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The opening night for the 43rd Denver Film Festival on Thursday is going to look and feel very different this year. The red carpet, which would traditionally be rolled out at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, is still in storage and cinephiles and film lovers alike will instead caravan in their vehicles to Red Rocks Amphitheatre for a drive-in experience. Instead of experiencing films on the Ellie’s big screen, the festival’s three gala presentations will occur at the lower south lot at Red Rocks while the rest of the festival will take place virtually on Denver Film’s virtual platform.
The Sie Film Center, which is the traditional nexus of the Denver Film Festival, remains closed. Denver Film, the nonprofit that operates the film festival, spent the early months of the pandemic researching virtual platforms to release new films that would have otherwise screened at the Sie. “We launched the virtual platform on June 26 and we feel like we have given our audience plenty of time to play around with it and get comfortable with it then made the decision that was going to be the primary way to deliver the 43rd Denver Film Festival,” says Festival Director, Britta Erickson. “We also launched Film-On-The-Rocks Drive-In by the middle of August and it brought a lot joy to people to get out of the house and go to a drive-in. We sold out twenty eight of the thirty-two screenings and so we knew we could incorporate the drive-in experience into the festival as well.”
While attendees will not be able to discuss films in their normal lobbies and festival lounges, there are a few silver linings to holding a virtual festival this year: While slightly smaller than previous years, this year’s lineup is no less robust, comprised of 180 films which include shorts. Six additional days were added to the typical twelve-day event and roughly eighty percent of the films presented this year will be made available the entire duration of the festival. Instead of having only three or four opportunities to see a film in a theater, audiences across all of Colorado have an opportunity to participate this year and the flexibility to customize their own festival experience. Q&As with the filmmakers have also been prerecorded and will screen in conjunction with the films. As the festival’s artistic director, Matthew Campbell, remarked “sheltering in place and social distancing is very conducive to experiencing a film festival from your living room.”
Here, we look at some of the most notable films in this year’s lineup.
Arguably the highest profile film of this year’s Denver Film, Nomadland will kick off this year’s festival on October 22. Directed by former Denver resident, Chloe Zhao, and starring two-time Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, the film has already garnered the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival as well as the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. The film follows Fern (McDormand) as she links up with a collection of van dwellers after being widowed and losing her job in the Great Recession. The film is a beautiful portrait of the challenges of surviving in the modern-day Mountain West.
American audiences embraced Korean film, Parasite, which became the fourth highest grossing non-English film of all time and the first international film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Audiences will be no less enthusiastic once they discover some of the more high-profile international titles in this year’s festival. New Order, directed by Mexican filmmaker, Michael Franco, is a present-day dystopia of class warfare and extreme social unrest. Viewing this film is a complete nail biting, unpredictable thrill ride that will linger with the viewer long after the credits have rolled. Neon, the distributor that released Parasite and will handle New Order’s American release, has another film in the festival, Night of The Kings, which has already been selected to represent Ivory Coast at next year’s Academy Awards. Also worth mentioning is Ema, the latest film from Pablo Larrain and starring Gael Garcia Bernal. Denver audiences will be familiar with Larrain’s work since his film The Club played the festival in 2015 and he closed the Denver Film Festival in 2016 with Jackie, his biopic about Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Ema is another fine example of Larrain’s directing talents.
The Denver Film Festival has always had several sidebars within its program that focus on specific genres of cinema whether it be Italian, British/Irish, Women-In-Film, or LGBTQ. This year, a new sidebar was created for social justice and the most notable in this section is the closing film, MLK/FBI. Director Sam Pollard carefully stitches together a comprehensive photographic archive of the FBI’s surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The documentary introduces never-before-seen video archive of the former civil rights leader and examines different aspects of an otherwise revered American icon.
Audiences sometimes forget the festival also showcases numerous short films, which get overshadowed by high profile feature length films. It is within the shorts category that audiences can experience the latest offerings in Colorado filmmaking and luckily, there are three short film packages this year that showcase local filmmakers. Anyone who has attempted the 2,768 steps of the Manitou Incline will appreciate Incline, an 11-minute film that profiles Greg Cummings, a Colorado Springs resident who has type 1 diabetes and holds the World Record for vertical feet climbed in a year.
Other noteworthy titles to put on your radar include the World Premiere of The Atlantic City Story from first time filmmaker Henry Butash and the U.S. Premiere of Nadia, Butterfly, which was previously selected to premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival.
If You Go: The 2020 Denver Film Festival runs from October 22 through November 8. Times and pricing of screenings vary; you can purchase an all-access pass for $250, a Red Rocks drive-in ticket for $85, or screen individual films for $15-22 each. Additional information can be found here.