Although the variety of flicks at the Starz Denver Film Festival lets movie lovers tailor their own fest, the marquee events serve as signposts -- and this year's opening night feature, A Late Quartet, and Big Night spotlight, Quartet, underwhelmed compared to the $2.5 million gift from Anna and John Sie to buy Denver FilmCenter on Colfax. But the saying "It's not how you start, but how you finish" was proven true, with three successes on the final weekend.
Friday at the L2 Center, across the street from the FilmCenter complex, was highlighted by a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 shocker The Birds, scheduled to coincide with the presentation to Tippi Hedren, the film's star, of the Mayor's Award for Career Achievement.
The name of this bauble -- handed over not by Denver mayor Michael Hancock but under-rehearsed Arts & Venues executive Kent Rice -- might not have seemed like the perfect fit for Hedren. After all, her most prominent roles remain the parts she played in The Birds and Hitchcock's next picture, the lumpy, only intermittently effective Marnie, from 1964. Afterward, Hitchcock set out to blackball Hedren in Hollywood because she didn't return his obsessive desire for her -- the subject of a current HBO film, The Girl, which Hedren endorsed as accurate. But while the actress acknowledged that Hitchcock did manage to ruin her career (she's mainly played small parts in often iffy projects during the past four-decades plus), "he didn't ruin my life."
Hedren's remarks before and after The Birds screening enhanced the picture on a number of levels -- not that it needed any propping up, since it remains a fresh and exciting cinematic experience thanks to a fascinating sound design (there's no background score beyond terrifying bird noises and a brief snippet of schoolchildren singing) and a bold decision not to over-explain what led nature to strike back against humanity. She balanced behind-the-scenes anecdotes about a number of scenes, including the moment when hundreds of birds swarmed into a home through a fireplace (because no actual birds were used in that sequence, the actors had to swat at thin air) with unflinching descriptions of Hitchcock's disturbing advances and a decision to reject them that she doesn't regret in the slightest. The combination was manna from movie geek heaven that more than justified an award, no matter whether it seemed wholly appropriate for Hedren or not.
The next day's presentation of actor Vince Vaughn with the fest's John Cassavetes Award was similarly transformative.
It's an open question as to whether Vaughn truly deserved the Cassavetes award, given that he quickly moved from the world of independent film after the reception to the highly enjoyable 1996 movie Swingers to mainstream studio fare such as Old School, Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball. Hence, the prize seemed like a lure to get him to come to Denver to showcase the documentary Art of Conflict, which he produced and his sister, Valeri Vaughn, directed -- and that may very well have been the case.
Something undermined this cynical appraisal, though. Turns out that Art of Conflict, which offers an alternative history of the conflict in Northern Ireland (known colloquially as "The Troubles") via murals created by combatants on both sides, turns out to be quite a good film -- vibrant, colorful and exciting, thanks to Valeri Vaughn's canny combination of arresting visuals and thrilling music from era-appropriate bands such as Stiff Little Fingers and the Pogues.
Continue to read more about the closing weekend of the 35th annual Starz Denver Film Festival. The Q&A that followed, featuring Vince and Valeri in conversation with Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy, wasn't quite as satisfying; Vince was allowed to spend a bit too much time pontificating on why he's not the goofball most of his fans think he is. But that's a minor caveat. If it took an award to get the two Vaughns to Denver, and to draw a big crowd to the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on a Saturday afternoon to watch a silver-screen exploration of a long-running battle that's already starting to fade from the consciousness of most Americans, if not folks in the U.K., then it was worth it.
So, too, was Silver Linings Playbook, the closing night draw at the Ellie. An even bigger throng gathered that evening -- among them Hedren and Jason Ritter, given an Indie Voice Award. And they were rewarded with a picture that will deservedly collect a slew of Oscar nominations early next year.
The film, written and directed by David O. Russell, is being touted as a drama about a recently released mental patient (Bradley Cooper) trying to get his life back on track. But while this description is accurate as far as it goes, the tale as told blends brutal sequences -- like Cooper and Robert De Niro, playing his dad, beating the hell out of each other -- with laughs that feel earned, not contrived. Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, as his love interest, spew words at each other with lightning quickness, like a bipolar variation on figures from a '30s screwball comedy, and scenes with De Niro, screen wife Jacki Weaver (so amazing in Animal Kingdom) and the other principals recall the explosively entertaining family spats captured in Russell's previous film, The Fighter. And that's not to mention a concluding dance-contest sequence that subverts convention by making minimal competence feel triumphant.
The 35th annual Starz Denver Film Festival would have been a winner without such validation. But this late score added to the victory margin even as it served as a reminder about why this event continues to thrive three and a half decades after its creation.
More from our Last Night archive: "Starz Denver Film Festival: $2.5 million gift puts Opening Night in the money."