The 42nd Denver Film Festival runs October 30 through November 10th. The lineup includes 134 feature films and 130 shorts. Here are some especially good movies to catch in this year’s festival.
The silent film Man with a Movie Camera is one of the thrilling, ground-breaking films from the Soviet Union in the days when Soviet artists still felt like revolutionaries. The director called himself Dziga Vertov, which means something like "spinning top," although his given name at birth was Denis Kaufman. Vertov’s brother Mikhail shot this film, and another cinematographer brother, Boris Kaufman, filmed the gorgeous movies of French director Jean Vigo, became a major Hollywood cinematographer and won an Oscar for filming Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront.
Man with a Movie Camera is an ecstatic film. Vertov filmed in several cities, but he combined his footage into a portrait of one idealized Soviet city, from daybreak into the night. The city wakes up; factories kick into gear; people go to work; the film shows marriages, births, divorces, swimming lessons and people in bars. But the center of the film is the cameraman, who with his camera, captures all these images and fuses them into a riotous vision. The movie is about filmmaking. Vertov even stops a sequence in mid-stream to show the editor, who happens to be his wife, assembling that very footage. The energy of the film is so electric and the imagery so fascinating that you might feel exhausted by the end. An additional treat is that the Denver-based band DeVotchka will play its new score with the film.
In the new Israeli/French film Synonyms, a young man – Yoav -- has left Israel for Paris, determined never to speak Hebrew again and to become French. He walks the streets of Paris in a constant fury reciting to himself lists of French synonyms
But Yoav is doing more than learning a new language. He’s reinventing himself, creating a new identity.
Synonyms is a wild film. Yoav seems feral and unsocialized. His physical movements are abrupt and awkward. His conversation has the same random feeling. Yoav is always the outsider trying to get in. Among many other things, Synonyms is about the displacement of being an immigrant who has no clue about how or where to fit in this new place.
Yoav is played by an Israeli actor named Tom Mercier who has a startling, electric presence. Director Nadav Lapid says working with Mercier was like having Superman on the set. Mercier’s movements are so original, he looks as if he can do anything. Synonyms is a thoroughly surprising film.
For me, Errol Morris is the most original filmmaker in the world. The Thin Blue Line in 1988 gave documentary film a whole new direction, and Morris’s portraits of Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld have astonishing depth. Morris calls his latest picture American Dharma and it’s about Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News and advisor to Donald Trump.
Like other Morris films, American Dharma tries to see what’s inside its character. For a time, Bannon was a Hollywood producer and director, and here he relates much of what he does to movies like Twelve O’clock High, the 1949 film about bomber pilots in World War II. Gregory Peck plays an air force general who gets tough with a problematic bomber group – and for Bannon the movie is an example of great leadership. For Errol Morris, taking one’s cues from a romanticized war movie is also problematic.
There are another 131 feature films in this year’s Denver Film Festival; many of them will never show up here again. Since the beginning of the festival, I’ve suggested that people take a chance on something completely unknown. Do it. You’ll likely see something terrific, like A Hidden Life or Varda by Agnès.