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 opening-night feature, La La Land, and offers a preview of the entire 2016 festival, which runs from November 2 through November 13.
The 39th Denver Film Festival gets under way tonight with its flashiest opener in years — the local premiere of La La Land, a much-anticipated and highly touted nod to classic musicals. And to add more than a touch of glamour to the proceedings, the film's co-star, Emma Stone, is scheduled to attend alongside director Damien Chazelle, whose last film, Whiplash, earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for J.K. Simmons. Stone will also receive the fest's Excellence in Acting Award.
DFF artistic director Brit Withey is excited by the La La Land coup for a variety of reasons — not the least of which is his personal fondness for the flick. But he's also enthusiastic about the festival as a whole, which he sees as offering the perfect antidote for the tension of the times.
"This year's program seems to be full of some really fun, light films, more so than in previous years," Withey says. "That isn't something I'd say we on the programming team necessarily tuned into, or that would be something right in our wheelhouse. But afterward, it's a theme we definitely noticed."
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As Withey sees it, "Films tend to follow day-to-day activities by a year; what's happening in the world today will be reflected next year. We're having a rough time now, and there are definitely some films in the festival, particularly documentaries, that address that. But there's also a bit of backlash to that — the idea that maybe we need to lighten things up. It's not that we as a programming team are always looking for dark films. We just want the festival to have a programmatic depth, and this year's lineup definitely does. But as things were coming together this year, we noticed that there was more lighter, fun fare."
Other highlights of the festival include a group of films associated with this year's country of focus, Spain.
"I've been toying with the idea of featuring Spain for many, many years, and it's never quite come together for a number of reasons — usually because another country had a banner year and rose to the top," Withey notes. "But this just seems to be Spain's year. From the first film festival I attended, there were a large number of really good Spanish films out there, and they don't really fit a formula. Oftentimes, a country's cinema has a certain style; you can say, 'This is Polish cinema,' for example, and have a feel for what that means, its mood. But Spanish cinema is all over the map emotionally and stylistically, There are a few common threads; a number of the films in the festival address the economic crisis that has been going on in Spain in a number of ways. But they include heavy dramas, very light and airy stories, sexy relationship films, corporate thrillers — and I found that to be incredibly fascinating and fun."
France also gets its time in the spotlight.
"We've been doing a smaller festival, a French-themed festival, over the summer for many years," Withey points out. "But I started feeling that by doing that, we'd been, in a way, robbing a lot of the great French films out of playing in November. So this year, I cut the French program in the summer down to about half the size and bumped up the number of French films in the festival. There's a section called 'J'Adore!' that has eight French films in it and that marks the rebirth of our love of French cinema in the festival."
Still, the peak accomplishment for Withey this time around was snaring appearances by Belgian filmmakers Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, recipients of the festival's Rare Pearl Award, as well as having the opportunity to screen their latest work, Lost in Paris, and two previous efforts, The Fairy and Rumba. He's been working toward an Abel-Gordon showcase "for almost ten years," he says, "ever since I saw Rumba at the Cannes Film Festival."
The pair's movies "are super-unique," Withey continues. "They have very sparse dialogue and physical comedy that hark back to slapstick films, to Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy. They're very funny in a way that you don't see anymore — just laugh-out-loud funny. After I saw Rumba, I invited the film to the festival ten years ago and we got it. But right before the festival that year, after we'd printed the schedule and everything, a U.S. distributor bought the film and wasn't ready to screen it. So it got pulled at the last minute, and I was just heartbroken. About five years later, we were able to show their next film, The Fairy —and when I heard about Lost in Paris, I started working on booking the film and getting them to come here for the festival. And not only is that happening, but we're finally getting to show Rumba, as well as The Fairy again. The films are all amazing, and the fact that Dominique and Fiona are going to be here for all three films is just a delight — the highlight of the year for me."
As for La La Land, Withey says, "It's totally charming in the way it embraces old Hollywood romances. That's even reflected in the characters themselves. The character played by [Stone co-star] Ryan Gosling loves jazz and dresses sort of like it's the 1950s. It's a fun film, and there are wonderful dance sequences and song sequences. Ryan Gosling is no songbird, nor is he Gene Kelly, but for me, that made it even more charming. It was a really fun to see him do it — a great departure and a really well-done film. The director's love of music really comes through."
Director Chazelle has had a relationship with the festival for years, ever since his debut, 2009's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, was selected for screening, and Withey says "he was pretty game from the start to come here with the film, and so was Emma Stone. Lionsgate [the studio releasing La La Land] is positioning the film as an awards contender. They're really putting it out there, and Damien and Emma are traveling with it, which is very nice. They were more than happy to come and attend the festival, which was a lovely bonus."
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It's also a showy way to kick off Denver's biggest film event of the year. Here's the trailer for La La Land. Click to access all the film festival's selections and to purchase tickets.