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Preview of the 33rd Starz Denver Film Festival

Because a few days to recover from Halloween weekend is too much to ask for, the 33rd Starz Denver Film Festival begins tomorrow, Wednesday, November 3rd. For the next 12 days, I will be taping my eyelids open and affixing a laptop to my thighs for virtually nonstop festival coverage. I'm hoping for at least one review per day, hopefully more.

There are some pretty significant changes to the fest this year, the most important of which is that the Denver Film Society has taken over the old "Neighborhood Flix" venue in the Tattered Cover Bookstore/Twist and Shout Music complex. I went to a screening there yesterday, and man, if those are not some comfortable seats! It's stadium seating, so any height-inclined persons like myself can breathe a sigh of relief and cancel that chiropractor appointment from scrunching down. Just keep in mind that screenings at the new Denver Film Center/Colfax are a 10 minute drive from the screenings at the old Starz Filmcenter at Tivoli.
The follow list of recommended titles represents a fraction of the over 200 movies playing this year's festival. It's easy to get overwhelmed when looking over a calendar with hundreds of movies over a week and a half. My intention is to thin the herd a little for you, and offer my best recommendations for a stimulating fest-going experience. The list is in more or less chronological order. Some of my most anticipated screenings go down during the fest's second weekend, so make sure to read all the way down for some gems at the end.

Without further ado, the list...

RABBIT HOLE

The 33rd Annual Starz Denver Film Festival opens with the Nicole Kidman/Aaron Eckhart vehicle Rabbit Hole. This is the third feature from James Cameron Mitchell, who's Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus were both among my favorites of the 2000s. Rabbithole, about a couple coping with the death of their young child, is a radical departure from Mitchell's previous efforts. When I look for unifying characteristics in his work, I think about exploration of queer identity and sexuality, tounge-in-cheek music, and innovative use of animation in a live action movie. I don't see how any of these elements fit into Rabbithole, and am keeping my fingers crossed that some of the Mitchell that I love has survived the passage. Mitchell and Eckhart will attend this screening.

Buy tickets here.

CASINO JACK

Casino Jack director George Hickenlooper sadly passed away here in Denver over the weekend. Hickenlooper (Yes, he was the cousin of our new governor. Hurray for that, by the way!) directed the Apocalypse Now documentary Heart of Darkness, which I saw for the first time when I was maybe 13. The highest compliment I can give Heart of Darkness is that it changed the way I look at movies, and his deft reconstruction of Elanor Coppola's scattered behind-the-scenes footage went a long way toward making the documentary as powerful as it was. Hickenlooper – also responsible for Mayor of the Sunset Strip and Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade – will be missed. Hopefully, his final movie, Casino Jack, will stand as a fitting tribute.

Tickets are sold out.

127 HOURS

Danny Boyle is back at it again, taking another unlikely concept and giving it his distinctive spin. Boyle's last, Slumdog Millionaire was not overrated or underrated. It was exactly, er, rated. It deserved every bit of praise it received, and I think can be forgiven for one to many dollops of Capra-ism. 127 Hours covers the 127 hours that Boulder, CO based hiker spent with his arm stuck under a rock before making the impossible decision to cut his own arm off to free himself. Like him or not, Boyle gives life and speed to even his least inspired efforts, so seeing how he squeezes drama and tension out of a guy stuck in one place for a week should be interesting at worst, triumphant at best.

Buy tickets here.

TRAINSPOTTING

The DFF Watching Hour lineup opens with a tribute to Danny Boyle and a screening of his breakout cult hit Trainspotting. If all you remember about Trainspotting is the part where Ewan McGreggor dives into the nastiest toilet in the history of cinema, I'd say it's about time for a refresher, eh? On Saturday, following Friday night's screenings of 127 Hours and Trainspotting, Danny Boyle will receive the Mayor's Career Achievement Award.

Buy tickets to Trainspotting here.

Check out the details for "An Afternoon with Danny Boyle" here.

BLANK CITY

Everyone knows that punk luminaries from Debbie Harry to Richard Hell to Lydia Lunch to Thurston Moore made some pretty radical music, but did you know they made movies too? Blank City explores the often overlooked world of guerrilla filmmaking in New York's lower east side punk and no wave scenes. Not only were the aforementioned music greats involved, but this scene also launched the careers of Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Buy tickets here.

I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS

Ever few years, Jim Carrey turns in a performance that is either slightly less annoying or slightly more interesting than his usual fare. I Love You Phillip Morris is this year's.

Buy tickets here.

TEHROUN

This year, the DFF will highlight the cinema of Iran. I know very little about Iranian movies, but with all eyes in the global political arena on Iran right now, it's a very good time to get acquainted. Tehroun doesn't look to be the comprehensive cultural breakdown that might suggest. Rather, it's an Iranian noir crime thriller set in the slums of Tehran. Sounds good to me.

Buy tickets here.

HOW I ENDED THE SUMMER

This is my "out on a limb" pick of the fest. A movie about two men quietly working at an isolated meteorological research facility in the middle of frozen nowhere doesn't strike me as the most vital to seek out. However, this recently won the top prize at Chicago's festival. I'm going to give it a shot.

Buy tickets here.

M*A*S*H

This is my "year of Altman." I'm ashamed to admit that I was virtually ignorant of his work until a few months ago, but what a joy it is to discover. If your M*A*S*H experience is limited to the TV show, please try to make it out to one of the festival screenings. This is a masterpiece that would take more than a few sentences to dissect and discuss. With the exception of Nashville and maybe The Long Goodbye, Altman was never better than he is here. M*A*S*H star Elliot Gould will be hanging around Denver this weekend to receive the fest's Cassavetes Award.

Buy tickets to M*A*S*H here.

Check out the details for "One on One with Elliot Gould" here.

THE BLACK PANTHER

Mexican noir, UFOs, beautiful black and white cinematography. This has the makings of a winner. Of all the movies playing, people I've spoken with who have looked at the schedule seem the most excited about about this one, which is strange because none of us know a thing about it.

Buy tickets here.

DOG SWEAT

I just watched this one, and I have to say I'm surprised at how good it is. This is the sort of thing that probably would never have crossed my path if not for the festival, but I'm so very glad it did. For fans of Amores Perros director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Dog Sweat weaves the stories of loosely connected youth in Iran's capital Tehran who struggle in their day-to-day lives against Iran's oppressive laws and social codes. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll, this urban drama might be dull if it took place stateside, but the backdrop of hyper-conservative Islam makes all the difference.

Buy tickets here.

LITTLEROCK

This little flick comes with a recommendation right from the horse's mouth, the horse in this case being Starz Film Center programmer Keith Garcia. A pair of young Japanese siblings traveling through the U.S. get stuck in a small town when their rental car breaks down. Over the course of their stay, the girl begins to feel achingly at home with her new friends here, though she doesn't speak a word of English.

Buy tickets here.

SUMMER WARS

Justin said to me last weekend, “I really have nothing against anime. I like anime, I'm just sick of future robot wars and inappropriate schoolgirl outfits.” Summer Wars, about a sentient computer virus that attacks a small town's online social networking community, sounds just topical and meta enough that it could work.

Buy tickets here.

BLACK SWAN

Black Swan looks beautiful, horrifying, visionary, and stands a reasonable chance of being the best movie about ballet since Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes. I am excited beyond words, and just hope it can live up to my expectations.

Buy tickets here.

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE

We Are What We Are closes out the DFF Watching Hour lineup. The patriarch of a family from rural Mexico dies suddendly and mysteriously in Mexico City, leaving his family reeling. Now, two of his sons must attempt to pick up the mantle and carry on the family tradition... of cannibalism. I am so there.

Buy tickets here.

THE PEOPLE VS. GEORGE LUCAS

Some people will defend the prequels with their dying breath. Most agree that the movies are trash, and a smaller subgroup is still rabid in their hatred. This is a documentary about Lucas fanatics from both sides of the isle. I can't imagine this will be as good as Mr. Plinkett's infamous prequel reviews, but then again what is? George Lucas is a compelling media personality. He is more of a studio head in the tradition of Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn than a traditional director. However, he is oddly starved for affection in a way that a studio head shouldn't be. Why does he continue to make public appearances? Why does he insist on directing more movies when he has proven that he is much more innovative and adept at fostering technological development? The People vs. George Lucas probably won't answer those questions, but any in depth look at such a fascinating figure is a must-view in my book.

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES

Nothing like saving the best for last. This is hands down my most anticipated movie of the fest. Uncle Boonmee travels back to his village in northern Thailand to prepare for death after his kidneys fail. He communes with ghosts and jungle monkey spirits. He remembers his past life as an amphibious amoeba and the fable of a princess who loves a catfish. What about this doesn't sound awesome? It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year. On top of that, my own jungle adventures in Thailand this summer make the subject matter particularly near and dear to me.

And that's the list. Sure, there are a million and a half other screenings I could have previewed, but I'm only one man. I have to sleep sometime. Denver Film's art director Brit Withey gave his personal top 10 most anticipated movies of the fest over at Westword last week. I'm happy to recommend his list in addition to mine. There is not a single overlapping movie, which I think speaks to the quality and consistency of this year's programming. Check back tomorrow for my first festival reviews. See you at the fest!

-Ben

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