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Denver Film Festival: Emotional & a ‘Kick in the Ass,’ Event Returns as a Mile High Star

Denver Film Festival: Emotional & a 'Kick in the Ass,' Event Returns as a Mile High Star

It seems like there is a film festival in almost every city and large town in the world and there may very well be. Sure, it makes sense that cities like New York, London, Los Angeles and Berlin would have vibrant arts scenes and multiple film events, large and small, but it seems like every small to medium municipality wants or has a festival and the competition for the quality films is fierce. Combine that with the rise of “day and date” releases, video on demand, Netflix and the increase in original programming on cable television and there’s more competition for eyeballs than ever before. How then, do festivals survive?

Well, the Starz Denver Film Festival (SDFF) has been going for 33 years and despite a rough 15 months or so, they appear to have come out the other end as a stronger, wiser organization. “I think we’ve come through it for the better,” says festival director Britta Erickson, adding that the narrowly averted crisis of 2009 resulted in “a stronger team, really focused on what the goals are for the organization and what the goals are for the festival.” Erickson added that the events of that Summer reenergized the community, as well. “I think when things are in crisis and when things are over-reported and over dramatized in the media that those people who may have gone away from the fold wake up and see something in the paper and return to the organization” as supporters.

One way to survive is to open your own film center to reap the benefits of year-round programming and while they had something like that at the Starz Film Center, the new Denver Film Center/Colfax is a whole new ballgame. Stadium seating, a full bar (including Henderson’s Lounge, a small bar area named for Ron Henderson, the festival’s founder and current senior programming advisor) and an attached 80-seat restaurant all housed in a retail area that includes local indie book and record stores make the new film center exactly what the festival and city needed.

The festival opened with John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, a magnificent 2,000+ seat palace. Unfortunately due to my flight schedules, I missed the film about a couple (played by Nicole Kidman and this year’s SDFF Excellent in Acting Award recipient, Aaron Eckhart) coming to terms with the death of their four year-old son. It’s been covered in these pages before and I will certainly see it upon its release. I hear great things and am looking forward to the film.

The second night saw the opening of the new Colfax complex during which a sad event that occurred shortly before the festival began came into sharp focus. Filmmaker George Hickenlooper passed away overnight on October 29th, less than a week before his latest film, “Casino Jack” was set to open the new facility. A frequent guest at the festival, this year’s event is being held in his honor. Not only that, but 3 days after learning of his cousin’s death, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper was elected Governor of Colorado and was on hand to deliver an emotional introduction to his cousin’s film. The two men only learned of each other’s existence a scant ten years ago and formed a fast and strong family bond that they often described as being like brothers.

A scene from John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole,” which opened the SDFF.

Stepping up to the microphone, Governor-elect Hickenlooper spoke one syllable before being rendered mute by grief and quietly crying for a full minute or two, while the packed house sat silent, tearing up in respect for their beloved mayor in his time of grief. It was one of the most moving experiences I have had in my life. When he finally recovered, the governor-elect said: “George would love it that I can’t speak!” before telling the audience that we were “all part of my (grieving) process” and speaking lovingly about his cousin George.

Later that night, festival guests Leland Orser (here with his feature debut “Morning”) and Elliott Gould (in town to accept the festival’s John Cassavetes award) made the scene at a legendary Denver Film Festival hot spot, the Late Night Lounge, with Orser proclaiming as he entered the nearly empty lower floor, “This place needs a big kick in the ass!” He needn’t have worried as the lounge’s 3 levels were soon well populated. That said, the lounge’s 3 levels were occasionally problematic when it came to seeing who else was around, sometimes giving the false impression that there was nothing going on, when in fact the roof deck was usually hopping. Two sponsored bars brimming with top shelf booze tends to make for a decent atmosphere.

As with many 10 day urban fests, Denver’s weekday screenings don’t start until the afternoon, allowing attendees to either experience the city a bit or, if you’re like me and are often taking advantage of things with the words “Late” and “Night” in them, sleeping in. The thing about this festival that is both a blessing and a curse is, they take care of their guests VERY well. As in, I probably spent $50 in my 5 days in Denver. Cabs? Don’t need them between 8am and midnight, because the festival maintains a large fleet of cars and drivers to take guests hither and thither with as little as 30 minutes notice. Of all the perks offered to attending filmmakers (lodging, food, parties, booze) this was the most oft mentioned item.

The best films at the major fests tend to make the rounds at smaller festivals for at least a few months and this year’s SDFF was no different. I got to catch up on some films that I had missed at several other events, included two of the most beautiful and moving films of the year, Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” and Jan Hrebejk’s “Kawasaki’s Rose. Cianfrance’s film is so beautiful as to make one think, “why bother trying to make a movie when there’s something like this out there?” A painfully intimate look at a young couple’s disintegrating marriage, “Valentine” emotes without being overwrought and engages without manipulation. No tricks, just honest filmmaking with two actors upon whom bestowing the title of “Best actors of their generation” might actually not be hyperbolic for once. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are at the very least the best two actors of the year to date.

SDFF Festival Director Britta Erickson, festival co-founder Ron Henderson and actor/director Leland Orser (“Morning”). Photo by Mark Rabinowitz.

As for the Czech “Rose,” the film opened the 2010 Berlinale’s Panorama Special section and almost immediately the cries of, “Why wasn’t this film in the main competition?” arose from the festival’s attendees. Why, indeed. Hrebejk’s drama slyly teases the audience with an intimate family drama while slowly shifting the film to a tale of secrets, betrayals and shameful political history, all the while not forgetting to give a little humor, now and then. It’s a heavy story but I dare you not to fall in love with Anna Simonova as she shoplifts by jamming several chocolate bars into her mouth while still in the grocery store.

I kept thinking back to Lukas Moodyson’s beautiful 2000 film “Together” while watching this film. While the two films are not particularly similar in story (although both are somewhat political in nature) and Moodyson’s film is funnier, I kept comparing them in my mind. It might just be that both Moodyson and “Rose” screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky are masters at creating fully rounded characters and family dynamics as well as stories that may seem particular and foreign on the surface but are eminently relatable to on an emotional level.

Some of my favorite things about attending film festivals are the retrospective screenings. They enhance the festival experience and these classic films are all too rarely seen on screen. This year the SDFF screened both Robert Altman’s “MASH” (which unlike the TV series and later DVDs of the film, does not have asterisks between the capital letters) and John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven.” Elliott Gould was on hand for a Q&A after the former and longtime SDFF friend, Variety critic & film professor Joe Leydon intro’d both films and handled the Gould Q&A.

Having someone as knowledgeable as Leydon on hand to give a mini-film class before or after these screenings is a godsend and truly enhances the experience. A couple things I learned:
* “MASH” was the first major studio release to contain the word “Fuck.”
* The cast of “The Magnificent Seven” signed their contracts mere days ahead of a SAG strike and didn’t even know what roles they were to play and because they were under the old contract, they never received any residuals from the film.

At a reception prior to the opening of their new building, talk turned to my question that leads off this piece and to the importance of film festivals in the current age of multiple distribution channels. Sarasota Film Festival Program Director/Hamptons International Film Festival Special Programs Producer Holly Herrick thinks that the SDFF is taking the right tack: “The film society and festival are making sure that Denver is a regional hub for all things cinema, which is a good reason for distributors to be paying close attention,” adding, “more than having the attention of the people of Denver, this is the premiere festival of the Mountain West.” Indeed, the SDFF is pretty much the biggest film event in a 10 state radius, Sundance excepted. Someone ought to tell Colorado and Denver’s visitor’s bureaus. Film festivals are vacation destinations all over the world. Why not here, much as some music and arts festivals have become?

All in all, Denver is a shining example of what a big city film festival should be and Herrick sums it up best: “As I see it, most important is the fact that [the Denver Film Festival is] cultivating an educated audience who loves interesting and ambitious films. The more festivals and film societies take on this role, the better for all of us.”

[Mark Rabinowitz is a co-founder of indieWIRE]

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