Even with cold weather, guaranteed snowfall and the temptation to blow $10.00 to see Roland Emmerich destroy the world, audiences still flocked to this year’s Starz Denver Film Festival, and with a line-up of films this great, who could blame them? This is still the best way for movie buffs to get a fix of films they’ve never heard of before but will be raving about for months. You also get a chance to be up close with some excellent filmmakers on the rise and actors and actresses like Rachel Leigh Cook, J.K. Simmons, Hal Holbrook and the fest’s Achievement Award winner, Ed Harris. It also gives film fest junkies a chance to see an acclaimed Oscar hopeful, like Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, which was this year’s SDFF opener.
There were also star-studded films getting their Colorado premieres, like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Heath ledger), Leaves of Grass (Edward Norton), Solitary Man (Michael Douglas), Happy Tears (Demi Moore and Parker Posey), Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Nicolas Cage), The Young Victoria (Emily Blunt), The Last Station (Helen Mirren), Saint John of Las Vegas (Steve Buscemi and Sarah Silverman), Everybody’s Fine (Robert De Niro), Youth in Revolt (Michael Cera), and Barry Levinson’s Poli Wood.
Below is my summary of 10 especially noteworthy films at this year’s SDFF, which will hopefully be either in theaters or in your hands on DVD or Blu Ray very soon. Many of them were documentaries, and some of the most engaging I’ve seen all year. Special thanks to Tammy, Becky, Abbey, Keith and everyone at the SDFF office for helping make this such a great year for SG and Denver audiences!
Best Worst Movie
Charming documentary on the legacy of the so-bad-its-golden cult phenomenon Troll 2, the lives of the actor involved and the way a C-movie can go from VHS purgatory to being a cultural event. Frank in the way it captures the very different lives of the actors who survived, abandoned and later embraced their roles in one of the all-time guilty pleasures and if nothing else, it will draw in further Troll 2 fanatics (meanwhile, devotees of all things Troll 2 will put this in as high regard as, well, Troll 3). Both touching and creepy, Michael Stephenson’s excellent documentary is a portrait of eclectic individuals who are forever changed by their love for the movies, putting this in the same gotta-see-it category as American Movie.
Exciting documentary that captures the wild ride that was the monumental event of bringing the Democratic National Convention to Denver. Paced like a riveting political thriller, we see the joyful celebration inside the Mile High Stadium contrasted with tense stand offs between police officers and protestors outside, and how both maverick and first time reporters get easily burnt out by having to capture new footage, on time, all the time, before someone else does. The scenes of a stressed-out, rookie reporter on the verge of breaking down while chasing a story are especially compelling, as is all the you-are-there footage of The Denver Post staff at work. A gripping experience the whole way that will captivate everyone, even non-Denver-ites, non-Democrats, and those uninterested in politics.
This documentary from Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio portrays a missing child incident on Staten Island during the late 80’s, which lead to a slew of other unsolved mysteries pointing to one particular suspect but a still-unsolved case…or is it? Even creepier is the way a closed psychiatric ward and a local urban legend play into an already unsettling tale. Riveting the whole way, with a story and imagery to accompany it, it will leave you haunted and engrossed. This extremely thorough piece of investigative filmmaking offers a polished account of Staten Island’s history and citizens, with memorable scenes like a mother who still searches for bodies of the missing children by herself, Geraldo Rivera’s terrifying footage of hell on Earth, and the way the suspected killer communicates with the filmmakers during filming! A stunning work the whole way.
The Good Soldier
Haunting, complex examination of how war turns men and women into killers, the irreversible damage it leaves behind and how decorated soldiers with being survivors, protestors, or both. Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys’ have made a documentary that is as well rounded as it is tough to shake when its over. The interview subjects, who are five veterans of four different wars, open up and reveal astonishing and horrible survivor tales; it may cause you to look at war and veterans in a different, fuller light. The filmmaking is excellent and this cinematic war protest feels honest, important and thoughtful and never preachy or piously in your face.
Top notch documentary on Denver’s Mayor Hickenlooper, directed by his cousin George Hickenlooper (who directed The Man from Elysian Fields and Factory Girl, to name a few), this all-access, fly-on-the-wall account of life in the capitol building, the 2008 Democratic Convention and everything leading up to it is as funny and compelling as Robert Altman’s Tanner ‘88. Mayor Hickenlooper is a bright, delightfully laid back, and goofy character, and his staff is full of colorful and engaging types, like a humorless assistant at odds with the filmmakers, and a chipper assortment of aides and colleagues. While the tone is mostly comedic and cheerful, there are some serious detours showing potential riots breaking out, spin control and the frenzy of the DNC. Revealing, highly entertaining and always engaging, like the man it covers.
This hilarious, painful account of an independent filmmaker’s journey in hitting the festival circuit is an absolute must for movie lovers and first-time filmmakers. Great interviews and advice from Lloyd Kaufman, Jenna Fischer, Kevin Smith, Troy Duffy and other celebrity filmmakers and actors on the indie fest scene. Captures the feel and levels of professionalism of various fests nationwide, giving them ample promotion but showing how it honestly went for the filmmakers to have their film screened. One sequence, showing a filmmaker struggling to keep his audience happy while the festival workers ineptly ruin his screening, is one of the most nerve- wracking of the year. An informative, fly-on-the-wall account from Paul Osborne (director of 10 Til Noon)- be sure and watch the end credits, which have some terrific outtakes.
Smart, informative documentary from Liz Canner on female sexual dysfunction and the way pharmaceutical companies have claimed to come up with “Viagra for women”. Despite the potentially sensational nature of the subject matter, its handled with compassion and sensitivity, never offering nudity or cheap thrills. Among the memorable subjects captured, we see a sweet local woman who bravely has an “orgasmatron” surgically embedded in her back, a rep for vaginal reconstruction surgery who is visibly skittish about her job and a cheerful tour guide who takes us through the Museum of Vibrators. It ends with a showdown with the FDA that is as suspenseful as the climax of a John Grisham movie. Not without a sense of humor, but goes past that to helpfully suggest that drugs aren’t the answer to everything, let alone sexual dysfunction, and that women are poisoned by our body-image obsessed culture
Delightful documentary by Damani Baker and Alex Vlack on Bill Withers, the singer songwriter responsible for such classics as “(It’s Gonna Be a) Lovely Day”, “Lean on Me”, “Just the Two of Us” and “Ain’t No Sunshine”. The music is so good, I didn’t mind that movie rambles on a bit near the end and the scenes of Withers in the recording studio with his daughter are especially sweet. Paints a thorough picture of Withers’ life , growing up in the segregated south, his musical approaches and how he deals with fame. It will leave you smiling and with a cluster of great songs playing in your head
Logan and Noah Miller made their acting, directing and screenwriting debuts in this remarkably polished first film, a family drama based on their lives, with the Miller brothers playing autobiographical versions of themselves. The film is a must-see for the haunting, towering performance of Ed Harris, playing the boy’s homeless, alcoholic father, a man who strives to earn their trust but is a constant disappointment to the boys and himself. There’s also great support from Brad Dourif, in a rare sympathetic role, movingly portraying the boy’s mentally handicapped uncle and the always reliable Robert Forster as the local lawman. The cinematography is gorgeous and, with some mild profanity being the only reason to give this a PG- rating, this has enough edge for general audiences but is inoffensive enough for family viewing. Not everything here works- some of the actors are trying too hard and a few scenes go on too long and make the film padded and not as tight as it ought to be. Yet, the third act is especially strong and the Millers have a big ace up their sleeve: Harris’ heartbreaking, Oscar-worthy performance.
Win or Lose- A Summer Camp Story
One of my absolute favorites at this year’s SDFF, Louis Lapat’s hilarious, wonderful documentary looks at Collegiate Week at Camp Ojibwa, a time when all the campers partake in 7 days of a do-or-die, everything-you’ve-got competition that leads to mental and physical torture. Imagine Meatballs but for real and really, really funny. We follow party boy and team leader Andrew “A-rob” Robinson, 10-year camper and underdog Andrew Korn and Joel, the Greek chorus and party pooper as they partake in and witness the highs and lows camp life. The animated scenes, which portray the very different experience Lapat had from his fellow campers, are the only weak point, but Lapat seems to know this (he even acknowledges this in the film!) and it doesn’t hurt the movie as much as occasionally stall it. Pure comic gold: watching “A-rob” couching his very-young team players by shouting “get mad…like your best friend just f—-d your girlfriend!” Touching, eye opening and so much fun.