On Screen

Critics' Picks: The Must-Sees at the 40th Denver Film Festival

Plan a last-minute, off-season getaway to discover this year's best cinematic gems.  

By George Eldred and Laura Thielen November 1, 2017

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Molly’s Game (STX Entertainment release)  

As the Denver Film Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary in the Mile High City, audiences have decisions to make. Framed by Greta Gerwig’s charmer Lady Bird and Craig Gillespie’s tragicomic I, Tonya, DFF’s red carpet also spotlights Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, and Richard Levine’s Submission. Plus, anticipated previews like Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, with Steve Carrell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne, and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman.

More than 200 films fill sections devoted to documentary, American independents, and world cinema, including a Danish focus, late-night movies, shorts, and more. A retrospective highlighting four decades of programming is a festival in itself. DFF’s lineup features some of our favorites from earlier this year, notably Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, written by James Ivory (Room with a View); Alex Ross Perry’s Brooklyn-based drama, Golden Exits; and Quest, Jonathan Olsheski’s portrait of a North Philadelphia family. Here are a few others to consider:

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An artificial-intelligence (AI) experiment to master the ancient board game of Go seems a dubious subject to engage audiences outside the geekdoms of computer programmers and Go players. Remarkably, filmmaker Greg Kohs’s AlphaGo not only succeeds, it thrills. Too complex for a mere number-crunching computer, mastering Go presents a worthy goal for London-based AI developers Deep Mind, who set out to design a program that can teach itself to play. When AlphaGo is ready, they challenge world champion Lee Sedol of Korea. Fashioning involving character studies of Deep Mind’s team and the intense young Go master, Kohs captures a surprisingly emotional drama as divergent worlds collide with unexpected, potentially far-reaching results. Trailer: click here 

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California Dreams

Cultivating the border where documentary and fiction abut, blur, and even spar, California Dreams plays fast and loose with conventions to elide distinctions between “truth” and “story.” In his latest category-defying work, Mike Ott (Actor Martinez, DFF39) casts real people (i.e., definitely not actors) to play versions of themselves, unknowns with a big-time aspiration: to act in movies. The most fleshed out is Ott regular Cory Zacharia, who plays Cory, an unemployed 20-something living with his mother. Like his outlier cohorts, Cory proves more adept at high-flying fantasy (delusion?) than developing life skills or honing his craft. Reuniting with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Ott finds unsettling humor and poignancy in the gap between big dreams and the sharp-edged realities of desert town life. Trailer: click here

Speaking of wild dreams, don’t miss Strad Style, Stefan Avalos’s shambling but winning doc about Danny Houck, a rural Ohioan eccentric who sets out to make an exact copy of the world’s most iconic violin. It’s hard not to root for Cory and Danny. No matter how far-fetched and regardless of circumstance, their dreams are as sustaining as breath. Trailer: click here

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Faces, Places (Cohen Media Group release)

This delightful ode to seeing and being seen ranks among the season’s best. Faces, Places is a collaboration between 89-year-old director Agnes Varda, a legend of the French New Wave, and 33-year-old JR, a world-renowned photographer and street artist. Part road movie, part art project, Faces, Places follows the pair as they explore the French countryside, seeking out the inhabitants of its neglected byways, listening to their histories, taking their pictures, and memorializing them in larger-than-life photographic murals. Along with documenting their journey, Faces, Places deftly creates an affecting double portrait of the artists themselves, who, though separated by years, are united in their appreciation of human variety and their faith in art to celebrate the uniqueness of the ordinary. Trailer: click here

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Félicité (Strand Releasing release)

Alain Gomis’s Félicité is a two-fold character drama about Kinshasa, a city pulsing with human hustle, and one of its denizens, a single mother who works as a nightclub singer. The fiercely independent Félicité navigates life like a magnificent, impenetrable vessel until an accident befalls her son. In this vibrant but tough capital, where trust is hard earned and expressions of tenderness scarce, Félicité’s mission to raise money for medical costs morphs into a soul journey. Congolese singer-turned-actress Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu shines as the proud warrior mother who slowly recovers the buried flame of her own humanity. The Congolese Kasaï Allstars and Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra bring lyricism to this unvarnished study of dignity and strength. Berlin’s Silver Bear winner and Senegal’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar entry. Trailer: click here

Among many others worth mentioning is Hondros, Greg Campbell’s moving tribute to his childhood friend Chris Hondros, the Pulitzer Prize–winning news photographer who documented conflict, until his death in 2011. Tackling geopolitical strife from another vantage point is Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow. Using the meticulous engagement that characterizes his installations, the Chinese artist-activist travels to 23 countries, bearing compassionate witness to the global dimensions of the refugee crisis. Trailers: click here and here.  

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Leaning into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy (Magnolia Pictures release)

What are we looking forward to seeing? High on the list are Molly’s Game and I, Tonya, along with Jared Moshé’s western The Ballad of Lefty Brown with Bill Pullman and Peter Fonda; Let the Sun Shine In, Claire Denis’s romantic comedy starring Juliette Binoche; Fatih Akin’s In the Fade, for which Diane Kruger won Best Actress at Cannes; and Leaning into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy, Thomas Riedelsheimer’s follow-up to Rivers and Tides, his 2001 collaboration with the British artist . 

The 40th Denver Film Festival runs November 1–12, 2017, at venues across the city. For passes, tickets, and the complete schedule, visit denverfilm.org.

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