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Director Rian Johnson accepting the Denver Film Festival's John Cassavetes Award.
Director Rian Johnson accepting the Denver Film Festival's John Cassavetes Award.
Michael Roberts

Double Your Pleasure: Denver Film Festival's Two Opening Nights

The Denver Film Festival boasted a new twist for its 42nd edition, supplementing its traditional Ellie Caulkins Opera House opening-night celebration with additional screenings at other venues on the same Halloween evening. Moreover, these showcases were preceded by a tribute to artistic director Brit Withey, who died in a car accident earlier this year, at the Sie FilmCenter on October 30.

The result was a two-fisted kickoff infused with warmth, emotion and — thanks to Knives Out, the latest from onetime Denver resident turned in-demand director Rian Johnson — wicked fun.

To salute Withey, DFF programmed three films he loved: the oddball documentary American Movie and the edgy indie Frownland, both of which made perfect sense given his dark, quirky sensibilities, plus the 1969 classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

While introducing the latter, festival director Britta Erickson acknowledged that the Paul Newman-Robert Redford blockbuster was something of an outlier for Withey. She told the nearly packed room, "You picked the tame one," particularly in comparison with Frownland, which she knew would be divisive. Had Withey been there, she said, he would have waited in the lobby to calm down pissed-off patrons afterward. But at the same time, she added, "Brit loved a great Western."

His admiration didn't stop there. A wonderful montage of film clips dedicated to Withey, who made occasional appearances in the footage via old promotional snippets and photos aplenty, juxtaposed heartbreaking sequences from obscure flicks with samples of more mainstream fare, including the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. Best of all was a smattering of lovingly awkward dance scenes, with one of the featured selections — Rumba, by Belgian filmmakers Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon — sparking particularly fond memories. Of all the recommendations I took from Withey since 2007, when Westword first began publishing his must-see picks for each day of the festival, Rumba, screened in 2016, was my favorite, in part because it undermined a quote of his used to introduce the collected images: "Joyous cinema is not my thing."

Denver Film Festival director Britta Erickson introducing Knives Out.
Denver Film Festival director Britta Erickson introducing Knives Out.
Michael Roberts

Butch Cassidy made the same point. Even though the title outlaws get blown away in the final frame, the movie continues to exude pure pleasure by way of two giant stars who clearly enjoyed every minute of their time together on screen. Withey's ability to embrace these elements, as well as ones that are more probing and painful, is a big reason that the Denver Film Festival remains a going concern after more than four decades of existence.

At the Ellie on the 31st, Erickson took to the podium again, and she put Withey front and center, pointing out that this year's fest is dedicated to him. But this somber note soon gave way to unexpected exuberance when Kevin Smith, director of marketing and partnerships for Denver Film, merrily informed a patron located in a seat with a blue sticker in front of it that he'd just won a pair of round-trip business-class tickets to London. The crowd was peopled by plenty of society swells in expensive togs (interspersed with a slew of folks dressed in Halloween costumes) who could presumably hop a jet to the U.K. any time they please, but they reacted with the sort of whoop typically reserved for those to whom Oprah Winfrey gives a car.

Considerably less exciting was a short film thanking the festival's sponsors, which essentially cast actress Freida Pinto, of Slumdog Millionaire fame, as Siri. In a word: awkward. But the atmosphere brightened with Erickson's return and a brief appearance by Johnson, who was flat-out exuberant as he introduced Knives Out.

As well he should be. Many of Johnson's cinematic offerings to date — Brick, Looper, even Star Wars: The Last Jedi — have tilted toward moody, but his latest is an unabashed love letter to whodunits, complete with plenty of performances by A-listers on a lark. The plot revolves around the apparent suicide of a mystery writer portrayed by Christopher Plummer and the family members and employees who may have actually been responsible for pushing him toward his grave. Included among them are a tightly wound and consistently hilarious Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette as an amusingly spacey new-ager, and Chris Evans, clearly relishing the post-Captain America opportunity to act like an asshole.

Rian Johnson during a Q&A conducted by the Denver Post's John Wenzel.
Rian Johnson during a Q&A conducted by the Denver Post's John Wenzel.
Michael Roberts

Taking center stage, meanwhile, is Daniel Craig as a private investigator with the sort of ripe Southern accent that initially seems like a terrible idea but somehow becomes sillier and more engaging as the plot rolls forward. (At one point, he's compared to Foghorn Leghorn, and since his character's last name is Blanc, as in Mel, that's probably not a coincidence.) The way he solves the mystery around the writer and the actions of his nurse (Ana de Armas) — who has a tell when she lies that requires a wet cleanup — is ridiculously complicated in the grand tradition of parlor-room unveilings. But it's also clever and affectionate, a tricky tone that Johnson manages to maintain throughout.

Johnson was clearly gratified by the fervent response of the Ellie throng, which included several members of his family who live in Denver. As he accepted the fest's annual John Cassavetes Award, he paid tribute to his grandfather, who would bundle up the family to see a foreign film at the Chez Artiste, fall asleep as soon as the lights went down, then enthuse, "Wasn't that great?" afterward.

In a post-screening Q&A with John Wenzel of the Denver Post, Johnson nerded out about his fondness for Agatha Christie books and stressed that his film, while broad, was intended as a salute to the subgenre, not a parody. He also talked up festivals like the one taking place around him, because they offer film lovers the rare opportunity to see movies sans hype, marketing spin or even much of an idea about what they contain.

There will be plenty of chances for discovery over the next week-plus of the Denver Film Festival, which is just getting started. Click to check out must-see picks for November 1 to 3 as chosen by interim artistic director Matt Campbell, Brit Withey's successor.

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