Over 260 films from 45 countries played in Denver over the last two weeks for the 40th Annual Denver Film Festival. This year the event had more sold-out screenings than ever before, proving that Denver is not only continuing to support the film community but welcoming it with open arms (and pockets). Women dominated the films at the festival this year, with four of the six Red Carpet presentations featuring powerful heroines in their own right with equally badass actresses portraying them, as well as more female filmmakers, writers and even aspiring students in attendance. Colorado made a bigger splash at the festival this year, with eight feature-length films and 12 shorts from the state’s filmmaking scene, representing that Coloradans can have an artistic impact worldwide.
303 Magazine stood in lines, sat in the front row, and saw up to six movies a day, seeing nearly 60 films, in order to present the best movies we saw at the festival. Some of these films will eventually find their way to theaters or to the online streaming market, but it’s always a good idea to keep your eye on the Sie FilmCenter (headquarters for Denver Film Society) for independent and foreign screenings beyond the festival dates. The movie Human Flow by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei—which was the first movie to sell out at the festival—will be coming back to the Sie around Thanksgiving, by popular demand. Read on for our favorite picks and the award recipients for movies in competition, judged by special film juries.
Call Me By Your Name
Call Me By Your Name is nothing less than mesmerizing — painting a beautiful love story with a color palette of emotions. The fascinatingly heartbreaking film holds no unexpected twists or extravagant thematic displays — it’s a story of stunning realism that calculates unforeseen and subtle scenarios as the flame to fuel your feelings. The end product is an emotionally defeating, dazzling yet devastating tale of first love, which brings your senses to their knees. Lead actor Timothée Chalamet (Lady Bird, Interstellar, Homeland) was masterfully effective with a compelling and award-worthy performance you won’t soon forget. Chalamet’s performance wasn’t the only unforgettable component of this film — Call Me By Your Name will haunt you for days to come. Adding to the splendor of this poetic love story is the film’s soundtrack with the melancholic sounds of Sufjan Stevens with a touch of ’80s dance hits. – Tyler Harvey
Where to see it now: Opens in New York and L.A on November 24 and will be in Denver theaters after that.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Winner of People’s Choice Award for Narrative Feature
The hype surrounding this movie is no joke. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a dynamic comedy-drama that will pull on the most forsaken of heartstrings. Frances McDormand takes a step away from her usual lead role that she plays in Coen Brother’s dark comedies for something less sinister and much more heartfelt. This change doesn’t mean her character is far off from her often offensive and blunt misdemeanor (see: Olive Kitteridge, Burn After Reading), but she’s able to shine in a new light at the hands of a more sensitive plot. The script weaves in topical issues like police brutality, racism and sexual assault — and does so in a tasteful fashion. The best part of the movie is it’s not trying too hard. The performances are honest and refreshing, the story is captivating from beginning to end with a unique punch-in-the-face of a plot. – Tyler Harvey
Where to see it now: Landmark Esquire, Alamo Drafthouse Sloan’s Lake and Littleton locations, Century Boulder, Landmark at Greenwood Village.
Heartstone isn’t a film about coming out or being gay — it’s a film about growing up. Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson‘s debut confronts realistic issues that some coming of age films don’t dare address — including discovering one’s sexuality without the heterosexual assumptions and expectations of men. It’s cinematically breathtaking, whether it be the intimate and atmospheric shots or the strikingly entrancing scenery of Iceland. At first, the film feels as if it’s going to be along the lines of most coming of age LGBTQ dramas, and though it does contain many common thematic situations. It contributes an original story to both gay and straight cinema. Heartstone doesn’t rely on the heartbreaking experiences gay youth face, rather it shines with the captivating performances from Baldur Einarsson and Blær Hinriksson combined with the anxiety of tense situations and tight, blurred camera shots. The enormity of the film — the depth and seriousness of the story captured — doesn’t reach its full effect until credits roll. But once it sinks in, it won’t let you go for quite some time. – Tyler Harvey
Under the Tree
Runner-up for Krzysztof Kieslowski Award
Under the Tree, an Icelandic film, caught my attention because it does what mainstream American films are afraid to do while still holding onto its darkly humorous core, all while satisfying my hunger for a worthy way to finish a story. Directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigursson, Under the Tree transports viewers into the truly toxic dynamic between suburban neighbors — both of whom seem to take out their private frustrations on each other. An ancillary role, but an important one, is the older couple’s son Atli, who is dealing with a chaotic separation from his wife. As the title suggests, the tree is a pivotal point for the film— both symbolically and literally. The literal tree sits in one yard but shades the patio to their neighbors’ yard, while the figurative tree is a representation of the past. Tension builds in palpable ways throughout the film, leading to a climax where the literal tree and figurative tree confront each other—an unexpectedly gory scene. With outstanding and highly believable performances especially by the two feuding neighbor women in the film (Selma Björnsdóttir, Edda Björgvinsdóttir), and the always elegant sound of the Icelandic language, Under the Tree is a foreign film worth that’s reading the subtitles. – Cori Anderson
Where to see it now: The North American release date is still to be determined in 2018, but it was picked up by Magnolia films so expect to see it in Landmark Theaters next year.
Have a Nice Day
Have a Nice Day is Chinese filmmaker Liu Jian’s neo-noir animated take on a mob film. It follows a big bag of money as it moves from one person to the next, suspiciously. At once an absurdist escape and a biting commentary on consumer culture, the movie will captivate big audiences with its homage to films like The Godfather, Blade Runner and the works of Tarantino. The characters are all fascinating in their separate oddities, and the animation style captures the mood in even the smallest details — like a dog limping in the background or a neon sign flickering on the street. Watch it for the violence, watch it for the dry humor, but definitely watch it because the visual style is artistic, emotional and insanely brilliant. –Cori Anderson
Where to see it now: Sie FilmCenter to screen additional showings in 2018
In the Blood (I Blodet)
In the Blood doesn’t bring anything new to the coming of age genre that we haven’t seen before, but it’s worth it if not only for the tense ride, pristine cinematography and captivating performances. Though the film doesn’t present the audience with a fresh concept, it explores a more neglected aspect of coming of age. Rather than focusing on first love, puberty or family matters, In the Blood explores the grievances that come with budding into an adult. Wonderfully acted, psychologically tense and dynamically satisfying, In the Blood delivers an astonishingly atmospheric journey into the subjective battle of deciphering what is considered normal, and what is considered erratic when on the cusp of adulthood. Actors Elliott Crosset Hove and Victoria Carmen Sonne were both in Winter Brothers and Hove was also in Across the Waters — two additional films that screened at this year’s Denver Film Festival. – Tyler Harvey
Through Mr. Roosevelt, Noël Wells (Master of None, Saturday Night Live, Infinity Baby [DFF40]) proves herself, not as master of one-liners or gimmicks, rather one of constructing scenarios that lead to satisfyingly humorous conclusions and heartfelt laughs. In her directorial debut, Wells shows us that she’s a professional at singling out life’s insecurities and anxieties and making them unabashedly relatable. Though the film has its downfalls, like mediocre acting at times and occasionally a touch of poor direction, Mr. Roosevelt is too sincere and too witty to pass up. It captures the absolute awkwardness of everyday life by means of relatable situations wrapped in charisma and charm. We’re looking forward to what Wells has in store for the future. – Tyler Harvey
Where to see it now: Stay tuned to Netflix in 2018, but possibly see it in theaters before the end of year.
Runner-up for American Indie Narrative Award
The Misogynists will take you on a comedic thrill ride that emphasizes the power of a well-written script on a minimal budget. The film is based on a relatable premise — taking place on Election Night 2016 — but resides inside a dark world where it’s totally possible that the women of the Obamas, Bushs and Clintons are secretly in a pact against humanity. The Misogynists is topical in all aspects of hypocrisy, whether from the perspective of a bigoted Trump supporter or a bleeding heart liberal — it’s brimming with irony. This film is Trump-era satire at its finest. Fans of 2017’s Beatriz at Dinner will be satisfied with this equivalently funny yet ruthlessly twisted flick. – Tyler Harvey
Tonya Harding is a figure most of us grew up knowing as a punchline, but this film explores her life leading up to “the incident” with fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Whether it was her abusive mother, her abusive husband or the skating committee’s distaste at her appearance and attitude, Harding did not have an easy go at anything in her life. But even though there’s rampant domestic violence (both physical and emotional) I, Tonya delivers the cruelties of Harding’s life with a very healthy dose of humor, and swearing. These contextual boundaries that director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Million Dollar Arm) captures — with the help of narration by re-enacted interviews from Harding and those around her — will at least give you a new perspective, if not completely change your mind about the whole ordeal. Any factual shortcomings can be overlooked as a result of time constraints— and let’s face it, it’s not trying to be a documentary. This film is a no fucks given affair, inspired by a woman who gave no fucks, ultimately at the greatest cost to her career. Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street) is the perfect Tonya— confident, angsty and emotionally scarred. – Cori Anderson
Where to see it now: See it in theaters once it’s released on December 8, 2017
Though Lady Bird follows the normal plot line of any coming-of-age film, including the iconic senior prom at the end, it stands apart because the main character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) does not fill the typical role of either outcast or popular girl. She might live on the poorer side of town and pine after big houses and nice cars that her richer peers have, but it never shows her being bullied for it. As the directorial debut of actress Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird shows great promise for people looking for powerful and also flawed heroines. This film also passes the Bechdel Test, named after Alison Bechdel—the author of Fun Home, a graphic novel—and has three rules: “1) [a film or book] has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.” The most interesting dynamics and drama played out in the film are between Lady Bird and her nervous, but strong-willed mother (Laurie Metcalf)— where we are given the inside scoop on the deep, nuanced and often overlooked relationship between a teenager and a parent. –Cori Anderson
Where to see it now: Landmark Chez Artiste and Century Theatre Boulder have current showings, Sie FilmCenter starts screenings on November 22.
We’re twisted souls for including this one in our list of best comedies from Denver Film Festival 2017. Why? Well, simply put, Mailman feels like something you shouldn’t be laughing at. Suicide, murder, depression and even gore can all be found in only 360 seconds of content. Mailman will make you incredibly uncomfortable with the absurdity of the situation at hand. This short doesn’t waste a second of its six-minute runtime, delivering a clever script while unraveling a simple yet ludacris plotline. It keeps you on your toes, wondering what preposterous turn of events will happen next, and doesn’t disappoint on those expectations. Mailman is as dark as dark comedies come. – Tyler Harvey
Horror + Sci-Fi
Sci-fi cinema is at its best when it challenges itself, broadening the genre into other realms of fiction and bridging its supernatural factors into realistic scenarios. Thelma does exactly that with its astonishingly genre-diverse storyline. The film combines sci-fi components with coming-out undertones and religious ideologies. Thelma is minimalistic sci-fi, yet artfully so, creating a cinematic experience unlike anything you’ve seen before. If one looks hard enough, they’ll find several metaphors and analogies in underlying the plot, making Thelma more complex than one would expect going into it. This movie isn’t for the soft-hearted, though — Thelma includes deeply disturbing plot points and unforgettable imagery. – Tyler Harvey
Where to see it now: Thelma is currently in other US theaters, but is not currently showing in Denver. It is Norway’s Oscar entry, so it will likely be more available online and in theaters next year.
Coming straight from Telluride Horror Show, Tragedy Girls has been making its way through Colorado this past month — and we’re not mad. This comedy-horror hybrid stars Alexandra Shipp II (X Men: Apocalypse, Straight Outta Compton) and Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool) with supporting performances from Josh Hutcherson (Hunger Games Trilogy, The Disaster Artist), Craig Robinson (Pineapple Express, Knocked Up) and Kevin Durand (Fruitvale Station, Noah). Tragedy Girls takes a premise we’ve seen before in dark comedies that center on our youth — The Heathers, Jawbreaker and even this year’s DFF40 Reel Club Social Feature, Thoroughbreds. It’s a comedy thriller that revolves around spoiled teenagers doing bad things. What differs Tragedy Girls from others in the genre is its timely criticism of social media and heaping amounts of gore. Cleverly written, with underlying social commentaries, Tragedy Girls is a rollercoaster of a ride — one of those roller coasters where you can’t stop laughing but you’re still just a little afraid. – Tyler Harvey
Where to see it now: Sie FilmCenter November 17 – 30.
Okay, so an Estonian black-and-white movie might not catch everyone’s attention. But November— adapted from Andrus Kivirahk’s novel Rehepapp— is enchanting in the glory of its universal storytelling about unrequited love, the use of magic, inspiration from traditional folklore and the stunning cinematography by director Rainer Sarnet. Set in 19th century rural Estonia, the black-and-white is so vividly in contrast to the emotions that fuel the peasant girl Liina (Rea Lest) toward her friend Hans (Jorgen Liik) and Hans toward the German baroness who moves into the large estate nearby. It does not dwell much on the time period, but instead focuses on magical realism elements that viewers must suspend their belief immediately to accept. There are servants (named kratts) made of inanimate objects that are brought to life through deals with a rather idiotic devil; there are animals that personify diseases and can be fooled by wearing pants on your head; and there’s a funny old witch who gives a man advice about cooking his shit into bread as a love potion. – Cori Anderson
Where to see it now: US company Oscilloscope acquired the rights to this film, which means it will be making its rounds in the states and may even be up for an Oscar in foreign film.
Runner-up for Best Documentary Film
This documentary follows an eccentric Ohio man, Danny Houck, who promises a renowned European concert violinist that he can craft him a reproduction of one of the most famous, rare and valuable violins in history— the Stradivarius. Mostly through footage of Danny in his home with more than a little bit of deferred maintenance, the viewer learns that genius sometimes looks like crazy. Or maybe they’re no different. His workbench is cluttered, with wood shavings covering mouse droppings, tools disorganized in drawers, and a UV oven he’s fashioned with a trash can and some basic blacklights. But it’s remarkable how thrifty Houck can be, and also how oddly confident he seems even in the face of impending deadlines and more pressure than most of us face in our lifetimes. Originally, according to Strad Style director Stefan Avalos, the purpose was to make a documentary about violins more generally, but once Avalos discovered Danny, the film was subsumed by him and his nail-biting story. – Cori Anderson
Faces Places (Villages Visages)
Agnés Varda, one of the leading figures of the French New Wave movement and a major player in French cinematography, has perhaps made her last film with Faces Places. At 89 years old, she is still spry, funny and full of curiosity, which makes the newest film, co-created with 33-year-old French photographer JR, a delight to watch. Faces Places follows Varda and JR on a roadtrip across France, driving in a photo booth van JR has equipped to print larger-than-life photos in order to wheatpaste them to walls. Varda does not have much to do with the actual process of printing, cutting and pasting the photos, but her conceptual direction, funny quips to her younger companion and her ability to have strangers open up to her are all as captivating as JR’s street art. Through their travels, you’ll meet a farmer, a waitress, factory workers, an entire village in an abandoned development, a postman, a goat herder and dock workers and their wives. It’s when Varda says to JR, “I may not see well, but I see you” that the compassion behind their adventure is fully realized. – Cori Anderson
Where to see it now: Faces Places opened in L.A theaters in October, but does not currently have showings scheduled in Denver.
Runner-up for True Grit Colorado Filmmaker Award
Most of the widespread images coming out of conflict areas in the last few decades can be attributed to Chris Hondros, a photojournalist who died at 41 years old while covering the civil war in Libya. This documentary, directed and put together by his lifelong friend and Coloradan Greg Campbell, allows viewers a glimpse into the extraordinary life of Hondros and the positive impact he spread across the world. There’s an interesting juxtaposition to how Hondros operated in his daily life and how he did his job, as well as the subject matter he photographed and the experiences he had while photographing. Campbell— who is also a journalist and author—does a great service to Hondros, a man you will either think was absolutely courageous or absolutely insane. – Cori Anderson
Where to see it now: Hondros was recently acquired by Netflix, so it will be available through streaming services in the very near future.
Suspense + Thriller
Part suspense-thriller, part black comedy, Thoroughbreds ominously approaches issues that are not unique to Hollywood, but still pertinent to modern society — mental illness, wealth and the fragility of our youth. Tight-knit and extended shots craft an engaging feat for the eyes, mesmerizing the viewer and amplifying suspense simultaneously. It’s driven by a percussion-fueled soundtrack that’s as whimsical as it is peculiarly consuming. At times the instrumentation is minimal and simplistic and at others, it propels the story’s pace into a feverish whirlwind through the addition of heavier bass, a quicker tempo and eclectic sounds. Lead actresses Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) and Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel, Ouija) were perfectly cast, offering up incredibly convincing and deeply disturbing performances, suitably matching the tone of the film. Not only were the lead roles fulfilled, the late Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Green Room, Charlie Bartlett) delivered as well. – Tyler Harvey
Where to see it now: March 9, 2018 is the release date and Regal Cinemas have the rights to it.
The Strange Ones
The Strange Ones presents the audience with a title that should be taken literally — it’s a very strange film. It’s also hard to talk about The Strange Ones without giving away key plot points, as the film starts with a mysterious premise, slowly filling in the blanks with unexpected twists. This debut feature by Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein delivers on an original strategy to develop the stories timeline, crafting something unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s slow paced but riddled with anxiety that, despite the slow momentum of the film, will keep you mesmerized until the satisfying conclusion. Lead actor James Freedson-Jackson (Cop Car) delivered a stunning performance that wholly characterizes confusion, melancholia, prepubescent masculinity and mental struggles. You may not love the movie directly after its conclusion, or you may not love it until its conclusion, but it will latch on to you after the film and resonate for days to come. – Tyler Harvey
This debut film by Hlynur Pálmason finds the capability to take ordinary, everyday moments for a group of construction workers, and transform them into tense, sinister-feeling segments for the viewer. Winter Brothers needs no foreshadowing with the lingering sensation of impending doom provided by the film’s setting and cinematography. Sirens, construction rumbling and tight shots contribute to a hellish environment, most of the time while the characters go about their ways as if everything is perfectly routine. Winter Brothers taps into the banality of everyday life as well as the dark humor in ordinary situations and transforms it all into something terrifyingly relatable. It meanders life’s catacombs of instability, while in the tunnels of mines or against the beautiful snow-covered rural landscapes of Denmark. Winter Brothers ponders with the question, “how fragile is one’s humanity under the just the right amount of pressure and influences?” Alcoholism, violence, jealousy and misogyny fuel this impeccably taught yet unexpectedly comedic tale. Winter Brothers stars two actors from three other films that screened at Denver Film Festival this year — Elliott Crosset Hove (In The Blood, Across the Waters) and Victoria Carmen Sonne (In the Blood) – Tyler Harvey