There’s nothing like sitting in a movie theater.
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, the future of in-person viewing has suddenly became a more pressing concern. There’s no arguing with the convenience of streaming from home, but there’s a shutting out of the rest of the world (and oneself) that only appears to happen in a theater. It makes movies more magical. More real. More powerful.
Which made the 44th annual Denver Film Festival’s return to places like the SIE FilmCenter and Ellie Caulkins Opera House that much better. And with more than 200 films to select from, I spent more time in theaters than I had in nearly two years.
"It is so good and so important that we’re here together, face-to-face to celebrate film,” said James Mejía, CEO of Denver Film, during the opening night screening. “We’ve bene through so much and it’s more than appropriate that art brings us together. Through art we can morn and hope and with film, we can connect.”
During this year’s festival, I saw 29 films over 12 days — and as usual the festival’s selections all have things to recommend them. They all connect with the viewer, and all reflect the passions of their makers. Of those movies, here are my favorites:
The best hope for the future
Release date: In theaters on Nov. 19
Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon” is the kind of movie that sticks with you. Joaquin Phoenix might be at his considerable finest in the role of Johnny, who decides to help out his sister Viv (a never better Gabby Hoffman) and watch his nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). The film follows this family searching for some kind of grace while looking to the next generation for necessary hope for the future. And hope it finds: in the wisdom of children, the love of family and the stories we tell.
Best catnip for movie nerds
‘Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched’
Release date: Available on VOD
Folk horror is one of my absolute favorite sub-genres of film - for my money, Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” is the best horror film of this century thus far, and who doesn’t love “The Wicker Man”? Sweeping and comprehensive, director Kier-La Janisse traces the earliest literary roots of the genre to its modern iterations. An international storytelling style, Janisse delves into the way countries like Japan, Australia and Russia have taken this largely British-based genre and made it their own. For horror lovers, or those who are fascinated by the ways stories are told and changed over time, this is a can’t miss.
Protecting what’s important
‘TheVelvet Queen’ and `Storm Lake’
Release date: Dec. 22 and available on PBS
A pair of films with different subjects but the same underlying philosophy.
Marie Amiguet’s gorgeous documentary, “The Velvet Queen,” follows photographer Vincent Munier and writer Sylvain Tesson as they explore the Tibetan highlands in search of the reclusive snow leopard. What Amiguet captures on screen is quite simply some of the most beautiful visuals I’ve ever seen, and they’re all real and exist in our world. The film is at times a tone poem, others a philosophical exploration, and always a reminder of how much beauty there is on Earth that still needs protecting.
Beth Levison and Jerry Risius’ documentary, “Storm Lake,” tells the story of the Storm Lake Times newspaper, the twice-weekly, Pulitzer-winning newspaper of Storm Lake, Iowa. How hard the family works to keep the crucial institution alive is a reminder of the power of the free press and the dangers this crucial right is currently facing.
The best example of what people working together can do
‘Running With My Girls’
Release date: Screenings to be announced
Any Denver resident who has been here for longer than a few years can attest to how rapidly the city is changing and growing. But that growth hasn’t necessarily been reflected in its elected leaders. In the 2019 election a group of progressive women attempted to change that. And Rebekah Henderson was along for the ride. Her documentary, “Runnimg With My Girls” provides a fly-on-the-wall view of the campaigns of Dr. Lisa Calderón, Candi CdeBaca, Shayla Richard and Veronica Barela as they run to make a change in the city. The film is funny, laced with hope, and ultimately a reminder that progress can often be a glacial progress, but every forward step counts. It’ll make you laugh, choke you up and most importantly, inspire you to take action.
Best call to action
‘Who We Are’
Release date: Jan. 14
In Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s documentary, “Who We Are,” civil rights attorney Jeffery Robinson compellingly points out that the institutional racism that played a role in the creation of the country is still deciding its future. The film blends a 2018 Juneteenth lecture, on the ground storytelling and historical documentation to lay out exactly how the country arrived at the fractured place we are now. This is vital, passionate filmmaking of the highest order. It embraces the possibilities of a better future, but not if we keep refusing to look certain things in the eye. This film asks audiences to do just that. Look. And then do something about it.
Clarke Reader’s column on culture appears on a weekly basis. He can be reached at Clarke.Reader@hotmail.com.