You’re forgiven if you didn’t know much about the Denver Film Festival. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to talk about in the aftermath of the ten day affair. Highlights included very interesting industry panels (a new addition this year), a few films slated for a wide release, and a local debut for a major Colorado-produced film, The Boat Builder. In a state where most of the money for films was recently devoured by Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, it was nice to see a Colorado-made film get a warm reception.
I wasn’t able to finagle my way into every film I wanted to; such is the tragedy of any festival. But, I was able to see a variety of films big and small and elbow my way into a few industry panels. Below are brief reviews of every film I saw, from the incredible — to the barely edible. Rhyming aside, most of the films I saw I genuinely liked, with only one notable exception. Credit to PopOptiq writer Zornitsa Staneva for inspiring the format of this festival review.
1. Hitchcock/Truffaut directed by Kent Jones, written by Kent Jones and Serge Toubiana
PopOptiq writer John McEntee already penned an amazing full review of this film at the BFI London Film Festival, so I’ll be brief. Hitchcock/Truffaut explores a special filmmaking relationship and reminds the audience of a time when Alfred Hitchcock was not respected by many film critics, a time before Truffaut wrote so convincingly about his mastery of the craft in detail, still by still. A cacophony of renowned modern filmmakers talk in depth about their relationship with Truffaut’s book, and with Hitchcock’s work as well. David Fincher, a lynchpin interviewee in the film, remarks that a good filmmaker will not be able to hide what excites them, what captivates them. Arnaud Desplechin continues the thought, saying that Hitchcock did what an excellent filmmaker would do: take what scares, shocks, horrifies, and twist it, play with it, until it is also excites and entices.
2. In Transit, directed by Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker, Ben Wu
Legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles’ last film is a testament to his work and a real triumph. This documentary follows the journey of passengers on an “Empire Builder” Amtrak train from Chicago to Seattle. Everyone on the train is dreaming of something. Such a long train ride inspires people to get to know each other, swap stories, and romanticize the journey. People talk of the “opportunity to change”, and the power of travel. Everyone on the train has a unique story, but all of them are in transition. Some have stories of heartache and abuse, some talk of striking it rich in the oil fields of North Dakota, and still others are there just to “buy the ticket and take the ride”. The film is populated by beautiful real-life characters that wax on life, chance, and how things are going to be different and better at their new destination. Equally beautiful is the natural scenery and artful cinematography throughout the film.
3. The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor written, directed, and edited by Arthur Dong
Filmmaker Arthur Dong’s latest film documents the life of Cambodian doctor-cum-Oscar-winning-actor Haing S. Ngor. Ngor won the award in 1985 for his powerful portrayal of Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran in the film The Killing Fields.
The film does a great job of establishing the history behind events, and on Ngor’s life after The Killing Fields; but the core of the narrative is a love story. Through readings from Ngor’s autobiography, masterfully interlaced with animations, footage of real Cambodia and footage from The Killing Fields, the beautiful and tragic story of Ngor and his wife My-Huoy comes to life in a powerful way. Dong, using the selected readings from Ngor’s autobiography, does a good job focusing on some of the most troubling parts of war and atrocity, without being overly graphic. The film expertly conveys the sense of ambiguity and uncertainty that accompanied the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power. No one ever expects a horrific series of events like those in Cambodia during 1975 to really happen. It’s chilling to hear first hand how educated city-dwelling Cambodians tried first to ignore the uprising, then believed a natural Cambodian gentleness would prevail, and ultimately were faced with unspeakable horrors. This is an extremely moving and important film about a powerful and incredible person — and a heartbreaking story of love amidst hate.
The Very Good:
1. Warsaw by Night directed by Natalia Koryncka-Gruz
Taking place on a Friday night in Warsaw, Warsaw by Night weaves together narrative threads of four very different characters. Every story in the film is strong, and stands on its own. The “multithreaded urban fresco” film might be a bit hackneyed, but this film does justice to the genre. Even if the characters we see mostly only exist in the cinema, they do make rational sense within the world the film sets up. That kind of internal consistency makes a film seem real and relatable, even if at times it isn’t. An unreal but pleasurable device in the film is a taxi and its driver, tying the narrative threads together and providing a bit of Kafka-like humor.
Narratives in the film are about unrequited love, sexuality and gender, relationships, excitement, and loss. Refreshingly, the female characters’ stories are not exoticized, reduced, or manipulated to fit many of the tropes of male-dominant film culture.
Cinematography and art direction in the film is beautiful. It’s dark and crisp with a pleasing high contrast between the darkness of night and the fluorescent lights of the city.
The acting performances matched the quality of the film and were in general very good. This film was a great example of how sometimes the smaller and lesser-known films at a festival can still be very enjoyable.
2. The Boat Builder written and directed by Arnold Grossman
The Boat Builder made its Colorado debut at the festival and didn’t disappoint. The film is a bit of a throwback to the moralistic films of the 40s and 50s, with strong emphasis on doing right and learning from older generations. Christopher Lloyd stars in the film and does a brilliant job at portraying Abner, an aged mariner and widower who slowly builds a relationship with an orphan boy (Rick) played by Tekola Cornetet, a Denver local. The duo bond over a mammoth task, building a new boat, and the desire to escape. One character looks to make the most out of the time he has, and another looks for family, guidance, and purpose. The film is plainly about building a dream, both physically and mentally.
An “unlikely relationship” between leads is common to cinema and literature; nevertheless this is a good rendition of that common trope. The relationship is believable and well developed.
Some elements of the story are oddly configured, and seemingly form a patchwork narrative around the more important dynamic between the two leads. This only detracts a little from the film’s internal consistency, however, and the relationship between Abner and Rick is strong enough to carry the film for the most part.
1. Youth written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Youth was by far the biggest disappointment of the festival. It is Paolo Sorrentino’s first English-language film, and features a remarkable cast: Michael Cane, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and, briefly, Jane Fonda. The wows stop there, as the film falls entirely short of being enjoyable, let alone artful. Certainly, there are many beautifully composed shots and mise-en-scene, but the film has no internal consistency, no purpose or meaning, and feels like an odd combination of film styles. It’s like watching Wes Anderson’s worst possible film filled with David Lynch’s blandest possible characters. A group of characters are unnaturally flung together- it doesn’t make sense even in the film’s own universe- and they are full of contrived emotion and deepness, acting as real people never do.
The actors try admirably, and there are many good acting performances in this film. But the script undoes all their effort. Almost every time the characters approach what could be a dramatic and meaningful moment, the scene is cut short with a bit of ill-suited humor or a jump cut.
In Youth, every character is desperately yelling at the audience: “See! Life is confusing, short, and sad. For everyone! Except when it’s also funny!” Even more troubling is that the “core principle” of Youth is very vague, if present. What do the young characters’ narratives tell us in the film? We don’t know. What do the older characters tell us in the film? We don’t really know. Is it about memory over time, love over time? Is there meaning in a young masseuse smoking a cigarette or dancing in front of her TV? Who knows? The audience certainly doesn’t, because any depth of narrative is never developed.
I learned quite a lot at the 38th Denver Film Festival. For instance, while documentaries might have more trouble finding wide distribution and commercial success than fictional films from big studios, there’s little question that, in terms of quality, documentaries dominate smaller festivals like this one. The “big films,” like Youth, Carol, and Mia Madre are often panned by critics and casual movie-goers alike. Hitchcock/Truffaut, The Killing Field’s of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, and smaller fictional films like Lamb, Mountains May Depart, and The Measure of a Man, seem to be the ones that “wow” audiences the most. Quality films come from quality storytellers, and quality storytellers come from all over the world. It seems that major “Western” studio productions hinder themselves by thinking film is a game of chess. They focus on getting all the “best” pieces: actors, directors, cinematographers, and locations, at the cost of telling a compelling story.