Film and TV

Previewing the 40th Denver Film Festival

Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, the opening-night selection at the 40th annual Denver Film Festival.
Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, the opening-night selection at the 40th annual Denver Film Festival. YouTube
Again this year, Denver Film Festival artistic director Brit Withey is offering his must-see picks for each day of the fest — including many flicks that movie lovers might otherwise miss amid the flood of silver-screen goodies. Today he spotlights the offering for opening night, November 1 — Lady Bird — and previews the festival's fortieth edition as a whole.

Lady Bird
Directed by Greta Gerwig
8 p.m. Wednesday, November 1
Ellie Caulkins Opera House

Coming up with an appropriate way to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Denver Film Festival presented plenty of challenges, concedes Brit Withey, the event's artistic director.

"The films that are available are different every year," he notes, "so what comes out new is sort of beyond our control. But there were certain things we definitely wanted to do. We have a much bigger retrospective section than we've done in a long time. Programmers," including festival co-founder Ron Henderson and director Britta Erickson, "went back over our forty-year history, and we each chose a film that we found significant."

Withey picked The Sweet Hereafter, a 1997 movie that screens at 7 p.m. Monday, November 6, at the Sie FilmCenter. He calls it "one of my all-time favorite films. It's a beautiful film, a hard film, a sad film, but the acting in it," by Sir Ian Holm and Sarah Polley, among others, "is amazing." As a bonus, he also selected a flick that never previously screened at the festival and is hard to find today: the 1987 dark comedy Withnail and I, unspooling at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 9, at the Sie FilmCenter. "I keep bringing it up to people, and they say they've never seen it," Withey says. "And now they can. I think the retrospective stuff is going to be really fun this year."

click to enlarge Monteith McCollum will be on the wheel of steel for "Hidden Frequencies." - DENVER FILM FESTIVAL
Monteith McCollum will be on the wheel of steel for "Hidden Frequencies."
Denver Film Festival
More anticipated highlights can be found within the Festival AnneX, located at the McNichols Building, 144 West Colfax Avenue. "We started it last year and dipped our toe into the water with things like virtual reality and moving our panels over there. But this year, we're really exploding things up. We have lots of panels, lots of VR stuff — and one thing I'm really looking forward to is the program by Monteith McCollum, who's been here three times with films. This year, he's doing a live performance called 'Hidden Frequencies' [at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, November 5] that's going to be really cool. It's a performance with a violin and a turntable and computers and mixers and a looper, so he can play certain things and then hit a pedal and play something else while some of his experimental films are playing in the background. And as he's doing this, there'll be a camera on the neck of his violin — so I'm hoping some of the crowd will end up on screen, too."

Oh, yeah: At 11:30 a.m. Saturday, November 11, at the AnneX, the fest will present a reading dubbed "Shakespearean Star War." May the forsooth be with you.

Each year, the film festival concentrates on movies from a single country, and this year's national honoree is Denmark. "We're all big fans of Danish films," Withey says. "I guess this is semi-true of Scandinavian films as a whole, but it's one of the bleaker country focuses, perhaps. But it's not bleak across the board. Heartstone [screening at 6:15 p.m. Saturday, November 4, and 1 p.m. Sunday, November 5, at the UA Pavilions] is a lovely coming-of-age film, and there's also an interesting documentary called Venus [9:15 p.m. Thursday, November 9, 2:15 p.m. Friday, November 10, and 8:45 p.m. Saturday, November 11, at the UA Pavilions]."

In addition, Withey goes on, "there's a large Polish sidebar with ten films that Ron Henderson programmed, and there's going to be three filmmakers from Poland, one of whom actually lives in the U.S. now, at the festival. It's a continuation of our long, collaborative efforts with Poland. And I'd be super-remiss not to mention this year's Spotlight on Colorado, which is maybe the strongest ever. There are some very significant Colorado films this year, including seven feature-length films in the program. It's really impressive what's happening here."

As for Lady Bird, actress Greta Gerwig's directorial debut and the fest's opening-night film at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House (it stars Saoirse Ronan), Withey can't provide many details for a simple reason — he hasn't gotten to watch it yet. "Britta saw it at Telluride, where it premiered, and the reviews have been amazing. It's loosely based on her growing up in California; it's set in Sacramento, and it's supposed to be great. I can't wait to see it."

Here's the Lady Bird trailer:

The scale of the festival has changed a great deal over the past four decades.

"I've been here for twenty-some years, but that's only half of the time we've been having the festival," Withey acknowledges. "So I was talking to Ron a few weeks ago about what it was like in year one, and he said there were 78 film programs, and they used four theaters around the city. The attendance was something like 12,000, which was pretty impressive — and it was helped by the theater sizes back then. For example, they used the Ogden, which was a 600-seater."

Now, in contrast, "we've got 280 programs, which is insane in a way, and we're using nine theaters — and our attendance is in the tens of thousands. And the shifts in the festival have all corresponded to when we got our own building. First we were over at the Tivoli with the Starz FilmCenter. We went from using six theaters — it was an AMC theater back then — to using twelve. And more recently, we've taken over our current building with the Sie FilmCenter, and being able to use the UA Pavilions was a big jump, too. These things have allowed us to grow and grow and grow, and the audience has come along with us."

Click to access all of the film festival's selections and to purchase tickets.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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