The Ellie Caulkins Opera House was south of capacity for the Starz Denver Film Festival's closing night feature on Saturday, and that made some degree of sense. After all, the flick being showcased was The Artist, which is both black-and-white and silent. Yet the film, by French director Michel Hazanavicius, manages to encapsulate the reason fests like Denver's not only exist but continue to thrive. It's a paean to movies, and movie love.
Artistic director Brit Withey got things underway on Saturday with a rundown of award winners from the festival, including the documentary You've Been Trumped. Director Anthony Baxter, in town for the festivities, accepted his bauble with the cheerful acknowledgment that Donald Trump, the villain of his picture, had dubbed him a fraud. Apparently, the festival's jury felt differently.
Withey also introduced two special guests: Alan Cumming, recipient of the excellence in acting award -- amusingly, the two items from his filmography that he hosted over the weekend were Spy Kids and Josie and the Pussycats -- and James Cromwell, mayor's career achievement award winner and featured player in The Artist. Neither Cumming nor Cromwell were called upon to do anything more than wave to the crowd, and as soon as the lights went down, they were outta there. But few noticed, due to the rich delights on the screen.
In many ways, The Artist is like an alternative version of Singin' in the Rain, my nominee for greatest Hollywood musical ever, which deals with the movie world's transition to sound. But whereas Rain's Don Lockwood, played by Gene Kelly, manages to make this leap triumphantly, George Valentin -- Jean Dujardin, who looks like Kelly from some angles, but is clearly modeled on Denver's own Douglas Fairbanks -- isn't so fortunate. When the silent era ends, so does his stardom, and he slowly spirals downward despite the efforts of Peppy Miller (a pitch-perfect Bérénice Bejo), who owes her blossoming screen success to a brief interaction with George.
Sounds like a bummer, but it sure doesn't play that way. The film has a bounce and verve that's positively infectious, thanks largely to director Hazanavicius's unbridled love for American film of the period: It's proof the French don't hate everything about America. Take Valentin's dog, a Jack Russell terrier -- real name: Uggie -- modeled on Asta from the Thin Man movies, and at least as adorable. He's a fantasy pooch for a fantasy movie -- the kind of four-legged hero that will have film lovers across the planet wishing their own pets could behave like him for a while. (Never gonna happen.)
The other main roles are stock characters: the ultra-loyal man Friday (Cromwell) who sticks by George even when he can no longer afford to pay him, the overstuffed mogul (depicted with vein-popping enthusiasm by John Goodman), the cold-hearted wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and so on. But their one-dimensionality doesn't detract from the proceedings, since they were never intended to stand in for actual flesh-and-blood people anyway. Rather, they're ingredients ideal for the souffle of a homage Hazanavicius has whipped up -- a feast of images and sounds (particularly in a wonderfully staged dream sequence) that will send any fan of classic cinema into paroxysms of joy.
Like Mel Brooks' Silent Movie, which assigned its single word to mime Marcel Marceau, The Artist briefly speaks -- and the effect is utterly charming. And so is the rest of the film, which ended the festival on a triumphant note.
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Not that the fun was over when the lights at the Ellie were illuminated. Dozens more movies unspooled on Sunday, including two I caught at the King Center, on the Auraria campus: Butter, a somewhat condescending but still quite funny mock-Election set against the backdrop of an Iowa butter-carving contest, and A Dangerous Method, a talky, turgid melodrama about the split between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung featuring a Keira Knightley performance so hysterical she probably needed chiropractic care between takes.
Whether the King Center will ever again be a festival venue is in doubt. This year marked the last that the Starz FilmCenter, at the nearby Tivoli, will be used as a venue. What will take its place in 2012 is unknown at this point. But whatever happens, the Starz Denver Film Festival will live on -- and that's a very good thing, as movies like The Artist demonstrate.
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