Indie Spirit

Dispatches from the 39th Denver Film Festival: Cinema with Altitude

From awards season must-sees and new Spanish directors to essential documentaries and a detour to the edge—our film columnists round up the final chapter of Colorado’s busy fall festival season. 

By George Eldred and Laura Thielen December 14, 2016

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The 39th Denver Film Festival welcomed Emma Stone for the opening night premiere of La La Land where she received the Excellence in Acting Award.  

Image: Jason DeWitt

At their finest, festivals entertain us with expressive voices and subjects showcasing vibrant big-screen storytelling while enriching our understanding of the world. For 12 days last month, that is exactly what the 39th Denver Film Festival did. DFF’s astute programming team, led by Festival Director Britta Erickson and Program Director Brit Withey, delivered a knockout lineup of 250 films from 50 countries—a heady mix of high-profilers now topping 2016 “best 10” lists and garnering Golden Globe and other nomination love alongside discoveries that invigorate and complete a festival experience.

Among several tantalizing red carpet choices were the enchanting La La Land, with Emma Stone and director Damien Chazelle appearing in person; the emotionally involving People’s Choice Audience winner Lion, starring Dev Patel; and Pablo Larrain’s boldly conceived Jackie, with Nathalie Portman. The Special Presentations program featured two more of our fall favorites, Things to Come, with Isabelle Huppert, and Germany’s Toni Erdmann, among several other delights.

Riding the current of its warm Cannes reception is Oscar winner Michael Dudok de Wit’s feature debut, The Red Turtle, produced in association with Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away). Deploying an exquisite visual palette, this nearly wordless animation morphs from enviro-odyssey into an unexpectedly moving meditation on life’s cycles and the ecology of the soul.

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I, Daniel Blake won the prestigious Palme d'Or prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and in the forthcoming political and social climate, this film will speak volumes.

At age 80 with 50-plus credits, Ken Loach reaffirms his vitality as one of cinema’s great humanists with I, Daniel Blake, a pointedly observed drama. The waiting rooms and housing blocks of this Palme d’Or winner bristle with sharp dialogue, much of it funny. While skewering the bureaucratic machinations of Britain’s public health system, Loach brings poignant depth to his full-blooded characters—namely, an out of work construction worker and the single mom and two children he befriends.

Part film essay, part nostalgic ode, Doug Nichol’s charmer, California Typewriter, finds joyful heart medicine in a talisman of the analog world. Enthusiasts—from Tom Hanks and Sam Shepherd to street poets, artists, musicians, and the craftsmen of a family-run refurbishing business—share their exuberant passion for the humble machine. (Screenings were paired with Rob Shearer’s fitting amuse-bouche Denizen–“Devan.)

Introducing filmmakers largely unknown to U.S. audiences is a Denver signature. The selection of recent works in this year’s Spanish spotlight proved timely. Juan Miguel del Castillo’s quietly devolving Food and Shelter complemented David Cánovas’s provocative The Tip of the Iceberg in exploring the true costs of a distressed economy. Threats to centuries-old traditions and the environment form the nuclei of Jonathan Cenzul Burley’s neo-noir western The Shepherd (El Pastor) and Icíar Bollaín’s elegiac The Olive Tree–which, in six degrees of separation, is penned by Ken Loach’s screenwriter Paul Laverty. Even Paco León’s rambunctious Kiki, Love to Love, an affectionately kinky sex comedy, has a thing or two to say about animal nature and tender hearts. And then there’s Mauro Herce’s transporting Dead Slow Ahead about a container ship’s mysterious ocean voyage. Elegantly crafted, inexorably paced, this observational documentary is a journey to another planet: unsettling, mesmerizing, unforgettable.

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Gianfranco Rosi's Fire at Sea is in select theaters now and on the 2017 Oscars shortlist for Best Documentary.

Once again DFF’s consistently eclectic and illuminating documentary slate energized audiences. Besides California Typewriter and Dead Slow Ahead, standouts included DFF’s Best Documentary winner, Do Not Resist, Craig Atkinson’s chilling vérité chronicle of police militarization; from India, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s lovely celluloid valentine, The Cinema Travellers; Solitary, Kristi Jacobson’s intimate examination of super-max prison life; Berlin Film Festival winner Fire at Sea, Gianfranco Rosi’s poetically masterful rumination on Europe’s refugee crisis; Maisie Crow’s urgent Jackson, about Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic; and The Nine, still photographer Katy Grannan’s lyrically inflected yet unflinching portrait of sex workers in California’s Central Valley. 

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Arthur Martinez, Mike Ott, and Nathan Silver in Actor Martinez, which had its US premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Breaking Glass Pictures is planning a February 2017 release.

For adventurers keen to walk on a wilder side, Denver offered fresh adventures, from teasingly subversive to decidedly dark. Mike Ott and Nathan Silver’s droll Actor Martinez is an indie head trip whose resolutely poker-face playfulness–Is this a doc? A drama? Are these people real or acting?–carried through an equally amusing cast and crew Q and A. With one of its producers Aspen based, we hope a local art space will invite this quirky gem. [Full disclosure: the aforementioned producer of Actor Martinez is coincidentally Aspen Sojourner digital editor Katie Shapiro]. Repurposing one family’s iPhone footage found on YouTube, Dean Fleischer-Camp’s Fraud blurs truth and fiction with an unsettling punch. Adrian Sitaru’s Illegitimate (Romania), Argyris Papadimitropoulos’s Suntan (Greece), Hanna Sköld’s Granny’s Dancing on the Table (Sweden), DFF Krzysztof Kieślowski Best Feature winner Jan P. Matuszyński’s The Last Family (Poland), and Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical (France) all probe aesthetic and thematic boundaries with sly rigor and transgressive finesse. And Joao Pedro Rodrigues’s wildly irreverent mystical pilgrimage, The Ornithologist (Portugal), is a bird of a different feather altogether.

The charge of a festival is to gather films—diverse in content, tone and style—and shape them into a thoughtful celebration that engages an attuned and curious community. By any measure, the 39th Denver Film Festival triumphed.

The 40th Denver Film Festival will run November 1-12, 2017. Until then, when you find yourself on the Front Range, be sure check out the Denver Film Society's nonstop schedule of cinematic events and daily showtimes at the Sie FilmCenter, its year-round arthouse theater at

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