The show must go on

Picks for the first weekend of the Denver Film Festival

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Neon

Back for number 42, the Denver Film Festival (DFF) returns Oct. 30 through Nov. 10, but under a dark cloud. This will be the first DFF in over 20 years without Artistic Director Brit Withey at the helm. On March 31, Withey died in a one-car crash. He was 50.

His absence will be palpable. Six movies Withey selected before he died will be screened, as will a three-film tribute to Hungarian filmmaker, György Pálfi, a personal favorite of Withey.

Spanning two weekends, DFF comprises over 250 features and shorts. That’s more images than even the most insane cineaste could hope to see, and it all kicks off Thursday night with a red carpet presentation of Knives Out at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Following the screening, writer/director Rian Johnson will accept the 2019 John Cassavetes Award and discuss the movie and his career.

But what makes DFF a jewel in the Front Range’s cinematic crown isn’t just the red-carpet regional premieres — though Knives Out and Marriage Story do make for strong openers and closers — but movies of every possible stripe. Take Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Oct. 31, Nov. 3), a sensitive and subversive romance set in 18th century France between a painter and her subject. Though they are forbidden to be together, their love shrinks the world around them, making the movie feel like there isn’t an ounce of life outside this frame. They are a nation of two, and no one else exists.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is easily one of the best movies at the fest, as is the no-budget cinema-diary, Nightcrawlers (Nov. 1,2,9). Shot by Stephen McCoy over five years, Nightcrawlers is a ground-level look at homelessness and addiction. McCoy — who ended up both homeless and addicted to heroin while making the documentary — offers no commentary, no Freudian causality and no solutions. Instead, he simply watches others and himself. That would be enough, but Luc Benson’s stream-of-consciousness editing is what makes Nightcrawlers soar. Rarely has depravity been presented this bluntly — and poetically.

Blunt and poetic has always been Errol Morris’ strongest suit, and his latest documentary, American Dharma (Nov. 5, 7), is no exception. This time, the man before Morris is Steve Bannon, the architect behind Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and, at one time, the most hated and feared man in America.

Bannon describes himself as an “apocalyptic nationalist,” and you don’t have to listen long to believe it. You may think you know Bannon, and what he represents, but with American Dharma, Morris proves that what you know is barely the tip of the iceberg. Want to know how we got here? How popular culture was perverted and manipulated? How fear became commodity and anger promised freedom? Then gird yourself, America Dharma has some answers, but also bottomless questions.

There’s plenty for everyone. The full schedule is at denverfilmfestival.denverfilm.org. Dive in.