DENVER FILM FESTIVAL 2003

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Once again, the city of Denver has proven to be a haven for cinephiles, as well as those who value the world of flickering images over live human contact. Every October, I look upon this film festival as an opportunity to escape into darkened rooms with only the sound of the projector to comfort me. For ten glorious days — ten days during which I am not contemplating the ways in which this country is being flushed down the toilet at an alarming rate — I am transported to distant lands and obscure corners of the world, all with the hope of meeting new people, hearing the sounds of a foreign tongue, or reflecting on ideas previously unexplored. From documentaries to world premieres, remastered classics to the latest festival hits, Denver continues to impress as a first-class film city and its festival a continuing force on the cultural scene.

As expected, I saw some of the year’s best offerings, as well as a few films that pushed me ever-closer to a quick romance with a sharp object. I laughed, was moved to anger, and saw images I won’t soon forget. Needless to say, nothing moved me to tears of sadness, although my eyes did moisten a bit due to a laughing fit that accompanied my viewing of a documentary involving the retarded (more on that later). It was a busy, dazzling, and sometimes frustrating ten days, and I present my findings to you, the dear reader most likely stuck on some godforsaken patch of earth without a festival to keep the fires of creativity burning bright. My quick and dirty conclusions? Upon completing Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola should have left his splattered brain matter with what remained of his sanity in the jungles of Southeast Asia; Italy houses filmmakers even more annoying and self-involved than Fellini; the final gasps of the old and the dying can be funny; Mormons are murderous, lying scoundrels; and, most surprisingly of all, I can watch a film starring a midget without demanding a nationwide boycott. Let me explain:

The Human Stain

Not nearly as pleasurable as the Philip Roth novel, although the film stands on its own as serious, adult entertainment. Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman are fine as usual, although it is a bit of a stretch to accept Hopkins as a black man passing for white, let alone the sort of gent who would spend his time with a thin slice of white trash. Filmed in a cool, despairing tone, the film concerns political correctness, survival, and living our lives under a veil of deception and shame. It could be argued that the film seems to be going out of its away to sway Oscar voters (similarly to 2002’s The Hours), but I appreciated its high-mindedness and courage to be somber.

The Station Agent

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Quite simply, a lovely film that always hits the right notes and never strains for melodrama or unrealistic plot twists. More than that, this might be the first film starring a midget (Peter Dinklage) that didn’t inspire several hours of uninterrupted vomiting. No real story to speak of, only the quiet loneliness of three New Jersey residents who desperately need to connect but haven’t quite figured out how to do so. The acting is superb, the screenplay a series of subtle exchanges and rich character traits, and the direction relaxed and confident. Lesser films might have made the dwarf’s affliction more sentimental, but this film understands that whiny victims rarely make for good drama. One of the festival’s best offerings.

Bus 174

A powerful, unflinching documentary from Jose Padilha about a bus hijacking in Rio that goes terribly wrong. Adding to the sense of drama, the entire thing is caught on live television. The filmmakers combine footage of the event as it unfolds, interviews with the hostages and government officials, and most important, a social context that enables us to understand the crisis of homeless children in Brazil. And while we never condone the behavior of the young man (well, I might), we understand what drove him to his desperate act amidst the poverty and inequality of the Brazilian wasteland. After witnessing what passes for street life in the heart of Rio’s slums, I promise never to complain about my own life again. [Ed Note: See City of God]

Assisted Living

Who knew that dementia, Alzheimer’s, and bed sores could be so damn funny? This ultra-low budget film about a pot-smoking loser (Michael Bonsignore) who works at an “assisted care facility” (code for old-age concentration camp) is, despite all the odds, one of the most entertaining films I saw at the festival. I’m not sure if the director intended this to be a comedy, but I quite enjoyed endless shots of the walking dead as they wasted away their days in boredom, madness, and chaotic bingo games. There is “redemption” of sorts for the main character (he shows rare compassion for a woman who is slowly losing her mind), but not before we watch him accidentally kill the nursing home dog, fool the more psychotic patients into believing they are conversing with God while on the phone, and clean up a mashed squirrel that has been run over by an old fart in his scooter. A great reminder that if I’m lucky, I’ll never get old.

Burying the Past

A straightforward but riveting documentary by Brian Patrick about the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre and the role of the Mormon Church in both the killings and the historical cover-up. Combining reenactments with interviews and footage from the site as it looks today, the film manages to be both educational and passionate about its subject. I’ve never been a fan of the whole LDS crowd, but I am even more hostile to their organization after watching them make every effort possible to avoid complicity. Even now, the Church controls the site, which means that any interpretive markers will use such passive phrases as “people died here” rather than the more accurate “paranoid Mormons and the Indians they bribed slaughtered a wagon train of innocent men, women, and a whole lotta children.” More than a mere summation, this is a film that demands historical accuracy from an event that still escapes the modern imagination.

I’m Not Scared

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An Italian thriller from director Gabriele Salvatores that combines a refreshingly unsentimental view of childhood with some of the most breathtaking cinematography in years. At play in the lush wheat fields near his home, a young boy accidentally discovers a dirty child tied up in a deep hole. He comes to befriend the child and as the film progresses, he learns the terrible secret behind the child’s plight. The film proceeds at a leisurely pace, but not one scene is wasted and each moment is fraught with danger, suspense, and beautiful imagery. Having neglected this film at Telluride, I was glad to have a second chance. Not to be missed.

Open My Heart

As part of the festival’s “Salute to Italian Cinema,” this was the first real dud I happened to see. Nothing more than a low-budget porno, I was surprised to learn that it is indeed possible to make hot lesbian sex boring and tedious. There is the shell of a good story here, involving a woman’s obsessive control over her sister and the view that murder can cleanse the soul of unhealthy intercourse, but that intriguing theme was too often abandoned for repetitive scenes of shagging and wine drinking. This film was well below 90 minutes in length, but it seemed much, much longer.

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself

A charming, involving follow-up from the same director (Lone Scherfig) that brought us 2001’s Italian for Beginners. Wilbur is a troubled young Scotsman who, as the title implies, is always seeking a way to end his life. His brother is a lonely bookstore owner who manages to find love, only to watch that same woman fall in love with Wilbur. And with a bit of cancer thrown in, it might sound like a sappy melodrama, but the film remembers that laughter and dark humor come before sweetness. What’s more, Wilbur is a delightful misanthrope, gleefully announcing his hatred of children while, a few minutes later, his brother vomits into an obnoxious child’s lap. The film works as well as it does because it believes in exploring the emotions of these characters and giving us believable relationships rather than sit-com antics. And given what we see of Scotland (bleak, cold, and gray) it stands to reason that all joys must, in the end, surrender to sadness.

One From the Heart

This restored version of Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous film looks crisp and clear, but what fills the screen is easily the most insipid entry in that once great director’s career. The love story is hopelessly lame, the music an ear-splitting annoyance, and the artificial sets embarrassing rather than innovative. Coming after the brilliant Apocalypse Now, Coppola admitted that he was in a playful mood and wanted to experiment with technique and style. He failed miserably and has never been the same since. This film is a catastrophe by any standard, but is made even more depressing when one considers the amount of money spent on something that gave the audience so little in return. It is also important to remember that Coppola did not create one sympathetic or interesting character, which seems impossible given his 1970s pedigree. Following the film, there was an interview with Coppola, which somewhat made up for the horror of watching One From the Heart. And while the interviewer nearly dropped dead from a stroke on at least three occasions (I’ll eat my own ass if she was younger than 85), Coppola was a lively and spirited subject. Still, there was a tone of sadness to the evening. After all, it is very likely that he will never again make another film, let alone something great.

La Petite Lili

Okay, there is no bigger fan of Ludivine Sagnier’s breasts than I, which makes it that much more frustrating that this dull French film gave them so little exposure. Within a few minutes of the film’s opening, I got to see her luscious tits and the entirety of her naked form. “Great start,” I thought. Or, to be more accurate, Jesus God, Great motherfucking start! What followed was incomprehensible and boring, which is always a lethal combination. A few Frenchies were romancing each other, and there was an old man talking about stuff, and a few years later the same people show up in a suicidal man’s film of that same summer we just watched. I dunno, I’m guessing they had to show something after those glorious melons, but I just wasn’t interested. Maybe I’ll go check out Swimming Pool again.

Go West, Young Man!

A very entertaining little documentary about two filmmakers from The Netherlands (Peter Delpeut and Martin Dominicus) who grew up loving American Westerns. As a result, they decide to take a journey to the very locations where so many of those classic films were made. We see the unforgettable Monument Valley (the place we will always associate with John Ford), Mescal, Arizona, and the Grand Tetons of Shane, among others. Along the way, the filmmakers ask questions pertaining to the Western’s decline and what it means to be a rancher or cowboy today. It is clear that this film embraces the great myths of the West (no debunking going on here, to be sure) and while that brings in a level of naiveté, the pure joy these men bring to their subject is enough to excuse any shortcomings.

Burning in the Wind

Well, there had to be one, and this was it. Yes, I walked out about 45 minutes into this horrendous fiasco from director Silvio Soldini (who also made the infinitely superior Bread & Tulips). More accurately, I stormed the fuck out. This Italian/Swiss production was so uninvolving and so lacking in basic entertainment value that I just couldn’t take it anymore. Don’t ask me what in the hell was going on, because I simply don’t know. People moved around and talked, but my eyes were so heavy and glazed over that I am at a loss as to what they were doing. A blank wall or the face of a retard would hold more meaning, which leads me to my next wild adventure.

Our House

Holy fucking shit, my dear readers, what a film! Eighty-three minutes of screaming retards, a Tourette’s afflicted, suicidal psychopath, and a verbally abusive drunk with cerebral palsy? And a few minutes of a Special Olympics race where a defiant man with Down Syndrome thinks the whole thing is bullshit? Are you kidding? This documentary, meant in all seriousness I guess, is as entertaining as cinema gets. Taking place in a home for the “developmentally disabled” called Sueno House, this film follows a year in the lives of what must be the most bizarre collection of brain-damaged cuckoos I have ever seen. We meet Laura who, in addition to having Tourette’s, packs a little autism and fetal alcohol syndrome into her tiny frame. She screams constantly about wanting to “go to heaven” and spends most of her days casting spells on other housemates and finding new methods of attempting suicide (at one point she ingests Tide). She even claims that she is a boy and then reverses herself after being inspired by Bride of Chucky. Then there is the chubby Tim S., who is constantly stealing cigarettes, manages to end in up in jail for a weekend (“It was hell,” he says, as if his home life is any better), and has been known to punch people in the face for no reason. And finally, there is Tim W., a brutal drunk of a man who spends his days in a wheelchair spewing forth the worst language you’ll ever hear in a motion picture. Whether railing about his horrible father or blasting his caretakers for forcing him to pay the phone bill, he is truly a character for the ages. The more I watched this film, the less I was convinced that it was a heartfelt examination of “disabled” folks struggling to make their way in a hostile world. Instead, I believe this is a cynical, exploitive freak show trying to further marginalize the retarded. Mission accomplished, boys.

Baghdad On/Off

This purported documentary (there are scripted moments between the filmmaker Saad Salman and his companion) about a man’s return to Iraq after 30 years in exile contains the promise of greatness, but turns out to be quite dull and uneventful. We get to see images of the Kurds and the poverty-stricken population, but outside of a few predictable, Bush-friendly words of anger directed at Saddam Hussein, little insight is given. What’s more, the man never even reaches Baghdad, his intended destination from the outset. Maybe this is a case of unrealized expectations, but the film never really takes off and simply rambles from here to there without the power its subject matter implies. In all, one of the festival’s biggest disappointments.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Everything filmmaking should be: passionate, exhilirating, dramatic, and spirited. This documentary about the attempted coup in the spring of 2002 against Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected President of Venezuela, contains the pure, heart-pounding excitement of a summer action movie because we are witnessing history (and life) as it unfolds; raw and unscripted. Originally, the filmmakers (Ireland’s Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain) were in Venezuela to make a film about Chavez alone, but a military coup began as they were filming and their cameras continued to roll throughout the crisis. We are taken right into the heart of demonstrations, behind the doors of the Presidential palace, and into the minds of both the participants and those defending the Constitutional order. The film does not shy away from its sympathies for Chavez and his radical reforms, which posed a great threat to the ruling elite as well as an American government heavily dependent on Venezuela’s oil. After witnessing how little respect conservative forces in that country have for democracy and the rule of law, we can make connections to our own country — whenever an election doesn’t go their way, right-wingers seem hell-bent on reversing the “unfortunate” outcome, regardless of morality or simple legality. And based on how much American corporations had to lose from Chavez’s nationalistic and redistribution policies, it stands to reason that America strongly endorsed — if not outright aided — the coup attempt. But again, politics aside, this is filmmaking at its finest: literally edge-of-your-seat fire and anger swirl about, leaving the viewer dizzy with outrage. Easily one of the best films of the year and frankly, a masterpiece of the documentary form.

The Day My God Died

Harrowing, deeply disturbing documentary about girls (some as young as seven years old) being sold into sexual slavery in poverty-ravaged India. Narrated by Tim Robbins and featuring interviews with relief workers and activists (as well as the girls themselves), the film sheds light on a human rights issue that is all but ignored by the rest of the world. The subject matter is important to be sure and it breezes by at a shade under 80 minutes, so maximum effectiveness is assured. The style is straightforward and the film stirs the hearts of the public with an outrage that needs attention. Nothing revolutionary, but very moving and worthwhile. Further proof that unless oil is involved, the United States refuses to get involved.

The Flower of Evil

Intriguing for about an hour, then it loses its way and ends up as confusing and seemingly without purpose. On its face, it is the story of a twisted French family, complete with politics, murder, adultery, buried secrets, possible incest, and dastardly cover-ups. I found a few of the performances amusing and it’s never wholly without interest, but too often I asked myself why I should care. Not a terrible film by any means, but simply one that doesn’t ever justify its existence. I’m not the poorer for having seen it, but neither did it add to my overall cinematic education.

People Say I’m Crazy

John Cadigan suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and his film is a document of his daily struggles, achievements, and retreats into madness. Fortunately, this documentary offers no false optimism, nor does it pound us with brave pieties about “dignity” and “self-help.” Cadigan presents his illness without any buffers, and as he assures us, despite medication, every day is full of pain and fear. Cadigan also shows us his artistic outlet (painstaking woodcuts and prints from those pieces), which no doubt preserves whatever grip on reality he holds. It is clear that without art, John would have given up long ago. This is raw, heavy stuff, told without sentiment or phony bravado.

A Closer Walk

A noble, unflinching documentary about the global AIDS crisis, with an emphasis on the devastation wreaking havoc in Africa and India. For those who follow the news, there is little by way of groundbreaking information and, quite obviously, there is little that is “entertaining” about a film like this, but the pedantic tone doesn’t get in the way of what remains a vital issue for world stability. When one sees the scope of the problem and how most of the world continues to ignore the mind-boggling statistics (as many as 40 million people currently have HIV/AIDS, most of whom are unaware of their affliction), it is difficult to imagine how the suffering could ever be alleviated. And, considering how few are receiving basic treatment (which in many cases could stop mother-to-child transmission), and how this neglect is almost always a matter of dollars and cents, I can’t help but be ashamed to be a human being.

Shattered Glass

Involving, intense examination of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), the New Republic journalist who was finally exposed as a fraud back in 1998. The majority of the film deals with Stephen’s “final days” on the magazine’s staff and how his scam came unraveled after a fabricated story about internet hackers came to the attention of an online publication’s top watchdog. The acting is superb and the story well-paced, although at times it feels a bit “small” to be on the big screen. Moreover, little by way of background is given and we get precious little insight into what pushed Glass to such extremes. In a way, however, the absence of psychobabble is appreciated (nothing could be worse or more predictable than hearing about an insecure sap who lies because mommy didn’t hug him enough). Still, the film does capture the competitive tensions of a newsroom and it is easy to see how a bit of charm thrown around could secure the sort of trust that allows such a thing to occur. Maybe I wanted more of an indictment of contemporary journalism (for every reporter who is a liar, there are lazy fact-checkers and oblivious editors enabling such lies), but I remain content with a good story well told.

Special Ruthless Ratings:

  • Best Film: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
  • Worst Film: Burning in the Wind
  • Best Performance: Bobby Cannavale, The Station Agent
  • Worst Performance: Ari Fleischer, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
  • Best Performance by a white man passing as a black man passing as a white man: Anthony Hopkins, The Human Stain
  • Best Performance by a black man passing as a white man passing as a black man: Colin Powell, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
  • Best Line: “Are you guys really arguing over who is more retarded?”, Our House
  • Best Boobs (Female): Ludivine Sagnier, La Petite Lili
  • Best Boobs (Male): Tim S., Our House
  • Most Likely to Receive a Favorable Screening in the White House: Baghdad On/Off
  • Most Likely to Receive a Favorable Screening in John Ashcroft’s Secret S&M Chamber: Open My Heart
About Matt

Matt is the site’s Longest Serving Critic and chief misanthrope. He divides his time between classics of cinema and the most ridiculous movies he can find on Redbox.
Follow Matt: @mattcale52