A Look At The 29th Annual Denver International Film Festival
by Barry Wurst
December 19, 2006
The Denver Film Festival (run by the Denver Film Society) has always had a low key demeanor about it, even as some of the most highly anticipated films of the year were making their debut there. With only a few exceptions, the majority of the films lined up were shown at the Tivoli, a one-time brewery, now college campus/historical site/Gen-Y playground that happens to have a delightfully quaint, low-key multiplex movie theater. Some of the biggest, most eagerly anticipated films from all over the world get their first American unveilings here. The Denver Film Festival was one of the only to show PT. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love to audiences following its Best Director win at Cannes and before its American theatrical release, no less.
Tribute shows featuring everyone from Sean Penn to Morgan Freeman are a standard every year (with the honoree on stage, taking questions from Denver film critic Robert Denerstein, and going over a handful of clips and fond memories). At least two big, highly anticipated films get the red carpet treatment every year, with the world premiere of Ray a recent highlight from the past few years, as everyone from the film turned up, and the Denver Film Festival can also be an indicator of the chances a film has at long or short term success (last year's premiere of Brokeback Mountain was a solid indicator of its chances at box office and critical kudos, while the 1999 premiere of Random Hearts allowed word to spread immediately that the dark, challenging drama wasn't what audiences would be expecting).
This year, the 29th Denver International Film Festival (which ran from November 9th - 19th) gave us another fat cluster of highly awaited, high quality films, a couple of welcome celebrity appearances and the whole laid-back, mile high ease that hopefully will always be a staple.
Tim Robbins received the 2006 John Cassavetes Award and was given a warm tribute by Denerstein, as well as a highlight reel of film clips, followed by a Q& A session from the opulent Denver Buell Theatre's stage. As an example of how casual the whole festival is, Robbins later showed up at the 11:30 film fest premiere of Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, which he briefly appears in. Another actor who received a career tribute was the wonderful, underrated Scott Wilson, who is still best known for co-starring with Robert Blake as one of the two killers of In Cold Blood. Wilson showed up at the Denver premiere of the Cannes hit, The Host. He makes a cameo in the film, which he introduced to a packed theater and he also took time to chat with me about his career and sign my copy of The Ninth Configuration (if you haven't seen it, rent it tonight!).
Three of us from First Showing got to attend the festival and here's a brief, spoiler-free rundown of what I personally got to check out:
This international blockbuster doesn't come to America until March of next year, but boy, is it worth wait! The plot to this Korean monster movie, about a giant tadpole that raises havoc on whatever gets in it's way, sound ludicrous. It is ludicrous, but the movie plays like Jurassic Park crossed with Tremors. The special effects are fantastic, the initial attack sequence is the best action scene I've seen all year and the result is a terrifying, hilarious and downright awesome popcorn flick. This is the most fun I've had at the movies all year.
Another highly anticipated, deservedly celebrated work, Guillermo del Toro's dark fantasy/drama is a powerful experience. So overwhelmingly downbeat, the film could justifiably be called "joyless", but the director's unique approach as a director and screenwriter keep a hold of the audience. The performances are top notch, with Sergi Lopez, in particular, playing a terrifying, unflinching villain, another great "bad guy" turn following his great work in With a Friend Like Harry… and Dirty Pretty Things. The director keeps the real and "pretend" storylines straight (and makes them equally compelling), and, while tough to watch at times, this is an exciting, highly original film.
Werner Herzog's Vietnam prisoner-of-war drama is masterfully told, wonderfully acted, and is as uncompromising as you'd expect from him. This is the most beautiful, seemingly authentic and harrowing portrayal of Vietnam during wartime since Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth. This isn't the first story of its kind, but the film is immeasurably aided by Christian Bale's performance, his very best (which is saying quite a bit). This is a compelling film that looks like it was hell for the actors to make - check out the astonishing transformation Steve Zahn makes for this - I forgot that he was playing the part and he's amazing.
This horror/comedy plays like the British version of "The Office" crossed with Friday the 13th, but doesn't quite pull it off. The emphasis leans more heavily on horror than humor, which is overly droll (even for a British comedy), dashing all hopes for another Shaun of the Dead. Still fairly enjoyable and grisly, before the brutality overwhelms the last third. There are clever touches, like the few moments out-of-nowhere comic relief that occasionally pop up. Not bad.
This documentary takes on the king of curse words and provides some interesting info, but doesn't become cohesive or definitive. Skimps on the word's usage in music and gleefully uses the word and shows real sex, making this more of a freedom of speech act of defiance than a truly smart doc.
Yet another drug movie, this one has Heath Ledger's first performance following his Brokeback breakthrough - he's believable as a heroin user, but he mumbles through yet another performance. Far better is Abbie Cornish, who's devastating as his hooked-on-junk wife, and Geoffrey Rush, unsettling as the Fagin-like father figure who provides them advice and drugs. There are some stylish directorial touches, but Requiem for a Dream and Rush explored this material far more effectively.
THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR
This offbeat 1988 drama, with mystical touches, was a part of the "One Book, One Denver" special program. Many have never seen it or have simply forgotten this odd film, directed by Robert Redford and featuring a remarkable cast. Everyone from Ruben Blades, Sonia Braga, John Heard, Christopher Walken and even Melanie Griffith turn in great performances and the story is intriguing, but I've never been convinced that it completely works overall.
This Spanish thriller has all the story ingredients to be a great crime yarn and the direction and acting are fine. The problem is that the film is so painfully slow - the climax picks up considerably, but no amount of suspense can be sustained by a film that crawls as much as this one. At 90 minutes, this could've been tight and gripping, but the 130-minute running time tests your patience. Not a total wash-out, but imagine Memento done in the style of James Mangold's Heavy.
EVEN when the films aren't all knock-outs, its always a serious treat seeing them weeks, sometimes many months, before their American theatrical premieres, in a theater packed with serious film enthusiasts. Everyone behind the scenes put on a great program and made this year a tremendous success. I highly recommend giving this fest a look before it gets too popular and overly hyped. I wouldn't trade the chilled-out vibe of the Denver Fest for all the packed glitter of Cannes or the indie cred of Sundance. Even at 29-years, this festival is still growing, still feels small and is still one of the best in America.
[tags]Pan's Labyrinth, Rescue Dawn, Severance, Candy, The Aura[/tags]
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