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Best of the Fest: The movies that stood out at the Denver Film Festival

Denver film Festival
Posted at 10:38 AM, Nov 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-15 12:38:56-05

Hi, Jon here. Usually I’m a behind-the-scenes TV news guy (we write in all caps and in short, declarative sentences so forgive me if I run on a bit). Against Denver7’s better judgment, I’ve been allowed to write about the Denver Film Festival.

A couple of notes beforehand: I am not a professional film critic, therefore I was not paid to go see these movies, which means that I saw about 16 of them and not 45 like some monster. There’s no "Memoria" or "The Humans" or "Flee" or "Parallel Mothers" in here, not because I didn’t like those movies, but because I didn’t have the opportunity to view them. On the matter of the ones that are listed, you’ve probably either heard of a bunch of them or you will be hearing about them. Not a lot of hidden gems in here. They’re here because I wanted to see them, too.

Now: a quick check of my credentials:

Will watch anything that involves a crime being committed and characters drinking coffee in a diner. Is there a loose cannon? Does he get results? Is there a High Noon situation involved? If so, I will watch your movie.

Don’t understand what Rami Malek has done with his career.

I was on the Miami Vice movie being cool from day one (and by day one, I mean when that sick trailer with the Jay-Z and Linkin Park collaboration dropped). Mojito fiend for life.

Truly believe almost any movie can be improved upon with the addition of Salma Hayek, Javier Bardem, or Kurt Russell.

Pine, Hemsworth, Evans, and Pratt. In that order.

"The Last Jedi" rules. No, I don’t care why you believe I’m wrong.

I generally don’t like biopics all that much, which says something about the quality of the two movies from the festival I liked the most.

You can like superhero movies and Scorsese. You can dislike superhero movies. You can’t dislike Scorsese.

I was genuinely angry that "House of Gucci" wasn’t programmed for this festival. The people who run Denver Film are wonderful but c’mon guys, give me Pacino. Give me Driver and Gaga. Give me Gucci.

OK, that's out of the way. Let’s talk movies.


Cream of the Crop

"Spencer"

Princess Diana has gotten lost on the way to Christmas with the Royal Family. She’s driving herself, top down, and though we imagine she’s listening to the radio, every bit of noise is drowned out by Jonny Greenwood’s blaring, dread-inducing score. She stops at a little restaurant for directions. Mouths drop as the most famous woman in the world asks if anyone can tell her where exactly she is.

But something is wrong. Her voice is just a little unnatural. Her posture, too. You don’t feel right. You feel strange. Later, she will be in the throes of a full-blown crisis as TV cameras roll. Are they getting this? We see the footage on TV. She looks fine. Smiling.

We aren’t just in the room with Diana. We’re inside her head.

It’s this that director Pablo Larrain and star Kristen Stewart get so incredibly right. When you feel alienated, it’s not because you’re the normal one and everyone else is strange. It’s because they all seem perfectly acclimated, and you know you don’t belong. It’s no coincidence that the film has drawn so many comparisons to "The Shining." Beyond the endless hallways, the unreliable narrator, the surprising amount of time spent in a pantry, there is a profound sense of being trapped by something much larger than yourself.

This movie is not for everyone, but it was for me. Anyone expecting "The Crown" is in for a rough time. Larrain nor Stewart (who, by the way, has always been this good) are interested in playing the hits. Princess Diana has been written and filmed and photographed enough. To understand her story better, the filmmakers invented a new one.

"King Richard"

There are so many ways this could have gone wrong. That it doesn’t is a testament to Reinaldo Marcus Green’s confident direction, Zach Baylin’s terrific screenplay, and most especially, a movie that understands how to use Will Smith to his full, megawatt potential.

Smith plays Richard Williams, father to Venus and Serena. Williams spoke with an affected accent, he walked with a bit of a stoop. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind or to go big. This is the type of performance that can quickly venture into self-parody. It’s also the kind of part that requires a movie star. I’ve been critical of Smith for his tendency to take bad parts and then fall back on his charisma, but when he’s in the right movie there is absolutely nothing like him. It is impossible to dislike Will Smith. It’s science. You can’t do it. Green gets that. He knows that Williams can veer from making a questionable decision to being an outright jerk, but we’ll always give him another chance because its Will Smith playing him.

What separates "King Richard" from lesser films of its ilk is how effectively it blends the familiarity of a sports flick with the thoughtfulness of a character study. Because the story is about two of the most famous athletes of our time, we even know how it ends. It doesn’t matter. We’re engaged because the story is powerful and the filmmakers allow us to make our own considerations on where Richard Williams went right and where he went wrong in molding Venus and Serena into the powerhouses they would become.

Also, this movie has Jon Bernthal in it. It’s the little things that separate the goods from the greats.


The Greats

"Drive My Car"

For three hours, almost nothing happens. And yet, to tell you anything of the plot would be to give it all away. Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami (like his books, the movie goes well with a beer or two), Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s "Drive My Car" is at once about loss, grief, survival, and above all: the sheer pointlessness in trying to understand why anything happens the way it does. It washes over you like a dream from which you are all too familiar. Also, the sweaters are phenomenal. I loved it.

"Red Rocket"

Sean Baker’s "The Florida Project" is a disarmingly kind film. Same goes for "Tangerine." His "Red Rocket" is every bit the equal of those, but the kindness at its core has been replaced with something altogether bitter.

The plot is simple: A washed-up porn star leaves LA and hustles his way back into the lives of the people he left behind in the Texas town where he grew up. No one is particularly glad to see him again, and for good reason. Played with remarkable verve by Simon Rex (yup), this guy is something out of Greek Tragedy. You can’t help but feel like everyone around him would be better off if he were never born. Did I mention it’s also really, really funny? Special kudos for using NSYNC’s second-best song to such delirious effect.

"C’mon Cmon"

As sweet as "Red Rocket" is cynical. Joaquin Phoenix plays an NPR-type journalist who’s been away from his family too long and ends up watching over his nephew while his sister (Gaby Hoffman) takes care of the boy’s troubled father (Scoot McNairy, who between this and "A Quiet Place Part II" has found the most specific niche of any actor I can remember).

There are a number of reasons I enjoyed this film. There’s Mike Mills and his knack for these kinds of stories (see "Beginners," "20th Century Women"). It's nice to see Joaquin Phoenix looking like Joaquin Phoenix (one of the best tricks the film performs is make him appear so out of place in Los Angeles but so absolutely perfect for New York City). Phoenix’s hair is next level. The black and white cinematography by Robbie Ryan? I mean, c'mon.

Those are things I enjoyed and admired. Truth of the matter, I connected with this movie because it kinda sorta seemed to be a little about me (narcissistic much?).

I work in media. Like Phoenix’s character, I’m also an Uncle Johnny, my sister having given birth to her first child earlier this year. And like the movie’s Uncle Johnny, this guy also isn’t around the family very often. Childless, living in some other city, far from home, while the sole person he shares an upbringing with raises a tiny human that he may or may not see as often I like.

Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think about where I’ll be in a few years. What will his personality be? He’s being raised in the South. Will he too be doomed to an existence of being hurt by the Tennessee Volunteers? Will I be his cool uncle or that jerk who thinks he’s too good for his hometown and never comes around enough? How present SHOULD I be in his life?

Also, will he be annoying like the kid in this movie so often is? I bet he will. I can’t wait. Kid, if you read this someday, I can’t wait for how much you’re going to get on my nerves.

("C’mon Cmon" is wonderful. Also, call your sister, or for that matter your brother.)


Very Good

"Belfast"

Director Kenneth Branagh draws on his own experiences as a child growing up in the turmoil of Northern Ireland to create this sweet, mostly effective tale of a family in danger of coming apart. It all very much has the feel of This Is Just a Little Movie But Also This Is The Most Important Movie (see: "The King’s Speech," "The Artist"), but there’s no denying the movie has its charms. Belfast worked best for me when it did the least, while the actors (especially Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe) deserve the Oscar nominations that are likely coming their way. Still, it never totally swept me away.

"Jockey"

His body failing, an aging jockey holds on to the reins for dear life. Past and future are not something he’s ready to reckon with. Horse out to pasture, previous reins pun, yeah, sometimes the metaphors really are that obvious.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Clifton Collins Jr. (you know him) and Molly Parker (you know her, too) give restrained, soulful performances. This is a movie made of little touches. The crackle of sitting beside a fire, enjoying the glow of a win that doesn’t come often enough. The way the camera sits on a character’s face instead of showing us the larger picture. It’s a small world "Jockey" is inhabiting, but it’s a realized one.

"Julia"

Julie Cohen and Betsy West make traditional films about groundbreaking women. The difference between "Julia" and "My Name is Pauli Murray" or even "RGB" is that in Julia Child, they have a subject who lived for the screen and often jumps off it. I can’t say I loved every choice this movie made, but I can say with certainty that I enjoyed every second spent with Child and her amazing butter-filled life.

"Storm Lake"

Set in the Iowa city of the same name, "Storm Lake" chronicles a small-town newspaper that, despite having won a Pulitzer Prize a few years back, is still cash-strapped to the point of cutting certain (but not all!) channels out of the TV guide section in order to pay the bills. Primarily, the documentary is about the importance of having a strong outlet for local news. Where it excels, though, are the little moments. The sharp elbows nature of a newsroom that journalists understand is (in the right environment) never personal. The sheer amount of time these people spend together. The undeniable importance of soda and cigarette breaks (I personally take a walk to get my second cup of coffee after every single morning meeting). The inevitable conversation of “Should we start a podcast and also why would we do that?”

Local news is the best.


Special Mention

"Catch the Fair One"

Real life boxer Kali Reis plays a down-on-her-luck fighter who tries to save her sister from human trafficking. This one is lean, mean, and uncompromising. Unlike "Taken" (which it will be compared to), it's not very fun. Also unlike "Taken," it takes its subject (with special interest in the plight of Indigenous women) seriously.


"The Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn" Category

Did I like this movie? I can say with certainty that I experienced it, that I laughed more than others in the theater. I can also say this is the work of filmmakers in control of their craft.

But did I like it? I don’t know. The message of silly, societal prudishness came through loud and clear. In retrospect, it was pretty funny to watch the theater squirm during the more, shall we say, private moments. It’s totally original. We need more of that.

Oh, also the first five minutes are actual porn and I saw it in a near-packed house that DEFINITELY did not see that coming. The story also stops for a full 20 minutes half-way through so we can play intellectual Scattergories. When I talk about a movie that’s not for everyone, this is the poster child. Glad I saw it.