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 selections for November 4-6: The Shepherd, The Last Family and Off the Rails.
Spain is the country of focus for the Denver Film Festival's 39th edition, and The Shepherd is among artistic director Brit Withey's favorites from the group of offerings on view from there.
"It's a drama that's all sorts of things," Withey says. "It's environmental, it's political, and it's the story of a small village breaking apart under the weight of development."
The community "is agricultural, agrarian, and everybody owns their land," he goes on. "But then developers come in and want to buy up all the plots in this area in order to develop them into what one can assume are modern-day atrocities. And even though it's not necessarily a depressed region, no one's doing super-well, and so everyone sells off their land bit by bit, except for this one guy, a shepherd. He doesn't like modern life, and he enjoys his life as a shepherd and his quiet piece of land."
The shepherd's decision results in ripples, Withey notes. "The developers need his piece of land to build the whole project, and because he won't sell, it causes all sorts of problems with his neighbors. But there are lots of things wrapped up in this film — how one man, and one piece of land, can affect generations and generations of tradition. It's a very powerful film."
Withey adds that director Jonathan Cenzual Burley will be in town for the screenings: "He's the only director we have coming over from Spain, and we're very glad he's going to be here."
The Last Family
Directed by Jan P. Matuszynski
6:15 p.m. Friday, November 4
2 p.m. Saturday, November 5
The Last Family is "based on a true story about a Polish painter, and in a way, it's a simple story," Withey allows. "It's about this man, a woman and their son. But their lives are fascinating, and the film covers multiple decades of their lives. The painter has these sadomasochistic fantasies that he keeps recordings from, and his son is riddled with anxiety that keeps him from leaving the apartment for days on end and causes fights within the family. It's an amazingly interesting look at one chaotic family that has a terribly odd, shocking end that I wouldn't want to give away."
The narrative's setting — the Soviet-era apartment buildings where the family lives — adds to the ambience of the film, Withey believes: "Everything is very constricted and dark and heavy. It's always on the verge of explosion."
Moreover, he stresses that "the acting...is absolutely incredible," especially by Andrzej Seweryn, who portrays the painter. Seweryn will be in Denver for the film festival, and Withey says, "I can't wait to have conversations with him, because he's absolutely exquisite in this movie."
In Withey's opinion, Off the Rails is a documentary that's "amusing and sad at the same time."
The protagonist of the tale is Darius McCollum, a New Yorker with Asperger's syndrome. "He was raised by a single mother and kind of had the run of the city as a young kid," Withey explains. "It's not uncommon for people who have Asperger's to became fascinated with one thing, and Darius became fascinated with the subway system and, later on, the bus system in New York. He spent a lot of time riding the subways and buses around the city, and over the years, he basically memorized the transit maps of all the routes and got to know a lot of the conductors and bus drivers and how everything worked at the Metro Transit Authority."
Problem is, McCollum wasn't content to merely be a passenger. "Apparently, you don't need a key to start a bus; you just push a button," Withey says. "And when he was in his late teens, Darius did. He went and bought a uniform and took out a bus — and because this was his great love, he ran the route perfectly. He stopped, picked up passengers, made the announcements and then took the bus back. And he did the same thing with the subway, too."
Until he got caught, that is. He was put behind bars for his joyride — but as soon as he was released, he did the same thing over and over and over. "He's been in jail more than thirty times, and during the time of the movie, he's in jail again," Withey points out. "When he's interviewed, he's just so sweet — but he freely admits that he can't stop doing it. He says, 'All I want to do is help. All I want to do is be a Metro Transit driver, and I'm not causing anybody any harm.' But he can't be hired now — he's a a felon — and he's spent half of his life in jail. It's a strange story that's heartbreaking and funny and touching."
Continue to see trailers for The Shepherd, The Last Family and Off the Rails. Click to access all the film festival's selections and to purchase tickets.