For four decades, the Denver Film Festival has continuously proven itself to be a local cultural cornerstone. From inspiring young filmmakers to bringing established creatives to the Mile High City — DFF is an institution that undoubtedly advances film. And as Denver continues to grow, as does the festival. At the 41st Denver Film Festival, 260 films were shown over two weeks of pure cinematic bliss. While boasting a colorful range of style, DFF seemed to be orbiting around the theme of truth this season. From vivid documentaries to intrepidly honest narratives — the 41st Denver Film Festival presented patrons a refreshing array of windows into bold, new worlds. With gripping storytelling that kept you dangling on the edge of your seat and compelling journeys that thrust you into another’s shoes, DFF dazzled us yet again.
303 Magazine was there to soak it all in — walking Red Carpets, exploring immersive Virtual Reality, and listening in on creative conversations with some of the best minds in film. With such a vast variety of cinema, spanning from across 39 nations, it was irrefutably tough to lock down the best of the fest. After catching nearly 50 flicks over the past two weeks — we are excited to share our favorites. Many of these amazing movies will be coming soon to a screen near you — see when and where below. Read on to check out our review of this year’s festival here as well as the award winners.
The Front Runner
The Lowdown: Taking an overlooked, misremembered blip of American history and spinning it into a jaw-droppingly gorgeous biopic only furthers the fact that Jason Reitman may very well be one of the greatest cinematic minds of our modern day. Tackling the cliches of the 1988 Gary Hart affair with Donna Rice with absolute grace, The Front Runner has no heroes or villains — only humans. Deliciously complicated, focusing on each and every perspective leading into and out of the failed campaign of Colorado Senator Gary Hart — the film not only boasts a fantastically on-beat array of familiar faces but some of the most insanely fantastical cinematography I have been blessed enough to witness in my short time on this planet. The opening shot alone left me speechless, with the goofiest grin slathered across my face. While everybody and their mother knows what happened aboard Monkey Business on that fateful Miami day, Hart’s affair with Donna Rice is not even the most pressing facet of The Front Runner. No, it is the sense of intimacy that levels you time and time again. The outrageous roar of the press that churns instantly into equally roaring silence. With mise-en-scene that makes you oddly proud to be an American, The Front Runner showcases Reitman’s eagle eye for storytelling. Despite the 30 year gap, the themes of The Front Runner are so palpable in today’s politics it’ll leave you sweaty. From the “Me Too” angle of the objectification of Donna Rice to the tabloid spectacle that became Gary Hart’s bedroom — the events unturned in this humanistic deep dive into one of America’s most pivotal political shifts feel modern. Yet with a persistent dry-wit and undeniably captivating performances, the film’s retro-stylized relevancy felt neither forced nor distressing. Don’t believe me? See for yourself, I promise you will not regret it. – Jake Dahl
When and where to see it next: The Front Runner is scheduled to open at Alamo Drafthouse (Sloan’s Lake) on November 21.
Special Mention, American Independent Award
The Lowdown: Even though the film never strays far from the main character, performed with equal parts grit and finesse by Tessa Thompson (Westworld, Ragnarok, Dear White People), almost every major social issue in America today is tackled — health care, illegal border crossings, the opioid crisis, abortion, poverty and cost of living, to name a few. Set in a town called Little Woods, the movie drops viewers into the life of Ollie (Thompson), who is on probation after being arrested for smuggling prescription drugs from Canada into the US. From there, the story unravels as we follow Ollie’s day-to-day life, one that is punctuated by a struggle in a million little ways — paying bills, avoiding old connections in a small town, grieving over her recently deceased mother. Other lives are equally as difficult, including Ollie’s sister Deb, who lives with her young son in an RV that’s illegally camped in a parking lot. With Ollie’s tenacity, the story moves through each day with a bubbling anticipation that reaches the climax just before the end, as Ollie must cross the border illegally one more time. The artistic points in the film are subtle yet poignant — like one shot of the two sisters smoking a cigarette outside on a badly-lit porch, exchanging few words but worrying together while the little boy sleeps innocently inside. As the first full-length film from director and writer Nia DaCosta, Little Woods should catapult her toward mainstream success, if for nothing else than because it’s highly relatable to all different walks of life. Don’t watch this film and expect a “feel good” drama, but expect to have it lingering in the back of your head for weeks. – Cori Anderson
When and Where to See it Next: NEON, an American independent film production and distribution company, acquired the rights for this film in June 2018, but currently, there are no showings scheduled for Denver.
The Lowdown: In one of the most wildly original stories I’ve ever seen, writer John Ajvide Lindqvist stunningly surpasses the chilling beauty of Let the Right One In with Border. Blending elements of romance and horror into a fairy tale (for adults) it’s an unforgettable storyline, especially with the equally unnerving and enticing sexual explosiveness. At one point during the screening, I caught myself grinning from ear to ear thinking, “this is why I love going to the movies.” Border is a visionary masterpiece from what could only come from a marvelously creative mind. Spotlighting the interconnectivity of humanity, nature and beauty, it’s filmed with a suspenseful sensitivity like a coming of age film approaches self-discovery. It may not have been an award-winner or even a Red Carpet Presentation, but Border easily solidified its place as the best movie I saw at this year’s DFF. Be warned — the less you know about the film going into it, the better. – Tyler Harvey
When and where to see it next: Border opens this Friday, November 16 at Sie FilmCenter. Go here for tickets.
Woman at War
The Lowdown: Icelandic cinema has a special quality to it — a kind of style that pervades almost all the films that come out of the country and must be attributed to the culture itself. It’s hard to explain, but there are always sweeping vistas of the unique scenery, a certain tone of the light, dry jokes that aren’t always relatable as an American and some kind of quirk. Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War was the only Icelandic film at the festival this year, and it represented its country with high esteem. The film follows Halla, a single 50-year-old woman who is single-handedly sabotaging an aluminum plant that threatens the pristine Icelandic highlands. After successfully getting away with a handful of ecoterrorist acts — one of which includes her shooting a bow and arrow across three industrial power lines — her zeal for the cause is tested when she receives news that her adoption application has been accepted and an orphan in Ukraine is waiting for her. The quirk in this Icelandic film lies in the inclusion of a three-piece band and three Ukranian singers who compose the soundtrack while also appearing in the scenes. Sometimes, the band members break the fourth wall, shrugging at the camera, and at other times they interact with the characters in the film. It results in the plot of the movie and the soundtrack becoming so intertwined that it’s almost a musical. Erlingsson’s overall vision for the film — from the cinematography to the complexity of Halla’s character to the plot — is unmatched by anything else I saw at the festival this year. Woman at War is an ode to environmentalism, an ode to standing your ground and an ode to strong women. It will surprise you with humor and poignancy and will remind you to be scrupulous and skeptical. –Cori Anderson
When and where to see it next: This is Iceland’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Academy Awards, so stay tuned until next year for screenings.
The Lowdown: Leaving his directorial debut I found myself stunned by the maturity in which Paul Dano flawlessly flexed in Wild Life. The actor has timelessly dazzled me with spellbinding performances that are completely understated. Behind the camera, Dano manages to enshroud a theater with that same sensation — resonating with the part of me that secretly thinks that maybe (just maybe) the lonesome fields of Iowa are the prettiest part of the US of A. Melancholic and moody, with the slightest effervescent bites of dark humor — Wild Life sensitively weaves the story of a sudden a disintegration of family and an urgent aging of a young boy. Set, gorgeously, in borderlands Montana — Dano thoughtfully paints you a portrait of the realities of 1960s rural America and then plops you right into it. Unapologetically alarming, Wild Life bears witness to the disruption of an American dream and the dissolving of the all-American family. It is affecting, quietly cold, and downright dreamy — but Wild Life is not the kind of movie you want to like. Instead is a movie that commands your attention and breaks down your barriers, scene by scene. With bombshell performances from the likes of Carey Mulligan and newcomer Ed Oxenbould — Wild Life will leave you speechless. However dumbfounded I felt as the lights came up and the credits rolled, I was certain of just one thing — that this is the start of a very long directorial career for Mr. Paul Dano. -Jake Dahl
When and where to see it next: Wild Life opened for a short theatrical run on October 19 in select US locations. No information has yet been released on a theatrical opening in Colorado.
Ben is Back
The Lowdown: I didn’t expect to love this movie. But the performances of Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges combined with an honest portrayal of family drama won me over completely. Ben is Back is what has been missing, when it comes to representations of the modern family. It’s genuine, reminding us why family bonds can be so tangled. Writer and director Peter Hedges only uses 24 hours to unravel the complicated and raw history of the family — a mixed assortment of Holly’s (Roberts) children and Holly and her new husband’s children. Ben (Lucas Hedges) is Holly’s first child, the oldest of the group and a freshly recovering opioid addict. His sudden return home from a rehabilitation center is met with mixed emotions from everyone and the film takes enough time with each character to give a holistic perspective of the situation. There are moments you will root for Ben and moments when you understand his stepfather’s gruffness or his biological sister’s timidity. And even though some viewers will call Holly an overprotective mother, I think the ultimate beauty of the movie is in her moxie. Even if you don’t relate to the issues faced in Ben is Back, Roberts and Hedges provide enough fodder to keep you hooked until the end. – Cori Anderson
When and where to see it next: The release date for Ben is Back in all theaters is December 7, 2018.
The Lowdown: This story, under any other writer or director, could have easily been brought to fruition as a profoundly dismal drama. Pity, though, is quite hilarious. The movie is something you feel you shouldn’t be laughing at but it’s so poignantly directed, cleverly written and ballistically absurd that you can’t help but smile, though you may be simultaneously covering your eyes and cringing. Pity is immature and uncompromisingly brutal — in a good way, though one may feel a sense of questionable guilt admitting it. The absolute absurdity is balanced with humorous editing and gorgeous cinematography solidifying Pity as a favorite from this year’s DFF. – Tyler Harvey
When and where to see it next: No information has yet been released on a theatrical US opening date.
Winner — Rare Pearl Award, Director: Alfonso Cuarón
The Lowdown: Roma will leave you breathless for days, encapsulated in its neo-realism beauty. Directed, written and shot by Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity) in stark black and white, it’s his “love letter” to the women who raised him. It’s an immaculate portrait — a memoir even — of class and racial divides integrated into familial life in 1970s Mexico City. It’s simplistic yet gut-wrenchingly powerful, mechanized by Cuarón’s masterful filmmaking. Cuarón has the remarkable ability to make the simple — even tedious — things in life extraordinarily beautiful. Thus, the film’s seductive power rests in making you feel as if you’re taking much of life for granted. It’s empathetically told with moments of reflection — like a daydream — acting as if every single shot has a deeper meaning leaving you pondering many of them long after the credits roll. Even with an over-two-hour runtime and a slow-paced narrative, Cuarón still excels in gripping your attention from beginning to end with one of the most beautifully directed and captivatingly cinematic films to come out this year. – Tyler Harvey
When and where to see it next: Roma is set for a limited theatrical release in the US on November 29 with an international expansion on December 7. On December 14 the film will be released on Netflix as well as expanded to additional theaters.
The Lowdown: One of my favorite types of film plots is one that takes a simple and realistic concept and manages to craft an entirely original story. Styx does exactly that with a minimalistic plot that’s still pulse-poundingly suspenseful. By presenting the viewer with a dilemma, the suspense is inherent with the premise — when thrown face first into a humanitarian crisis, how many risks are you willing to take? Styx isn’t an easy watch, emotionally, but it’s incredibly worthwhile leaving you vulnerable and raw. Politically topical and horrifically eye-opening — it’s what’s not happening on camera that stirs your gut, knowing the tragedy combusting outside of our protagonist’s immediate point of view. Solidified with a stellar, nearly silent performance from Susanne Wolff, Styx is as gripping as it is unforgettable. – Tyler Harvey
When and where to see it next: No information has yet been released on a theatrical US opening date.
A Private War
The Lowdown: Based on the life — and death — of one of the most honored war correspondents of the 21st century, A Private War follows the harrowing travels of Marie Colvin. Inspired by a Vanity Fair article about Colvin’s last correspondence from Syria written by Marie Brenner, director Matthew Heineman slightly diverges from his typical documentary format to deliver a gripping narrative that relies on the adage that truth can be stranger (or more incredible) than fiction. Over the course of 11 years, Colvin (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl, Jack Reacher) travels to some of the most dangerous conflict areas in the world while writing for The Sunday Times in London. The film starts with the view of a devasted Homs, Syria in 2012 but then jumps back 11 years to the civil war in Sri Lanka. From then on, viewers witness the almost reckless determination of Colvin to chase conflicts and report them back to the rest of the world — Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan in 2009, Libya in 2011. Even though the film will make your heart pound with scenes of her entrenched in foreign wars, there is also an underlying story about her as a person that makes the viewer try to understand the toll her experiences took on her own psyche. She was a war zone herself, constantly conflicted by the desire to report on tragedies and the desire to retain some kind of emotional stability. Pike’s performance as Colvin should be Oscar-worthy — the actress is unrecognizable as herself, but eerily similar to the character she played. Just as the movie screened at DFF, Pike commented in an article in Indiewire that she almost quit halfway through the filming because the role was more emotionally taxing than she could have imagined. A Private War will make you want to dive into a research binge on the real Colvin, and take it from me, you won’t be disappointed by that either. –Cori Anderson