nocturne in Black portrays a young man and his passion for music in a harrowing tale of terrorist control and the arts. This short explores one of the horrible downfalls of jihadist rule for Middle Easterners and will leave you holding back tears long after the credits roll. The winner, Girls & Boys is a unique documentary that follows a Polish dance instructor in Brooklyn teaching a polka class to an unruly group of students. The film is the perfect portrayal of “kids will be kids” and the frustrations teachers have with such children. Peacock is a time-piece following a young male artist and his romantic interest. This cinematic experience is brilliant whether in reference to the acting, the costumes or the storyline, but most of all, the editing was fantastic. The over-the-top gory finale will have you laughing your way out of the theater. Lastly, The Search explored a historical topic that was unbeknownst to me which is something I always appreciate. Documenting the disappearance of approximately 500 students in Argentina nearly 40 years ago, the film follows one woman’s story to find her missing daughter through interviews and old footage. The short leads to some painful conclusions, as well as some tearjerking silver linings.
Other award winners include The Silence written by Thomas Thonson for the Feature Screenplay Award; Evelyn X Evelyn written by Eric Pumphre for the Short Screenplay Award; Reengineering Sam directed by Brian Malone for the True Grit Award; Alex Karpovsky, Folk Hero and Funny Guy, for the Reel Social Club Indie Spirit Award; Saul Levine for the Stan Brakhage Vision Award; Lost In Paris for the Rare Pearl Award; Dominque Abel and Fiona Gordon for the Tribute Award and Demian Bechir, Un Cuento De Circo & A Love Song, for the George Hickenlooper Honorary Award.
Other 303‘s Favorites
Granny’s Dancing on the Table
Eini lives an isolated and frightening existence in the woods with her father in this Swedish film by Hanna Sköld, which uses claymation and stop action animation alongside live action filming. By switching between animated and live sequences, the film explores the hidden depths and coping strategies of Eini. She narrates a fairy-tale style story that puts her absent grandmother in her life to teach her strength and humor in spite of her abusive father. This film is charming and dark and ultimately leaves you with a sense of compassion for every character, because (or despite of) their personal struggles and defeats.
One Week and a Day
This Israeli film will uplift and move you with its no-frills perspective of a middle-aged couple dealing with life after the death of their son. The father, Eyal, manages to steal marijuana from his son’s hospice while his wife Vicky attempts to return to normal on the day after the Jewish period of mourning, shiva. The film is undeniably about grief and the varying ways people attune to it. It does not revel in sadness. Rather, it delicately reminds us of the subtle ways that joy must come back, just as the sun always rises after night. Also, it has one of the best endings to a movie I’ve personally seen in years.
Wow. That’s all I could think to myself as I submitted my Starz People’s Choice Ballot for Suntan. Not wow that was amazing, rather, wow… what just happened? Depicting a lonely doctor new to a beautiful Grecian island, Suntan revolves around the man’s denial of a midlife crisis. The film begins with a fun and exciting vibe paired with stunning scenery, and sucks you into having a good time all before unravelling a twisted nail-biting turn of events. Though the film arguably drags on a bit long, Suntan was a stunning portrait of how a life crisis can lead to mental instability with just the right amount of contributing influences. Cringeworthy and suspenseful, Suntan comes highly recommended.
Perhaps the best way to summarize this Brazilian movie is with a quote from the father of the main character— “there’s life, there’s death and there’s luck. That’s all there is.” Over the course of one night, a bullied 15-year-old Enio breaks away from his parent’s troubled and turblent marriage only to find himself in a worse situation, alone and afraid. The fear and uncertainty that Enio not only feels himself but impersonates as a traditional theme for coming-of-age stories is palpable. I felt restless and anxious as the movie ended, robbed of any hope I harbored at the beginning for any of the characters. I’m still not sure if I like a story that ends up taking more from you than it gives.
What makes Icelandic cinema unique is the sense that everything in the movie is inspired or because of the isolated, windy and sparsely populated place that Iceland is. This movie is no exception. Something I’ve come to appreciate about foreign coming-of-age films like this one is their intimacy with the reality of being a teenager in today’s world. There are no frills, no unrealistic situations that make us say “oh, this is just a movie.” Just cold realities and complicated relationships and a coward for the main character. If you don’t think you’ll like another teenage movie, see this one for the scenery (all filmed in Iceland) or the twist at the end that made me sink lower and lower into my seat in horror.
SEED: The Untold Story
Visually captivating, this documentary tells the story of our continuing loss of biodiversity in our seeds and how this will lead to a whole host of bad events. Unless, of course, we protect our seed biodiversity. Punctuated by interviews with interesting characters—like an older farmer who compares himself to Noah and the Arc—and hypnotizing footage of thousands of different seeds from around the world. If this movie doesn’t convince you of the necessity of a variety of seeds, nothing will.
A Dark Song
This creatively dark triumph presents a psychologically unnerving portrait of a mother who has lost her son. In a state of grief, she hires an occultist to reunite the mother and child through a series of bizarre rituals. One of the magnificent things about A Dark Song is that it presents the supernatural world of spells and rituals with realism. This isn’t some cheesy possession tale. It’s almost as if the film is an artistic guide into the paranormal world–a convincing, raw and pragmatic vision of something strange. A Dark Song plunges the audience into a dark and haunting storyline of grief, paranoia and guilt. Both supernaturally-fueled and realistically dramatized, this chiller is a must watch.
Mom and Me
Lighthearted, sappy and relatable, Mom and Me gives you a little over an hour to think about your own relationship with your mom through interviews with men about their mothers in Oklahoma—the “manliest” place in the U.S. To me, seeing a son (or daughter) with their mother is like seeing into the past, seeing how that person came to be who they are. And though Oklahoma is not usually a state we equate with diversity, the group of men and their mothers are each so unique it may change your idea of diversity, a little. Though the film may not change your life or your own perspective about your mother, it remains an honest ode to mothers everywhere, good and bad.
This movie is a long, strange trip with a gruesome ending. Soviet influences are obvious—with stark color schematics and wry humor—but any culture can appreciate the oddity that surrounds the main character and her tail. Yes, a tail. And this isn’t some cute cosplay thing— this tail is made of flesh and hangs from just above her bum to her ankles. Underneath all the seriousness there is an endearing and quirky tale (pun intended) that will delight anyone in search of a novel plot.
SCORE: A Film Music Documentary
As a personal fan of the soundtracks to movies, I was only encouraged and enabled to love them more in this documentary about the music in our motion pictures. It so lovingly paints the process of creating music for movies, from intimate displays of the composers to odes for the most iconic of soundtracks. Star Wars, E.T., Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey are a few of the major movies discussed in the film. A gem of a documentary for music lovers, film lovers and anyone who appreciates seeing a person fulfill their talents to the fullest.
This is an informative and poignant documentary following the writers of obituaries for the New York Times. Even if you have never read an obituary, you’ll appreciate the perspective from these chroniclers—because as they say in the movie, obituaries are about celebrating life. There is also a fascinating take on “advance obits”— passages written about famous or celebrated people who may be nearing the end of their life or have risky lifestyles. Obit nails the purpose of a documentary—it excites you about the subject because the subjects themselves are passionate.
Boris Without Beatrice
Not your typical dramatic romance movie, Boris Without Beatrice delivers a more philosophical view of the intricacies of marriage. Like other dramatic romances, it revolves around an extramarital affair. Set in the French-speaking regions of Canada, Boris and Beatrice are “one percenters” who spend their time in a country home after Beatrice leaves a government post and stops speaking or responding to anyone. Boris selfishly continues his life with other women only to find out that he might be the reason for Beatrice’s solemn sickness. Sequenced with close-up shots of characters in varied degrees of conversation and elongated views of a masculinely-posed Boris in front of beautiful scenery which allowed for longer moments of contemplation while watching. Touted as a “modern morality tale” this film directed by Denis Côté demands us to think deeper about the consequences of our actions on those closest to us.
We Are the Flesh
I don’t really know where to begin with We Are the Flesh, but there’s one thing that’s for sure–I haven’t been able to let this one go. Or maybe it hasn’t let me go. We Are the Flesh is one of those magnificent films that’s such a big pill to swallow, you probably won’t want to see it again. The Mexican arthouse shocker is loaded with graphic genital close-ups, incest, rape and blood wrapped into one cinematic experience–a debut by filmmaker Emiliano Rocha Minter. The film offered a steady theme throughout of ignoring societal norms and really just doing whatever the fuck you want. Creating an anarchist, rebellious and very hellish setting combined with a sexual and violent stigma, the film leaves you withholding flashbacks. The audience was forced to look at things they didn’t really want to see, often for lengthy periods of times.
Colorado Documentary Shorts – Best Of
Edges kicked things off and easily marked itself as my favorite of the series. The documentary chronicles the late life of Denver figure skater Yvonne. Now at 90 years-old, she was still skating five days a week until an unfortunate incident. Inspirational and beautiful, this documentary short will make you laugh, cry and even touch your heart all in under 10 minutes. On the Tracks is an intriguing doc-short that tells the tale of nuclear protests in Boulder in ’78. Told through primarily narration and photo-stills alone, the short still manages to be entertaining and exciting. The Colorado Rocky Flats are something I had never really heard of before, and what an appropriate age to revisit the protest. Dog Power was incredibly fun to watch. The short focuses on the professional sport of skijoring where competitors are pulled on skis by a dog (also done with a horse but this wasn’t the focus). Loaded with slow-motion dogs running in the snow, and filled with heart, the movie had the audience bonding with it almost as much as the athletes with their animals. “Dog Power” isn’t just a film, it’s a perspective. I honestly thought dog sledding was inhumane until this film portrayed how much the dogs seemingly love it.
Wrestling Alligators is not only a film about a man who actually used to wrestle alligators, but also about the greater struggles of the American Indian tribes in the U.S.A. That being said, the documentary focuses on James “Jim” Billie, the father of casinos on tribal reservations—a personification of the small triumphs against big “alligators” for the Indians that you probably would not expect. At age 72, Billie has been the Chairman for the Seminole Tribe in Florida for over 20 years and has created more wealth for his people than possibly any other chairman or chief. With his scrutinizing view of American and American-Indian relations, his respect and continuation of the traditions of his people and his obviously keen sense of business strategies, Billie is a fascinating character study. Ultimately, he is a more perfect example of what the Seminole tribe wants to stands for than his peers and friends, who allow the money to pollute their views.
Gallery of top moments from Denver Film Festival 2016